The Book of Changes: Jazz in Beijing (The Beijing Jazz Scene in the 1990s)

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The Book of Changes: Jazz in Beijing (The Beijing Jazz Scene in the 1990s)

General information

Author: David Moser

Taken from: JazzNow 1996

David Moser is a Jazz Artist, Piano Master, Beijing Resident

He is describing the Beijing Jazz Scene up to 1996 and he is a regular performer at the CD Cafe.


Jazz in Beijing? I was mildly incredulous. I had spent the last decade or so immersing myself in traditional Chinese culture, and the concepts of "Beijing" and "jazz" seemed to exist in two separate conceptual universes. It was like hearing the Ancient Egyptians enjoyed bungee jumping, or that there happened to be a Three Stooges fan club in Teheran. Yet my friend Chen Xin was telling me over the phone that there was a Chinese jazz group I could sit in with. "You play trumpet, right?" she said. "It's a shame for a musician to have no chance to express himself. I'll give you the number of the keyboard player. They encourage musicians to sit in, especially foreigners." Sure. The question was, what were they calling "jazz"? Just as Peking Opera is not exactly what Westerners think of as opera, Beijing bebop might be different from the Western variety. But in what way? I knew that jazz had been outright banned until the economic thaw at the beginning of the 80's, and even now the art form was frowned on as "spiritual pollution." What did it sound like? Swing versions of The East is Red? Or maybe pentatonic renditions of When the Saints Go Marching In?

I was in Beijing working as a translator and finishing work on my Ph.D. in Chinese studies. I had played jazz trumpet, guitar, and piano for years in Boston, but had sort of abandoned my music career for academia. The last place I imagined taking up jazz again was the People's Republic of China. As fate would have it, a Japanese friend had loaned me a battered Chinese trumpet the very day my friend Chen Xin put me in contact with the Beijing jazz scene. I took this as a favorable omen and called the piano player. He was very friendly, and invited me to sit in that weekend with the group during their weekly gig at Maxim's.

Maxim's of Beijing is the French-style bistro plunked rather improbably in the embassy district near the heart of Beijing. (Or at least it was improbable ten years ago. When Pierre Cardin first opened the bar he was quoted as saying "If I can open a Maxim's in Beijing, I can open one on the moon!" These days China is a bit less like another planet, and the bar fits in unobtrusively with all the other foreign pubs and ritzy foreign hotels that have sprung up in Beijing over the past few years.) When I showed up, the place was almost empty. A few French tourists sat clustered at a table, nursing beers and arguing, ignoring the music. On the video screen next to the bar an ultra-violent American soft-porn movie was silently playing (inexplicably, with Japanese subtitles). The group was in the middle of a tune — Parker's Billie's Bounce — and it almost seemed like they were providing cheezy background music for the action on the screen. I took a seat and noticed to my great surprise that they were simply reading tunes from a few battered copies of the Real Book, that "bible" of jazz standards in the States, well-known to all gigging musicians. (They had no doubt photocopied it from a few foreign jazz fans they had come in contact with). It seemed bizarre to see it in this context, but on second thought perhaps it was not so strange after all. It was China, after all, where the original "Book of Changes," the I Ching, was written 3,000 years ago.

I took a table and listened to the music. In an American context it would have been considered pretty stale lounge jazz, but in this context there was a tinge of excitement about the activity itself, since this was a country that just a few years ago was still condemning jazz and rock-and-roll as examples of "bourgeois liberalization". During the break I went up and introduced myself. They were glad I could speak Chinese, since none of them had more than a smattering of English. These musicians seemed to be among the rising young middle-class of Beijing, Westernized in taste and temperament, but having no desire to live overseas. The pianist sported hippie-length long hair, and the drummer had a more current punkish hair style and an earring in one ear, the first I'd ever seen on a Chinese male. By contrast, the saxophonist, Wei Feng, with his clean-cut looks and well-toned body looked more like a People's Liberation Army soldier.

As it turns out, he was. "My work unit is the People's Liberation Army band in Beijing," he told me, "But on weekends I sneak away and play jazz. I'm hoping someday I can make a living doing this full time." Given the level of his playing, I was surprised when he said he'd only been playing jazz a few years. He was anxious to pick my brains. "We've only been at this a short time," he said, "and jazz only trickles into China now and then. That's why when someone like Luca comes along" — he motioned to Luca, the only foreigner in the group — "we descend on them like vultures and get whatever we can."

Luca, a lanky, blue-eyed Italian trombonist with a Harpo Marx mass of brown hair, came over and said hello. He had come to China to study a Chinese stringed instrument called the gu zheng, but ended up putting together this jazz group. "In Europe I used to play a lot of free jazz," he told me, "Albert Manglesdorf and the like. But there's not much of a market for that here. Stella By Starlight is about as far out as you can get. But it's a good way to get my standards chops in shape."

I sat in for the next set. Before coming to Maxim's, I assumed I might have to learn a lot of jazz jargon and technical terms in Chinese, but it turns out that these musicians, like Chinese people in other fields, just throw in English words when the need for a technical term arises. They would say things to me like: "Yi kaishi shi yige bossa-nova, dan zher jiu biancheng swing feel. Yiban women zai zui hou trade fours yihuir, ni ting neige bass line you kaishi jiu genzhe wo chui neige the head." The names of famous jazz players all came out with a distinctive Chinese flavor; Stan Getz became "Ss-tan GAY-tsu," Paul Desmond sounded like "DAY-ss-mun-duh," and Charlie Parker was "CHA-lee Pa-KUH". The names of the various jazz tunes were a bit strange and hard to pronounce for them (especially bebop tunes like Epistrophy, Ornithology) so they would usually suggest a song by singing the first few bars — "Let's do da-da deedle-da dum-dum."

I was rusty on the borrowed ax, but the effect was exhilarating. A few more people had showed up, including some Chinese. Talking with the players and audience during the next break I really had a sense that the world had truly become the proverbial global village, and that however different our backgrounds, in this one area we were part of a worldwide inner circle, sharing exactly the same set of assumptions and background information. I was jolted out of this comfortable feeling, however, by a brief exchange I had with someone who had come to listen to the group. He was raving about Miles Davis, who he seemed pretty familiar with, even referring to him as "Miles", as an American jazz aficionado would.

"Did Miles ever play Dixieland?" he suddenly asked me. It seemed a somewhat strange question.

"Well, I don't suppose so," I said. "Though he did have a great admiration for Louis Armstrong."

"Who?" he said.

Strictly speaking, of course, jazz is not new to China. Before the communist takeover in 1949, Shanghai was filled with hip nightclubs where Westernized young people danced to the music of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, played by indigenous musicians who had free access to the latest records from overseas. Though it didn't catch on with the general population (80% of whom were and are peasants in the countryside), there was among the urban population a small but devoted following of this frenetic American noise called jueshi yinyue, "knight music" (jueshi "knight" being a phonetic rendering of "jazz").

That all ended abruptly when Mao took power in 1949. Western music of any kind, much less decadent jazz, was discouraged during the 1950's, and during the Cultural Revolution in the 60's and early 70's just about the only music Chinese were allowed to listen to were the handful of sterile "model operas" approved by Mao's wife Jiang Qing. When Western music began to be permitted and available again in the 1980's under the warmer Deng Xiaoping era, the first forms that made it into the music stores were Western classical music, Hong Kong pop, and a smattering of American soft rock. (The Carpenters are still one of the most popular American groups in China.) John Denver was perhaps the first major American pop star to make a personal appearance in China about ten years ago, and it was such a big deal that he was actually granted an audience with Deng Xiaoping himself. (Denver would later refer to Deng as his "good friend," which surely stretches the term somewhat.) Since then things have opened up to an astonishing extent, and CD's of everything from Madonna to Megadeath are beginning to spring up like poisonous weeds in the music stores. But so far virtually the only jazz readily available is that of schlock saxophonist Kenny G, whose licorice tones can be heard on the elevator music in foreign hotels and as background music on the radio.

So I wasn't surprised by the negative reaction of the Chinese waitresses at the Hong Kong-Macao Center, where I found myself playing piano on Wednesday nights in the lobby with a jazz quartet. The Japanese and European businessmen, accustomed to jazz in their home countries, either ignored us, or occasionally slipped us requests for Take Five. (I can now say with some degree of certainty, by the way, that Take Five is the most popular jazz standard in the Far East.) On my third night at the hotel one of the waitresses with whom I had grown quite friendly, slipped me a note. I assumed it must be a song request. I opened it up and read: "Don't you people play any music HUMAN BEINGS can recognize?" The bass player, Wang Du, a cherubic 25-year-old with owlish glasses, scowled and apologized for the philistine taste of the Chinese people. I didn't tell him that most Americans have roughly the same reaction to jazz, and that Westerners don't always appreciate Chinese music on first hearing, either; my initial reaction to Peking Opera was that it sounded like the soundtrack to a Betty Boop cartoon played backwards.

I became especially chummy with Wang Du, and crashed one night at his place after a late gig, when I didn't want to schlep all the way back to Peking University in the remote university district. Wang Du lived in a typical Chinese one-room apartment; cement floors, a few pieces of spartan furniture, a freezing, rat-infested communal bathroom down the hall. The only thing unusual about the place was a Beatles poster on the wall. Wang Du told me had started trying to learn rock guitar a few years ago and then switched to bass. His musical influences, like most of the Chinese musicians I've met, were idiosyncratic. He told me one of his profoundest musical influences was The Sound of Music, which he had seen countless times. A few years earlier a friend had loaned him some jazz tapes, which provided him a musical direction.

"I knew jazz was deep as soon as I heard it," he said. "With a rock song, once you've got the bass line down, that's it — you play it and go on to something else. But I found that the more I tried to play jazz the more I was dissatisfied with what I was doing. You can always do better. I knew I could devote my life to this music." And he had picked up the idiom up amazingly well, considering his lack of access to recordings. Our group routinely played the classic tunes off Miles' Kind of Blue album: So What, All Blues, Freddie Freeloader, and Blue in Green. Yet Wang Du told me had actually never even heard the album. He had simply played more or less what the Italian leader of the group had told him to play, and had absorbed the style from the few other recordings he had.

Jazz tapes and CDs are indeed scarce in China, and musicians tend to hoard them like sacred relics. In fact, one of the most common complaints I heard was that certain other musicians wouldn't share their precious stash of tapes with anyone else, for fear that others would somehow get the edge on them. The CD stores have no marketing arrangements with overseas companies, and a large percentage of the foreign CD's that exist are pirated versions produced in Chinese factories in violation of international copyright agreements. Jazz tapes pop up every now and then in music stores, but they're clearly the random detritus of discontinued clearing house sales, shipped off by the shovelful to whatever foreign outlets are willing to market them. The result is an absolutely random hodge-podge of a few obscure items. In the summer of 1994 I scoured every single music store in Beijing that sold foreign CDs and tapes, and the sum total of jazz tapes I found were fairly forgettable recordings by Miroslav Vitous, Artie Shaw, Paul Motian, Andrew Hill, Eddie Gomez, and Benny Goodman. That's it. And, of course, Kenny G's total oeuvre.

Around the beginning of the year I began another gig the San Wei Bookstore, an unassuming little two-story structure just off the Avenue of Eternal Peace, a stone's throw from Tiananmen Square. The owners had converted the second floor into a traditional Chinese teahouse, with calligraphy scrolls on the wall and Qing Dynasty-style wooden tables and chairs. With its well-stocked bookstore downstairs, the place became fairly popular with some of Beijing's intelligentsia, and it also became a magnet for foreigners who wanted to experience some of the traditional Chinese atmosphere that had disappeared after Liberation. Even Dan Quayle had sipped tea there one evening during a visit to China. The owners, a spunky middle-aged woman named Liu Yuansheng and her husband Li Shiqiang, had contacted me with the idea of having regular jazz concerts in the teahouse to give Beijingers a chance to become familiar with the music.

"I don't know much about jazz," Liu Yuansheng told me, "But I know it's a great American art form. We want to create an atmosphere where people come week after week and slowly get to really understand the music, rather than just hearing snippets now and then in American movies." Though having jazz concerts was certainly not illegal, I knew she and her husband might possibly arouse the attention of the authorities by publicizing weekly jazz concerts. But from what I knew of their background, they were no strangers to controversy. Li Shiqiang had been attacked politically and spent almost a decade in jail during the Cultural Revolution. During the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, the bookstore had provided the student leaders with a quiet meeting place to plan their activities. The political situation had cooled down considerably in the years following the massacre, but there was still an air of oppression that hung over the bookstore like a sour aftertaste.

Together with Luca, the Italian trombonist, I put together a group composed of Wei Feng on saxophone, Wang Du on bass, and me on guitar. On the first night, Liu and Li decorated the place with a few large jazz posters the American embassy had given them, and suddenly Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane were looking out incongruously among the hanging calligraphy scrolls and Qing vases. There was a smattering of foreigners in the audience, but most of those who came were young Beijing yuppies, most of whom had never heard jazz before, but were curious about it. We played simple standards or modal tunes we could stretch out on, and the group was sounding amazingly good — no Miles Davis Quintet exactly, but we had our moments. I always felt enlightened and humbled by these Chinese jazz musicians, who after only a few years had succeeded so well in absorbing the complex idiom. Furthermore, they seemed to have avoided the beginners's penchant for technique for its own sake. On every tune they played thoughtfully, tunefully, tastefully. Nevertheless, a few in the audience seemed puzzled at this aural chaos; I could see them there sitting in wide-eyed shock as though witnessing a traffic accident. But I also saw an equal number of people with eyes closed, heads bobbing in intense absorption, responding directly to the music.

Liu had asked me to introduce each tune and explain the basic musical language of jazz, and so before each song I gave a brief explanation of the style and structure of that particular tune. I assumed I was starting from the most obvious aspects, but I but I wasn't prepared for the barrage of questions that revealed a lack of even the most rudimentary knowledge of what jazz was all about. During the first break a petite woman wearing overalls and a Cleveland Indians baseball cap (don't ask me where she got it) asked me "How are you people able to memorize all those long complicated melodies?" It became clear she was talking about the improvised solos. I explained to her that the solo sections were not memorized, but made up on the spot. "In that case," she said, "how can you tell a wrong note from a right one?" Well, good question. And there were other similar basic queries.

"What is the difference between jazz and blues? They sound exactly alike to me."

"If the music is all improvised, then why bother to practice beforehand?"

"How come the trumpet and saxophone all seem to take turns playing, while the drums, bass, and piano play all the time?"

And yet in the midst of these often joltingly naive questions, a soft spoken young man with longish hair tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Forgive me if my observation is silly. But have you ever noticed that when listening to this music you have to tap your feet on the offbeats, 2 and 4? It feels wrong to do it on 1 and 2." I nearly fell over. Duke Ellington had often jokingly made the observation that the hippest people snapped their fingers on 2 and 4. And here Ellington's theorem was rediscovered, completely independently, by a Chinese neophyte in Beijing!

Later that night, while introducing the members of the group, I casually mentioned to the audience that our sax player was a People's Liberation Army soldier who played jazz in his spare time. I saw Wei's face turn pale, but I assumed he was merely embarrassed. In the next break he nervously approached me. "It's better if you don't mention I'm in the army," he said. "Word may have gotten around at my unit that I'm playing jazz in the evenings. A couple weeks ago I was leaving the apartment to go to a gig. I immediately noticed someone following me. I tried to lose him, but I wasn't sure if I'd succeeded, so I just walked back home and stayed there, missing the gig. I've been trying to lay low a bit, but it doesn't help me if you broadcast my status to the whole world." I apologized profusely and promised it wouldn't happen again. Actually, it should have been obvious to me that I had been a bit indiscreet, but we Americans haven't developed the kinds of instinctual precautions for living in the Chinese political climate that become second nature to the average Chinese.

Our group was originally scheduled for a performance on June 2, just two days before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Though there was no official mention of the upcoming anniversary in the press, all of Beijing had been in a nervous state the last few days. Soldiers and police had begun to congregate around the major intersections of the university district in Haidian. That morning I was awakened in the early morning by a phone call from Liu Yuansheng.

"We got a...well, a warning last night," she said in a incongruously cheery tone.

"Right. I'll call the others and cancel," I said, understanding instantly.

"Thanks," she said. And then, with a mischievous chuckle, "Happy holidays."

There was only one other case I knew of where the group was more or less officially barred from performing. The drummer, Zhang Song, had some contacts at the Beijing Television Station. They were taping a musical variety show that was to feature nostalgic folksongs of China and other countries. Since they were trying to include as many different musical styles as they could, Zhang suggested that our jazz group could do a jazz version of some traditional folk song. The producers agreed, and asked that we work up a jazz version of Danny Boy. None of us were too happy about this choice of tunes, but Zhang Song decided to accept the job, since it would be good advertising.

On the day of the taping we showed up at the TV studio and waited around while the other acts performed. The other musical acts were the usual hyper-corny extravaganzas so common to Chinese TV: heavily made-up porcelain-skinned beauties wearing sequined ballroom gowns and singing schlocky songs, while in the background dancers, draped in gauzy, flowing dresses, danced pseudo-ballet with beatific expressions on their faces. I felt we were watching a dream sequence from a Chinese version of some Fellini movie. One of the directors told me the show was basically arranged for the benefit of certain high-ranking Party members, and so much of the content of the show was a nostalgic backward look at the foreign folksongs popular in China during the 1950's and 60's.

As we set up our equipment for the taping, we were warned several times by one or another director "Don't go too far with the jazz thing. Not too much improvisation. Stick mostly to the melody. Nothing too jolting or unusual." If they had understood the concept of Lawrence Welk, they surely would have invoked him. As always in such shows, they had a machine that spewed great puffs of artificial smoke onto the stage to establish that hazy, otherworldly atmosphere. I spent the whole taping session gagging physically on the smoke, and psychologically on the music.

When we finally got through with the taping, Zhang asked the director what day the segment would be broadcast. "It may not be broadcast at all," he said. "Tomorrow the shencha bu [the censors] will see it, along with some Party officials. Their attitude toward jazz is the same as toward rock-and-roll: We don't oppose it, but we also don't encourage it.' We'll have to see what they say about it. We might be able to just avoid the word jazz' altogether and tell them it's just an easy-listening version of the tune," — which it certainly was, anyway — "since they can't tell the difference. We'll let you know." (As far as I know, jazz had appeared on Chinese TV only once before this, when an amateur American singer Mary Ann Hurst and a talented young baritone Gu Feng sang, of all things, a snappy version of Route 66. It may have been a fluke; it's not clear what the TV producers thought it was.)

When the day came for the show to be broadcast, I switched on the TV and waited for our segment to appear. Sure enough, our section was cut out — or as they say in the TV world here, qiangbi le, "executed by pistol to the head."

Rightly or wrongly, China does tend to lump jazz and rock-and-roll together as being of the same decadent source. Jazz doesn't attract as much attention, of course, since it is not so strongly associated with rebellious youth culture and doesn't generally involve lyrics. Yet we know that, for intellectuals of the Soviet Union and East Bloc countries in decades past, jazz tended to be a kind of spiritual background music for their underground movements. Jazz was associated with a certain freedom of spirit that was powerful enough to have a liberating effect, but subtle enough to escape any kind of official censure. The Chinese intelligentsia, by contrast, are not as organized as that of formerly communist states of Eastern Europe, and the Chinese government has much more control over the media and lives of the people, so that artistic forms of protest tend to be less visible. In addition, the standard of living is low enough that there is relatively little access to Western art forms like jazz. Yet a few Chinese intellectuals are beginning to perceive it as an artistic tool worth exploring, and they, like the authorities, see rock and jazz as tapping into a similar force of creative revolt.

It's not surprising, then, that China's most famous rock star, Cui Jian, is also a big jazz enthusiast. A slight, soft-spoken man, Cui Jian doesn't strike one as an iconoclastic figure. Yet Cui Jian single-handedly forged a unique brand of Chinese rock that has remained far and away the most influential indigenous popular music of the mainland. Many of his songs have become classics, played and sung by every university student with a guitar and a set of vocal chords. He has also been the center of some controversy, since his songs, with their ambiguously subversive lyrics, have been condemned and banned off and on by the authorities over the last decade. It is still virtually impossible for him to arrange a public performance in Beijing, though his tapes are on sale everywhere. His recent CD, Hongqi xia de dan (the name is a pun which can either be translated as "An Egg Laid by the Red Flag," or "Balls Under the Red Flag") has several songs rather openly expressing dissatisfaction with the government and feelings of alienation under the new economic modernizations.

I ran into Cui Jian several times at various performances. It turns out he plays some jazz trumpet, and enjoyed sitting in with several groups I was in. He had never studied trumpet formally, and so he invited me to his house a few times to pick up a bit of jazz theory from me. It's hard to make comparisons with Cui Jian and other Western rock stars, since most of them have an international following, while Cui Jian's fame does not go beyond the Chinese-speaking world. But roughly speaking, Cui Jian is much of a household word in China Mick Jagger is in the West. For this reason I was again surprised to see what a modest dwelling he lived in.

(I've several times visited the homes of famous people in China, and I'm always a bit taken aback at how they seem to live in apartments that don't look too much different from the homes of average workers. Robin Leach wouldn't find much material there for a Chinese version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.) I found him to be very serious about his own music and quite interested in incorporating other styles into his output, including Jazz. I asked him about the potential effect of Jazz in China, a topic he had given some thought to. "The average young person will respond more directly to rock," he said. "Rock is good for dramatic effect, for shaking things up. Jazz takes longer to take root, but its effect is deeper and longer lasting. It might take some time, but I think Jazz can be popular here." Cui Jian has for some time included a saxophone in his group, and some of his more raucous pieces have begun to evoke Archie Shepp or Albert Ayler, a sound that alienates many of his established listeners but is at least intriguing to others.

So far virtually no major jazz artists have made it to China. Beijing has hosted a jazz festival for the last two years, attracting mainly unknown and rather mediocre groups from Europe, but this year Howard Johnson participated. The first really famous jazz group to play in China was the Brecker Brothers, who performed two nights in Beijing and Shanghai last February. Since prior to the concert no one in China had never heard of the Brecker Brothers, the promoters felt they were taking a big risk, but, surprisingly, tickets sold spectacularly well (though this was at least in part due to the sizable foreign population that now lives in Beijing). Most of the Chinese friends I talked to were impressed with the sheer technical brilliance of the group, but not quite sure of what to make of the fusion style. I've not found Chinese people inclined to rave enthusiastically about anything, but response was generally positive.

A few nights after their concert I was playing with the group at a club called the Poacher's Inn in the embassy district. We had reason to believe the Brecker Brothers were still in Beijing, and as we were setting up our equipment, Luca joked that perhaps the Brecker Brothers would show up to hear us play, since word might have gotten to them that there was a club in Beijing with live jazz. We all chuckled at this ludicrously remote possibility, and almost at that exact instant, as if on cue, we saw Randy and Michael Brecker, along with their entire band, saunter into the club!

We froze. "Let's get out of here!" Wang Du whispered to me, pulling on my arm. We all were trying to think of plausible excuses to be somewhere else, but we had little choice but to start the first set, trying to block out of our minds the fact that Grammy-winning jazz legends were in the audience. I was playing a borrowed Japanese electric guitar with a twangy E-string (a last-minute replacement taken off a Chinese traditional musical instrument), through a Brand-X amplifier that reminded me of the rear speaker in the Ford Fairlane I drove in high school. The drummer was playing on a Frankensteinian trap set with a bass drum that sounded like a Quaker oatmeal box. Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — I felt an odd sense of Taoist detachment from it all, and I actually relaxed and enjoyed the first set.

At one point, while we were playing the tune Black Orpheus, Randy Brecker came up to Luca (who was playing trumpet that night) and started asking him about his trumpet, which was an indigenous Chinese brand. Luca simply handed it to him and said "Try it out for yourself!" Randy took the trumpet and began to take several choruses. And there we were, suddenly backing up one of the world's most famous jazz trumpeters. Wang Du was in a trance. The drummer Zhang Song was shaking his head in disbelief. Randy sounded pretty impressive, considering the horn was built like a piece of welded drainpipe and had a sticky second valve. After the break Luca suggested the Brecker Brothers and band do a set, borrowing our instruments, since they hadn't brought theirs. To our surprise, they readily agreed. I suppose they must have considered it a great lark, playing an impromptu session in Beijing on such a rag-tag assortment of borrowed instruments. I warned the guitarist Dean Brown about some peccadillos of the guitar (the E-string would actually get caught under the end of a loose fret-pin at times, the patch cord would come out if you accidentally bumped it, etc.) He grinned and said, "Don't worry. I've played on guitars so bad you can't possibly imagine it."

The group played a rather intense hour-long set, playing standards, bebop. Randy Brecker spent some time videotaping the event with his video camera. At one point as I was listening to the music, in walked Cui Jian. I was standing right by the entrance, so I was the first person he encountered. I suggested he sit in, but he shook his head. "This is great," he said, "I want to pretend I'm at a jazz club in New York." At the end of the set, the piano had a broken key, and the guitarist had, of course, broken my E-string. They handed back our instruments, shook hands, and we all hung out with the band during the break. The saxophonist, Wei Feng, was elated.

"To think Michael Brecker played my saxophone," he said. "I'm going to take this reed off and frame it!" Then he added "It probably has AIDS on it, anyway."

As my name got around as a foreign jazz player, people began to seek me out as a teacher. I was asked to give a guitar seminar at the MIDI school, a privately-run music school founded an run by a tireless and dedicated music lover, Zhang Fan 张帆. It was a rather experimental, privately run music school specializing in popular rather than Western classical or traditional Chinese music. The school boasted about 100 students, most from outside Beijing, and they lived a sort of day-to-day existence in or around the school, starving themselves to buy guitar strings and tapes. (Like the Berklee School of Music in Boston, this school was mainly overrun with guitarists, all hoping to be China's first Stevie Ray Vaughn.) For the most part they seemed to have the usual wildly idiosyncratic influences, based on whatever random assortment of recordings that fell into their hands. There were some blues fans, and a tape of Eric Clapton's From the Cradle CD was making its way around the group. But no one seemed to have heard of any jazz guitarists.

So I was surprised when a skinny young man approached me and asked if I had any tapes by Joe Pass or Wes Montgomery. We struck up a conversation, and he asked me if he could take lessons from me. His name, Chu Xiaoshuai. He was clearly very bright, and intensely serious about jazz. For the next few weeks he would ride his bicycle one hour each way from the Gongzhufen District to Peking University — sometimes in the rain — to study jazz guitar with me. He had studied classical guitar for years and so had excellent technique, but was not quite sure what to do with it. He had precious few jazz tapes, and only a couple of badly photocopied jazz guitar books from Hong Kong, so dog-eared and fragile from constant use that they looked like the Dead Sea Scrolls. He soon began to show up at my gigs with his tape recorder and record my solos. I found it a bit unnerving to see him in the front row of a club holding up a microphone above his head (it reminded too much of that Italian guy who became obsessed with recording Charlie Parker solos). Our lessons continued up until the week I left China, and I left not a moment too soon, since he was about to learn everything I could possibly have taught him. Chinese has a saying, "The indigo dye comes from the indigo plant, but is bluer than the indigo plant," i.e., "The student must surpass the teacher." I reminded Little Cool of this idiom, and he grinned, saying "Don't worry. I'm going to be China's first great jazz guitarist."

I was continually impressed and humbled by the Chinese jazz musicians I met. I admired the persistence with which they pursued an art so remote from their own cultural experience, and did so despite all the invisible political barriers in their path. It occurred to me that my empathy for these musicians was not based so much on my own experience with jazz, but rather on my experience with the Chinese language; that is, Little Cool was throwing himself into the language of jazz in exactly the same way I was throwing myself into Chinese language and philosophy. This is not surprising, of course. Whenever you delve deeply into another culture and come to know the people there, you eventually find that you are looking into a kind of mirror, in which you see other human beings searching for the same kind of Beauty you are. And you sometimes go halfway across the world to find it, only to discover it was right there all along in your own backyard.

I remember a couple of decades ago reading the liner notes to Miles' Kind of Blue album in which pianist Bill Evans compared jazz improvisation to the Chinese and Japanese art of calligraphy. I remember at the time thinking that it was probably a gratuitous comparison, a trendy invoking of Oriental exoticism to sell an album. But having actually studied calligraphy for many years and coming to some understanding of the esthetic, I'm now convinced that jazz and calligraphy are indeed artistic first cousins. Many of my Chinese friends who play jazz have also spontaneously made the analogy. "Calligraphy is jazz," they say. A calligrapher, like a jazz artist, has a set of standard forms to work from — the 10,000 or so Chinese characters — and out of these flow an endless number of possible variations, novel and surprising shapes still capable of delighting and even shocking after two millennia.

It turned out that Beijing jazz was just jazz. But I began to be able to hear the idiom through Chinese ears, as the strange and beautiful art form it is, every bit as complex and engaging as the patterns of Chinese calligraphy. Jazz is jazz, yet I found myself wishing the Chinese musicians would someday be able to take the art and make it their own as well, to somehow produce a bluer indigo — to write a new Book of Changes. For it is all about changes: the changes every jazz player must master, the social changes China must go through, the changes through which opposites give birth to the Cool and the Hot, to Freedom and Restraint, to the East and the West, all in search of a kind of ultimate unity.

Spring 1996

Postscript, Spring 1997:

Modern China is a moving target. Writing about any aspect of it is difficult for that reason; things shift so rapidly that statements in articles become invalid by the time the article goes to press. This is no less the case with the jazz scene in Beijing.

In the year since I wrote the article above, several "jazz" clubs have sprung up in the embassy district of Beijing. The music offered is not always real jazz, but with the increasing number of foreigners settling down in the capital, and with the rapid rise of a moneyed, Westernized Chinese upper class, anything billed as jazz is slowly becoming a chic, sellable item. Liu Yuanr, the former saxophonist in Cui Jian's rock group, now has a lively little group that plays every weekend at the CD Jazz Bar. They take this gig seriously, practicing nearly every day on a repertoire ranging from bebop to Weather Report. Wang Du, the rotund bass player I used to play with, is the bassist in the group, and a year's worth of hard work and experience has enabled him to develop some impressive chops.

In general, all the musicians I hang out with have become hipper. A few have had brief opportunities to go to Hong Kong, Japan, or the U.S., and they invariably bring back a stack of CD's, better equipment, Jamey Aebersold play-along tapes, and an increasing accumulation of worldly savvy. "Little Cool", who when I met him had no guitar equipment to speak of, is now heavily into MIDI. In addition to a synthesizer, he has bought a computer, installed a Cakewalk program on it, and has started peddling his wares to radio and TV stations, becoming rather adept at studio recording techniques. To make extra money, he has even started producing the music for karaoke laser disks — a lucrative occupation, since karaoke is practically an infectious disease in the Far East.

One of the biggest changes from the standpoint of the musicians is much better access to CDs and tapes. As I mentioned in the previous article, a few years ago it was difficult to find anything but a pathetic hodge-podge of obscure jazz tapes. Now there is quite a thriving underground market of remaindered CDs, dumped into China through distributers acting as a middleman. The disadvantage is that the CDs have all been nicked by some device that cuts through jewel box and CD in one slice, rendering the item unsellable in retail outlets. One thus cannot listen to the last few songs on the mutilated CD, but 90% of a Coltrane CD is better than none at all. And the price of 15 kuai (roughly 2 US dollars) makes it one-tenth of the cost of a normal CD here. There are now musicians and interested fans who have amassed rather substantial collections consisting entirely of these damaged close-out CDs. The sellers spread their battered CDs on the ground in underground walkways and back alleys like dope sellers, and although the selection is still patchy, dedicated collectors who scour such places for this (still illegal) musical booty can store up enough jazz recordings to teach a reasonable jazz appreciation course.

Though there is very occasionally a bit of jazz on the radio, the only live exposure Beijingers are likely to get to non-Chinese jazz is the annual Beijing Jazz Festival, which saw its third year last Fall. The festival (whose existence is largely due to the financial and diplomatic wizardry of German Udo Hoffman) features a very wide assortment of acts from Europe and the U.S., all established but relatively unknown in the jazz world. The festival was well-advertised and promoted this year, and there was a fair amount of general interest in the Beijing music community.

The Italian trombone player, Luca, having returned to Italy, had arranged for a 12-person group dubbed The Beijing Jazz Unit to open the festival. He had planned to fly to Beijing a few days in advance, bringing some charts with him, but last-minute visa problems prevented him from coming, and the mini big band was thus without music for the performance, which was to take place in just two days. The German guy organizing the festival really wanted us to do the gig, especially since all the publicity material already had us as the opening act, and the musicians in the group represented the cream of the Beijing jazz scene. But what to perform? None of the Chinese musicians seemed too concerned about this. An emergency meeting was called to discuss the problem, but the Chinese musicians mostly sat there placidly smoking cigarettes. The Chinese often face such potential disasters with a kind of outward Daoist detachment that is probably highly useful in this cultural environment, but is often annoying to foreigners. Since I was the only one with any kind of arranging skill, I stayed up all night arranging and copying several pieces, including perfunctory arrangement of Summertime requested by the singer, Freddie Hubbard's Povo, etc. Another foreigner, a trombonist Matt Roberts, transcribed a funk version of Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man, and was literally copying out the last parts while rehearsing the group in a dressing room backstage. (I later found out that Matt, and not Luca, was probably one of the first foreigners in post-Deng China to organize a hard-core jazz group here, first forming a group out of Shanghai, then working with Beijing musicians. Matt, a boyish-looking American whose Chinese is as fluent as his trombone technique, now works in an American company by day, and sits in with various jazz groups at night.)

The performance of the Beijing Jazz Unit went surprisingly well. There were no glitches the audience would have been aware of, and the pieces were received enthusiastically, though I don't think a foreigner unaccustomed to China would have thought so, because the audience applauded for only a few seconds after each number. This didn't mean they didn't like the music. In the U.S., at the end of an average two-hour concert or performance, the audience can be expected to applaud for a couple of minutes or so (with numerous shouts of "More!", enthusiastic whistling, etc.), and for especially ambitious productions (say, a Wagner opera) the audience may well continue to applaud for 3 minutes or more, especially if the performers are adept at milking audience for more applause. A mere half a minute of applause in such a case would indicate that the performance was an absolute disaster.

In China, the expectations are different. For an average two-hour concert, the audience can be expected to applaud at most a mere half minute or so, and for performances featuring a string of individual short pieces, each piece can be expected to garner at most 10 seconds or so of applause. This is simply an example of different cultures being "calibrated" differently. Americans who attend public performances in China are often jolted at first by how lackadaisical the audiences seem. I once attended a performance of Beethoven's "Pastorale" symphony in Beijing, and was shocked to see half the audience head for the exits immediately after the last bar, and the other half applaud lukewarmly for a mere thirty seconds or so. I was sure the audience had been completely bored by the performance, but afterward I heard only positive comments in the lobby, and the Chinese friend who was accompanying me said "Well, the audience sure seemed to like it!" One soon learns to scale down one's expectations of audience response. The best performance in China will seldom result in a standing ovation (I don't think I've ever seen one here), and a true flop performance will elicit a wispy 3-second smattering of hand claps which dissipate before the hapless performer can even make it off the stage.

Chinese audiences also seem more unruly to the point of rudeness to Westerners, who are accustomed to polite silence in the hall during a performance. The Chinese often treat public performances (and movies) somewhat more like Americans might treat an evening of watching TV; they walk in and out more, eat and chat while the performance is taking place, and feel no particular obligation to acknowledge the performers' efforts on stage. Again, expectations for such events differ from culture to culture. After all, we know that even audiences for Mozart operas used to walk in and out freely during performances, and would collect in the lobby for socializing during the duller parts.

The week of the Jazz Festival, our usual gig at the San Wei Bookstore was overrun with foreign jazz players wanting to check out the action and sit in. The result was a raucous multinational jam session that went on till the wee hours. There was an ad hoc core rhythm section, of which I was a part (playing guitar, not piano), with horn players sitting in as the mood struck them. The music was, frankly, a disorganized mess, but giddy and spirited. And the audience, most of whom were Chinese, had the opportunity to see an interesting cross section of us zany foreigners. There was a very intense Dutch drummer (I suspect he may have been literally psychotic) who would occasionally break into loud screams and launch into a frenetic bashing drum solo, regardless of whatever else was happening. An overweight trombonist from the U.S. was counting off tunes at insane tempos that almost no one could keep up with, and in keys that no one had played in before. There was a balding 60-something pianist who looked like Allen Ginsberg, a cigarette dangling from his lips constantly as he played, which meant that at the end of the evening ashes were all over the keys. The Chinese in the audience watched with great curiosity, amusement, and occasionally immense excitement. "I didn't know jazz music was so energetic, so free so...wild!" one person said to me during the break. "This kind of spirit is totally lacking in our Chinese music."

At one point, a diminutive, grandmotherly woman in her 70's (a Westerner) suddenly took the microphone and demanded that everyone to be quiet for a moment. She announced that she had been a member of Sun Ra's group shortly before his death, and she had written a long poem in homage to the late master of cosmic jazz, which she wished to recite for us now. Turning to the musicians, she asked us to improvise some soft background music for her recitation. She pulled out a spiral binder with photos of Sun Ra along with her multi-page poem, all of which she spread out on a music stand, preparing for a long performance. "Just thirty minutes of your time," she informed us with a cheery smile. I had to translate her intentions for the puzzled Chinese musicians, none who had even heard of Sun Ra. They were pretty reluctant to allow this woman to monopolize their playing time, but the Chinese have a rather instinctive Confucian respect for age, and no one wanted to veto this elderly woman's plans to inflict a dreary eulogy on the captive teahouse audience (who were already clammering for more r�nao — "hot and noisy" — stuff). I tried to tactfully suggest to the woman that she could just read a few lines, but she insisted on launching into the poem in its entirety.

She began intoning with grand gestures: "He has left us, his sojourn on earth over for a time..." or words to that effect. The musicians, having been instructed to play softly in the background, began to dutifully (if reluctantly) toot some suitably atonal Muzak. But soon they became impatient and began to play with increasing verve, covering her up completely. She turned to us several times to scold us. "Listen!" she kept saying. And then, putting her index fingers to her lips, "Hush!", suddenly looking like a stern librarian. She had brought her own percussionist with her, a timid young man who seemed more sensitive to the problem. He kept apologizing to me, and whispering to the woman, "Maybe this isn't the right time for this..."

One of the foreigners, an alto saxophonist, was less bound by the Confucian code of respect for one's elders. "You mean this little old lady wants to monopolize a half hour of our time?" he said, when the situation belatedly dawned on him. "I'm not here to play noodling background riffs for her bullshit poetry. Forget it!" He began to wail an Ornette Coleman-like melody, which the others picked up on, and the woman's solemn homage quickly receded into irrelevant inaudibility. She eventually gave up, collected the pages of her notebook and went back to her seat in a huff.

Having lived here off-and-on for some time, I've become accustomed to the more reserved Chinese style of social interaction, which stresses group identity and cooperation. So I am always amused to see the sparks fly when these highly individualistic and self-indulgent foreigners interact with native Chinese in this environment. This Sun Ra grandmother's notion of suddenly turning the cooperative jam session into a one-woman show would be perceived in the Chinese context as unimaginably and inexcusably self-obsessed. But we foreigners engage in such behavior all the time; we all too often consider self-confident, even cocky assurance to be a high virtue, and equate deferent humility with weakness. Of course, as many of my Chinese friends have speculated, it may be that unique jazz stylists can only arise and thrive in a cultural context where highly individual personalities, novel approaches, and even iconoclastic experimentation are valued. Chinese jazz musicians sometimes struggle with this dichotomy in their own playing.

This is certainly not to say that Chinese jazz lacks colorful individuals. One such person is Fan Shengqi, probably China's most famous saxophonist. He is featured frequently in TV variety shows toting a soprano sax on which he plays pop versions of Chinese folksongs or a cover version of Kenny G's Coming Home (which was somewhat of a minor hit in China, being played as background music for commercials and in department stores). Though the TV audience does not associate him with jazz as such (unless Kenny G counts), his first love is classic swing, and he is of the generation that first absorbed and performed this idiom in pre-Maoist China. A slim, spry man in his sixties with a long gray ponytail, Fan looks more like an aging Woodstocker than a survivor of the Cultural Revolution. The first time I met him backstage at a variety show, I was struck by his youthful energy and a curious, penetrating gaze. A tireless raconteur, he held my ear for a half hour non-stop, recounting horrific tales of his childhood during the anti-Japanese War, recalling how he and his friends played among corpses strewn on the ground after a bloody conflict. (Such tales highlight for me the mercifully sheltered lives we Americans lead. About the closest I ever came to a corpse when I was a little kid was when a pet turtle died.) Fan told me he became a fan of jazz very early on, when he was still a precocious youth beginning the clarinet in pre-1949 China. An American musician who happened to be in China for a year met the boy and took him under his wing. It was at this time Fan heard Benny Goodman for the first time, and it was an ear-opening experience.

"I responded to the music immediately," Fan told me. "It was unlike anything I had ever heard. I didn't understand what it was all about, but I told the American I wanted to learn to play the clarinet just like that. He happened to have with him a precious sheaf of copies of some big band charts — including some Benny Goodman — and he actually gave them to me when he left China. I was ecstatic. But not long after that, I came home one day and found that my mother had mistaken them for scrap paper, and had used them to paper the walls of our hut!" When Mao took control in 1949, jazz music came to a halt virtually overnight. Fan and countless other musicians in their prime had their musical development squelched for over three decades; many quit music altogether.

But now such musicians — those who are left — are relatively free to produce this music again. Fan Shengqi is a member of an ensemble self-mockingly named Lao Shupi, "Old Tree Bark", the only group of veteran musicians in Beijing attempting the older style jazz of the classic swing era. The average age of the musicians appears to be about 65 (the drummer has a hearing aid), and the personnel includes a romantic crooner who does a respectable Bing Crosby imitation (even if the English lyrics are occasionally a bit garbled). They perform every Saturday night at the Hong Kong-Macao Center, and it is obviously a delight for them to be able to perform this music again after over forty years. The charts they use are yellowed, dog-eared, hand-copied fake books with tunes transcribed (very imperfectly) off old 78 rpm records. The group has no real sense of jazz harmony, but they play these moldy dance numbers with a happy sincerity. (Chen Kaige's film Shanghai Triad, starring the Chinese actress Gong Li, has a scene with a Shanghai jazz band that captures the strangely skewed harmonic sense that Chinese jazz musicians brought to this genre. The music often erupts in wacky chordal non-sequiturs that are nevertheless played with a certain assurance and panache that makes them oddly memorable.) And the wonderful thing about these performances is that the audience actually dances to the music. In an era when most Americans (this includes me) can only pathetically mimic a kind of aimless, generic Saturday Night Fever dance style, the Chinese still learn and enjoy these old dances — foxtrots, waltzes, tangos, cha-cha's, etc. — and a basic knowledge of them is still a requisite social skill for many circles here. Even Chairman Mao used to occasionally do such steps during weekly recreational parties at his residence in Zhongnanhai.

Though many Chinese are able to respond directly to the music itself, it is much harder for them to penetrate the complex cultural milieu in which jazz sprung up. Many of the Chinese I talk to do not even realize the basic fact of the music's primarily Afro-American roots. Nor do they understand the complex relationship of jazz to blues, Broadway, and American popular song. Even the lyrics to jazz standards, though speaking of the universal themes of love and longing, can still present cultural problems. A friend of mine, Wei Jianjian, was at my home one day listening to a Billie Holiday tape. One of the songs on the tape was A Fine Romance, a tune which features some of Cole Porter's wittiest lyrics. Since Jianjian's English is pretty good, I jotted down the words to the song for her to see if she could appreciate the wry humor.

There were translation problems from the very beginning. The first two lines go:

A fine romance, with no kisses.

A fine romance, my friend, this is.

"Oh," she said, "I agree with that! Sometimes the best romance is one that starts out with no kisses, just talk, like between friends." I had to explain to her that the tone of the adjective "fine" in "a fine romance" is ironic, and the phrase really means "an abysmal romance". I told her that the phrase "a fine x" in English often has this sort of sarcastic usage (Laurel is constantly upbraided by Hardy with the phrase "This is another fine mess you've gotten us into, Stanley.") I also had a hard time conveying the effect that the rhyming of "kisses" and "this is" is supposed to have. It's a surprising but also intentionally strained and awkward rhyme, and therein lies its charm. The effect was lost on her.

We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes,

But you're as cold as yesterday's mashed potatoes.

The idiom "hot tomatoes" had to be explained, of course. "But tomatoes aren't hot," she protested. "Why not ‘hot peppers’ or something?" She had never eaten mashed potatoes, but she could imagine what eating them cold must be like.

A fine romance! You won't nestle.

A fine romance! You won't wrestle.

"Nestle" she could understand, but why "wrestle"? "Ah, well, it's just a colorful metaphor," I said. "I mean, a couple of lovers embracing and kissing passionately — doesn't that look a little bit like wrestling?"

"Not the way we do it in China," she said with a disdainful sniff. "Anyway, now I understand the point. It's referring to the physical act of making love. Why is American humor always so crude?"

A fine romance, my good fellow.

You take romance — I'll take Jello!

You're calmer than the seals in the Arctic Ocean.

At least they flap their fins to express emotion.

These lines presented no serious problem, though she didn't know what Jello was. She even laughed at the images. She had a harder time with lines like "I've never mussed the crease in your blue serge pants," "You're just as hard to land as the Ile-de-France", but she could see the humor once she grasped the semantics.

What was harder for her was the overall tone of the lyrics, the sophisticated, jaded and world-weary air, redolent of the lifestyle of the American aristocratic wannabes of that era. (Just note all the terms of address in the song: "my good duchess", "my dear fellow", "my good woman", etc.) Cole Porter's lyrics both poke fun at and revel in that world of tuxedoes and ballrooms, with all its glamorous pomp and hoity-toity. To Jianjian, many of the images and phrases seemed puzzling, arbitrary, or even weird. To me, they all meshed nicely into a coherent stylistic whole.

I find her puzzlement fascinating because it is a mirror image of my own. When I listen to Peking Opera, or Chinese traditional folk music, I, too, often cannot grasp the overall tone of the piece. I can always come up with a translation of some kind, but there are invariably images and phrases that forever seem unmotivated, jolting, inexplicable. I always feel like I'm missing some central organizing principle — the voice of the piece — which would solve all the mysteries if I could just capture it. Likewise for Chinese people, jazz songs, whatever their attraction, will no doubt always seem strange and exotic, embedded in a foreign milieu that must remain forever elusive. But of course, that's part of the attraction and fun of it all!

Beijing TV, as a part of a "patriotic education" campaign, has recently begun showing a series of Chinese films from the 50s and 60s, and these works are fascinating relics of those hyper-revolutionary times. There are numerous scenes of the sinister bad guys — Kuomintang spies, U.S. diplomats, etc. — all in cahoots against the outnumbered but morally correct communists. And decadent jazz music often serves as the standard background for the activities of the oily enemies of the Party, either being played on wind-up phonographs or danced to in the smoky haze of a drunken party. Inevitably, jazz still exudes this aura for many people, especially for those in power. But since the floodgates to the West have long since opened, there are certainly much more egregious examples of jingshen wuran — "spiritual pollution" — for the authorities to contend with. Nevertheless, jazz is still unwelcome enough to result in the owner of the San Wei Bookstore being hassled now and then (he had to spend a couple hours in the police station for questioning one night when the Danish ambassador hosted a party with jazz music there). I have even heard that there is an obscure law on the books forbidding the public performance of jazz, but I have never seen such an ordinance. A few people have pointed out the inconsistency and irony in this state of affairs.

"Jazz should be championed by the Communist Party here," was the wry comment one of the Chinese drummers I work with. "After all, its class credentials are impeccable. It's music of the oppressed class — former slaves of the ruling capitalists!" But of course, consistency is not one of the trademarks of ideologues.

A saxophonist friend of mine is a music director for a People's Liberation Army unit. A fan of big band jazz, one of his goals was to organize a full-fledged army big band, and perform some of the classic Basie charts he enjoyed. The problem was that he was sure the upper echelons of the military structure would not approve of such music being performed by an army ensemble. He had a plan: he wanted to enlist my help in arranging a big band version of a Chinese folksong called Xi Ge, "Evening Song", which happened to be a favorite of Chinese president Jiang Zemin. His hope was that, if those in power could hear and accept a Chinese folksong arranged in the jazz idiom, they might be more receptive to other music in the same style. And, of course, if the arrangement could possibly come to the attention of Jiang Zemin himself, any future projects would be a shoo-in. (It is not unreasonable that Jiang, the former mayor of Shanghai and a somewhat Westernized, English-speaking technocrat, might be receptive to jazz. I have even heard that Jiang once sang a rendition of Love Me Tender for Philippine president Fidel Ramos while aboard a yacht. Ramos immediately suggested that Jiang perform the same song for Bill Clinton during an upcoming summit meeting, reasoning that, since Clinton is a well-known Elvis fan, it might improve Sino-US relations). Chinese political theorists are forever stressing the need to adapt foreign systems and methods to fit the unique Chinese situation — the current brand of socialism in China is always referred to as "socialism with Chinese characteristics" — and this agenda lay in back of my friend's plan. If he could come up with a kind of jazz with Chinese

characteristics, the powers that be might be more willing to accept it. So far, however, I have not had the huge block of time necessary to compose and copy out a full big band chart, and his project is still on hold. (Note: After I wrote this article, I did have the time to do the chart. The result was premiered at the Beijing Jazz Festival in 1997, played by the PLA Army band.)

This sort of subterfuge is essential in China, where entertainment is still controlled, implicitly or otherwise, by the Party apparatus. I was again reminded of this recently when Deng Xiaoping died. I happened to be in Canton province, preparing to perform a role in a comedy skit for a Cantonese TV variety show when the news came that Deng had passed away. The directors and producers of the TV show, who had already spent weeks preparing for the broadcast, knew well that this event would spell doom for their show. And indeed, within hours, word came down from the Central Committee of the province and the shencha bu, the political censors, that all entertainment shows, variety shows, comedy skits, foreign shows, and musical shows were to be suspended for at least a week. Hundreds of thousands of renminbi had been sunk into the show, and now the TV folks were walking around in a kind of shell-shocked daze, muttering into their cell-phones and watching the TV announcements about Deng with the kind of expression one sees on the faces of onlookers after a car crash. "Why couldn't the little jerk have died next week?" one of them said with a sigh. They were not even allowed to first tape the show and then air it later on after the official mourning period had passed. And all over China similar scenes were taking place, as hundreds of local and national television and radio shows were delayed, scrapped, cancelled or curtailed, resulting in an incalculable waste of money and manpower.

When I got back to Beijing, our jazz gig at the San Wei Bookstore had been suspended, of course. And the injunction against entertainment shows continued for many days after the final funeral services. The fact that every TV and radio station, and every privately owned teahouse, club, and bar, was subject to the edict, was a startling demonstration of how pervasive and complete the system of control is.

Strange things happen to foreigners in China. This is partly because China is a strange place, but it is also because foreigners are strange and special in a way that foreigners in America are not. The streets of any moderate-sized American city are filled with people from all over the world, some second or third-generation immigrants, some only recently arrived to make their home here. The situation in China is much different. Even in the largest Chinese cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, the sight of a foreigner on the street is still somewhat rare, and if you avoid the tourist areas you can sometimes go for days without seeing a single non-Chinese face. One of the results of this difference is that foreigners in China (especially those who can actually speak Chinese) sometimes find themselves involved in all sorts of strange activities solely by virtue of being what the Chinese politely call a lao wai, an "old (i.e., "respected") foreigner", or — somewhat less politely — a dà bízi, a "big nose". I have been asked to perform in comedy skits, to don costumes and sing Chinese songs, to co-host TV variety shows, and so on, even though I am merely a decidedly unglamorous graduate student type.

For similar reasons, any foreign musician in Beijing tends to be accorded an inordinate amount of respect and attention simply because many Chinese feel they are somehow closer to the mystical source of all this Western music that is so admired. (An understandable response; Americans are certainly more likely to seek out a native Chinese person to study arts like T'ai Ch'i and calligraphy rather than to be content with a perhaps equally knowledgeable Westerner.) It is thus quite natural and inevitable that foreigners would get involved in the jazz scene here. Liu Yuanr's band has a Japanese drummer, the groups I'm in usually have a mix of Americans and Chinese, and several foreigners with high-powered day jobs in Beijing take off their ties at night and jam with the three or four jazz groups playing around the city. For example, Christopher Bramsen, by day the Danish ambassador in Beijing, at night often sits in with our group, blowing a very funky and spirited bebop tenor saxophone. (We once joked that the jazz hierarchy has a Count, a Duke, a Prez(ident), a King — and now an Ambassador.)

But as foreigners become a more common presence in Beijing, the allure is wearing off rapidly, and it is no longer enough to show up at a gig with an ax and a Western face and expect to be treated like a duke, a count, or even an ambassador. Recently a very mediocre (but very loud) blues/jazz guitarist from New Orleans came to Beijing and was instantly surrounded by several Chinese musicians willing to help him arrange performances. The spell wore off, however, as most of the players he worked with became turned off by his abrasive personality and — most fatally — his obvious condescension toward Chinese musicians. It's a cliché, but the Chinese really do emphasize saving "face", and can put up with almost anything except an injury to their dignity.

There is still the ongoing question of creating a jazz "with Chinese characteristics". The groups who gig in Beijing have yet to totally escape the fundamentalist religion of the Real Book; there are few forays into post-60's jazz, fusion, jazz rock, etc., though the musicians are well aware of these newer currents. Part of the reason for this is the rather cut-throat atmosphere of the professional music world here, in which players have to compete for scarce high-paying gigs in foreign hotels, where there is a premium on safe, subdued background music — it's simply not worth it to branch out into anything more adventuresome or raucous. Our particular group is delving more into fusion and funk, thanks in large part to my willingness and ability to transcribe newer recordings and to write original tunes. But stable gigs where jazz is performed in a concert-like setting are rare.

One obvious avenue toward a more indigenous Chinese jazz is to arrange jazz versions of Chinese traditional and folk music. This is a route taken for a time by a pianist named Kong Hongwei, who produced one tape of Chinese folksongs with jazz accompaniment. As with most such attempts to meld jazz with folk music, the result was rather bland and disappointing. His group Tian Square also made some tries at an East-West jazz synthesis, but for some reason, despite some financial backing, a contract and a CD, the music never quite got off the ground. A young child-prodigy pianist named Lin Hai, whose name is a legend in music circles here, has produced a slick album of solo piano pieces blending jazz, classical, and Chinese folk elements; however, the result is a technically impressive but ultimately unsatisfying mix that comes across to Westerners as a lame attempt to imitate Keith Jarrett — or worse, New-Age pianist George Winston. Though blessed with prodigious technique and an amazing ear, Lin Hai has recently wasted much of his talent raking in huge sums by producing karaoke disks. Rock star Cui Jian and others have successfully incorporated traditional Chinese instruments and elements into rock and pop music, but so far no one on the mainland has had any success doing the same thing with jazz. (There is, of course, John Zhang in the United States, who has made some interesting attempts at blending jazz and Chinese music, but none of the musicians here in China are aware of him.)

As for truly original players, or a unique Chinese jazz style, these will no doubt have to wait for this particular generation of musicians to mature and for new waves of musicians to arrive and experiment in the increasingly free-wheeling artistic environment. A jazz giant like Bird emerges only from a flock of thousands of talented lesser players who gradually push the envelope higher and wider. Another Far Eastern country, Japan, has already begun to produce influential players who have made their mark on the jazz world. Many people have already begun predicting that Beijing will be the Paris of the early 21st century; if so, there is no reason to suppose China will not also become the hub of exciting new musical movements. At any rate, the course of jazz in China is likely to continue to be as erratic and unpredictable as a Miles Davis trumpet solo. One thing is certain: The West has certainly not exhausted the infinite resources of the jazz idiom. As an ancient scholar Guo Xiang wrote, in a commentary on the Chuang Tzu, "All melodies cannot be played at once. Therefore in blowing wind instruments or plucking stringed instruments, no matter how many hands take part, there will always be some melodies left unplayed." We can only look forward to the unplayed melodies that will inevitably emerge from China.


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