Twenty five years in Chinese jazz – David Moser
“What do you miss most about the US?” asked my friend Chen Xin, pouring me another beer.
“Nothing,” I said. It was 1993, and I was living in Beijing, yet even when drunk I was never homesick for America.
“There must be something,” she said, licking the excess foam off my glass.
The next day I called up her friend Liang Heping, a pianist. He told me that yes, there was a jiemu saishen(“jam session”) that weekend, and I was welcome to sit in. I was a failed jazz musician who had studied music at Indiana University, struggled to survive playing gigs in Boston for years, then finally given up to go into a field I was sure would bring in the big bucks: Chinese linguistics. I had assumed I would never have a chance to play jazz again, yet here I was in 1990s Beijing, where every week something that couldn’t possibly happen happened. A friend loaned me a battered Chinese trumpet, and I set out from Peking University, where I was studying, taking one of the infamous yellow death-trap “breadbox taxis” to Maxim’s.
Maxim’s was a French-style bistro plunked rather improbably into the middle of Beijing. (Or at least it was improbable in 1983 when Pierre Cardin, the French couturier, opened the bar declaring “If I can open a Maxim’s in Beijing, I can open one on the moon!”) When I showed up the place was almost empty, just a few French tourists clustered at a table, ignoring the jazz band completely. I sat at a table and listened as the musicians finished their first set with Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time”, which seemed appropriate. As they took a break, I went up to Liang Heping.
“Welcome,” he said, “We’re absorbing a little of your country’s spiritual pollution here.” Liang was tall with hippie-length hair, while the drummer, Liu Xiaosong, had a punk-rock buzz cut hairstyle and an earring, something shockingly outré in China at that time. By contrast, the tenor saxophonist, Du Yinjiao, with his clean-cut looks and well-toned body, looked more like a PLA soldier. As it turns out, he was.
“I’m a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army band in Beijing,” he told me, “We’re not supposed to take jobs outside of our army unit, but sometimes I sneak out of the base and play at these jam sessions.”
I asked him what his normal duties were in the PLA band. “Well, this afternoon I played the national anthem at the Great Hall of the People for Jiang Zemin, and tonight I’m playing Charlie Parker here.” Du told me he had learned jazz by listening to Voice of America shortwave broadcasts in the 80s.
“You’ve heard of Benny Goodman?” he asked me. “It’s difficult to figure out his music by listening to the radio. That’s why we like it when a foreigner comes along. Do you have any tapes of his music I can borrow?”
I took the stage for the next set, and they asked me what tunes I wanted to play. I noticed that on the music stands they all had tattered copies of The Real Book, the Bible of jazz musicians, a copyright-violating book with the melodies and chord changes for hundreds of standard jazz tunes. When jazz musicians improvise, they do so over the succession of chords that underlie the melody, and call it “playing the changes.” Ironic, I thought to myself, that the culture that produced the ancient divination classic the Book of Changes had now imported this musical book of changes. I suggested we play Sonny Rollins’ tune “Airegin”, and he announced to the group “Okay, page 11!”
I had assumed I would have to learn a lot of jazz jargon in Chinese, but it turns out that for jazz, as for other Western imports in China, English is still the lingua franca. In the middle of fast-paced Chinese they sprinkled English phrases like “bossa-nova”, “swing feel”, “trade fours” and “bass line”. I was a bit rusty on the borrowed trumpet, but it was fun to be in the groove again. The tempo was uneven, Liang Heping’s accompaniment on the keyboard was more Rachmaninoff than Bill Evans, but still – it was jazz.
I suddenly had a sense that time and space had contracted, that Beijing had truly become part of the global village. After the set, the bass player told me how much he liked Miles Davis, calling him “Miles” in the same way that an American jazz aficionado would. I was jolted out of my kumbaya moment when he asked me, “Did Miles ever play Dixieland?” It was an odd question, since Dixieland predated Miles Davis by decades.
“Well, I don’t think so,” I said, “though he did have a great admiration for Louis Armstrong.”
Another musician sat in during the next set, a diminutive fellow in a tie-dye t-shirt on the flugelhorn (a mellower cousin of the trumpet). He played with more expression and originality than the other musicians, though it was clear he had not studied jazz theory. I thought he looked familiar, but couldn’t quite place him. My puzzlement was dispelled when the drummer pulled me over to the newcomer. “The two of you should meet,” he said. “David, this is Cui Jian.”
The next week I was in Cui Jian’s apartment, giving him some jazz theory tips. A slight, soft-spoken young man, he would not have struck me as the iconoclastic godfather of Chinese rock. When I was at Peking University in the late 80s, his song “Nothing to My Name” played constantly on tinny dorm room cassette players, and later became the anthem of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protest movement. I knew Cui Jian played the trumpet, but I had no idea he was a jazz enthusiast.
“Are you thinking of branching out into jazz?” I asked him.
“I can’t really play it yet,” he said, “but at least jazz is safe to perform here. It’s hard for me to get approval for concerts in Beijing, and even outside of the city I get banned all the time.”
The events of June 4th still resonated in the capital, and the politics of rock music were very much a topic of discussion. Chinese youth naturally felt a spiritual affinity with rock, and there were a few indigenous groups such as Tang Dynasty and Black Leopard that played for passionate fans across the country. Jazz was almost completely off the radar, but Cui Jian nevertheless saw potential for it.
“Rock is very direct, it’s good for shaking people up,” he said. “Jazz is subtler. It requires a longer time to take hold, but the effect on the spirit can be deeper. I believe it can also raise Chinese people’s political consciousness.” I reminded him that Miles Davis had once said, “Jazz is the big brother of revolution. Revolution follows it around.” He laughed.
“Right. They say rock-and-roll is subversive, but from what I’ve read, jazz was really the music that brought down the Berlin Wall.”
“And now, the Great Wall?”
Jazz had come to China. Or more accurately, it had returned. After all, Shanghai nightlife in the 1920s and 30s included jazz as a part of the cultural mix. Dozens of African-American jazz musicians traveled by steamboat to China to seek gigs in the freewheeling international club scene. Buck Clayton, who later on would play trumpet with Count Basie, formed his first jazz band in Shanghai. And local Chinese musicians absorbed it all to create a form of jazz with Chinese characteristics, a hybrid of New York’s Tin Pan Alley and Shanghai pop songs.
When I first got to Beijing in 1986 there were still fossils of this pre-Liberation Chinese faux jazz, such as a group who called themselves Lao Shupi, “Old Tree Bark.” The band members were all in their sixties and seventies (the drummer had a hearing aid, as I recall) and performed a style of jazz somewhere between corny and incoherent. American trombonist Matt Roberts had already made valiant pioneering efforts to assemble something like a genuine American jazz ensemble. And a German bassist, Martin Fleischer, had pulled together a group of Chinese and foreigners calling themselves the “Swinging Mandarins,” who provided passable cocktail jazz in the main lobby of Beijing’s Jianguo Hotel.
By the time I discovered Chinese jazz in the 90s, the influx was still a trickle, not a wave. As I became a part of the subculture, I found out that the musicians were still unfamiliar with jazz harmony, and needed chord-playing instruments – piano, guitar – more than trumpets and saxophones. I began to play piano at the gigs, even though I had never really studied piano. My technique was pathetic, but I was competent enough in jazz harmony to provide reasonable “comping” (the jazz term for accompaniment), and transcribe musical arrangements and charts.
The musicians were also woefully unfamiliar with the basic repertoire of tunes. I once played a hotel gig with a bass player who after the first set of jazz classics confessed, “You know, I’ve never heard any of the tunes we just played. Do you have any tapes of them?” Jazz tapes and CDs were very scarce in those pre-Internet days, and players hoarded them like sacred relics. In fact, one of the most common complaints I heard was that musicians refused to share their precious stash with anyone else, for fear that others would benefit from the musical “secrets” therein and get an edge on them.
And yet, they were all drawn inexorably to the music. Jazz has always tended to be “music for musicians,” and this was no exception in Beijing. Players congregated at clubs with little or no audience and zero pay, just to be part of the buzz. Bass player Huang Yong, a staple of weekend jazz sessions, told me, “When I discovered jazz, it changed my entire view of music. Pop music has limits, but jazz is about reaching an unattainable goal. But that’s what’s so frustrating. Why is it that our improvised solos never sound as good as the recordings? What are we missing?”
This was a question that came up time and again: When would China produce a soloist with a distinctive voice, an individual style? I discussed this with Liu Yuan, Cui Jian’s saxophone player, during breaks at the CD Café, Beijing’s first jazz club. Liu had begun as a child learning the suona, a double-reed Chinese folk instrument, and had switched to sax after hearing a jazz group in Hungary. When he returned to China, he taught himself jazz by listening on repeat to the only jazz tape he owned, a Grover Washington, Jr. album.
“Chinese jazz has yet to find a solo voice,” Liu lamented. “Jazz should be pure expression, but we’re too hesitant to express ourselves. I think it goes to a basic cultural difference. We just don’t have a tradition of individualism. I feel this flaw in my own playing, too. I always hold back, afraid of playing wrong notes.”
I told Liu the story (probably apocryphal) about bassist Charles Mingus, who fired a trombone player who was widely considered the best player in his band. When a fan asked Mingus why he kicked out such a talented musician, Mingus replied, “Motherfucker never made any mistakes.”
“Exactly!” Liu Yuan laughed, nodding. “That’s our problem. We’re taught from a young age to play correctly, like good little children. We’ve got to learn to break the rules. To be motherfuckers.”
One striking characteristic of Chinese jazz musicians was their uniform reverence for Miles Davis. Almost to a person they preferred the spare, cooler style of Miles to the rapid pyrotechnic displays of other jazz artists. They pointed to his use of empty space and understatement, “saying more with less”, all preferences that, it seemed to me, had a resonance with Chinese visual arts. The best selling jazz album of all time is Miles’s classic Kind of Blue. In the liner notes to the album, pianist Bill Evans compared jazz improvisation to the art of calligraphy. I remember at the time thinking that it was a gratuitous comparison, a trendy invoking of Oriental exoticism. But it turned out my Chinese musician friends also saw commonalities in the two disciplines. The calligrapher, like the jazz artist, spends a lifetime mastering the basic forms in preparation for a spontaneous moment of creation, during which the artist must act in a non-deliberative way to produce one continuous, expressive “line” – for the calligrapher in space, for the jazz player in time – without the option of revising, restarting or rethinking. Each time the result is a unique form reflecting the artist’s mental and emotional state at that moment. Miles’s philosophy of jazz seemed to echo centuries of Chinese aesthetics. He famously told his sidemen, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” If that’s not Daoism, what is?
While there were several hotel jazz groups and sporadic jam sessions, the first real jazz gig in Beijing was at the San Wei Bookstore, an unassuming two-story structure just off of Chang’an Boulevard. The name was a reference to the school where Lu Xun studied as a child. The san wei or “three tastes” was a Qing dynasty term referring to the three important categories of books: history, poetry, and philosophy. Lu Xun and jazz – why not?
The owners, Liu Yuansheng and her husband Li Shiqiang, had converted the second floor into a traditional Chinese teahouse, with calligraphy scrolls on the wall and Qing-style furniture. The bookstore was popular with the Beijing intelligentsia, and also became a magnet for foreigners searching out some easily digestible Chinese culture. Even George HW Bush’s vice-president Dan Quayle had sipped tea there during a visit to China. Liu and Li approached me with the idea of creating a jazz salon to introduce the music to a scholarly young audience.
“We know jazz is a great American art form,” Liu Yuansheng told me. “We want to create an atmosphere where people come week after week and get to really understand the music, rather than just hearing snippets now and then.”
It turned out to be not only the earliest but also the steadiest jazz gig in Beijing. Our group played nearly every Saturday for four years. The audiences were small but attentive, and I enjoyed the barrage of questions we received after. Puzzled by the long improvised solos, people asked me “How are you musicians able to memorize all those complicated melodies?” I told them that the music was completely ad-libbed, not memorized. “Well, without a score, how can you tell a wrong note from a right one?” Indeed. Or, “If the music is all improvised, then why bother to practice?” And, “How come the trumpet and saxophone all seem to take turns playing, while the drums, bass, and piano play all the time? They should be paid more!”
It was very satisfying to introduce jazz to young Chinese intelligentsia, but there was one annoying aspect to the performances. Someone in the audience would invariably request that we play Kenny G’s “Going Home”, under the impression that the curly-haired muzak saxophonist somehow represented the epitome of jazz art, based on his syrupy 1989 hit that went viral in China for a decade, and still can be heard in hotel elevators.
By the mid-90s, jazz in China was gaining momentum. Beijing got its first jazz festival, the brainchild of German expat Udo Hoffman. The Beijing Jazz Festival never really made money, but Udo’s genius for procuring corporate sponsorship kept the annual event alive for many years, introducing audiences to Dave Holland, Paul Motian and legendary vocalist Betty Carter, who sang her last concert at the 1997 festival. Chinese jazz groups proliferated, and Beijing was on the verge of recreating the Shanghai jazz scene of the 1930s – without the opium and gambling. Crowds of curious young people showed up to listen, their fingers and toes gradually learning to tap to the swing rhythm on the second and fourth beat – the more “hip” way, as Duke Ellington observed – not on the first and third.
Local musicians now had the opportunity to meet and play with established foreign jazz stars. In the summer of 1994, after the Grammy-winning fusion-jazz group the Brecker Brothers performed to a sold-out crowd at Beijing’s Poly Plaza, they showed up at our weekly jazz gig at a bar called Poacher’s Inn, to check out local Chinese jazz. During the course of the night, they jammed with our group and the legendary Michael Brecker borrowed Du Yinjiao’s tenor sax to play. Du was in ecstasy. “To think that Michael Brecker actually 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.”
Around 1996, Du Yinjiao approached me with an idea. He wanted to recruit his PLA band buddies to form a traditional jazz big band, which would be the first of its kind since 1949. There were plenty of bored horn players stuck on the army base all day long, itching to play something more challenging and creative. All they needed was for me to arrange the musical charts.
The trickier problem was getting such a renegade ensemble approved by the PLA leadership. To the army upper echelons, jazz was a quintessentially degenerate style of music, closely associated with the KMT, prostitutes and Western decadence. Watch any Chinese revolutionary film from the 50s and 60s, and you’ll find that scenes of qipao-clad harlots cavorting with slick-haired KMT spies in smoke-filled cabaret halls are invariably accompanied by cheesy jazz. Du did his best to convince the leadership of jazz’s politically correct credentials. “Jazz should be championed by the Communist Party,” he would tell them. “After all, it’s music of the oppressed class, former black slaves of the land-owners!” But the army brass was unbending.
Nevertheless, we decided to forge ahead. I bought a dozen or so discount big band scores from the US, and we began rehearsals. The name chosen for the band was Jinhaojiao Jueshi Yuedui, “the Golden Horn Jazz Band”. It turns out I was the first foreigner ever to come into the army band compound. When Du drove me to the rehearsal hall I had to duck down in the car so the guard at the checkpoint wouldn’t see me. This subterfuge was met with great mirth by the band. “What military secrets are you going to steal,” they teased me, “the chords to the Chinese national anthem?”
Rehearsals were chaotic at first. Many of the players had no idea what swing rhythm was all about, but slowly the band got the hang of it. Then a miracle happened. After amassing a repertoire of a dozen or so songs, they began to get gigs. Lots of them. It turns out that the foreign hotels were willing to pay good money to hire an honest-to-goodness jazz big band to play “Moonlight Serenade” in their ballrooms on New Year’s Eve. At this point, the PLA generals, who heretofore had frowned on the endeavor, suddenly took a personal interest. Jazz could make money? Du Yinjiao promptly lost artistic control over the Golden Horn Jazz Band, but at least he was finally playing Benny Goodman.
Another fond memory is when Wynton Marsalis toured China with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I was lucky enough to travel around with him and the group as a translator and bilingual host. Wynton was an inspiration, an evangelist for the jazz gospel, and audiences found him spellbinding. For me, translating for him was a constant improvised solo, providing on-the-spot translations for song titles like “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” or “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat”. The line that really stumped me was when during the Beijing master class Wynton quoted Duke Ellington: “I don’t ask for perfection. All I ask for is goose pimples.” An equivalent escaped me, but as I listened to a Chinese middle school boy navigate bebop changes on the alto sax with precocious assurance and verve, I felt it for the first time in China. Goose pimples.
Fast forward to 2012. It’s a hot summer night, and I’m subbing for an ailing pianist at the East Shore Café, Beijing’s premiere jazz club. The East Shore is co-owned by Liu Yuan, Cui Jian’s saxophonist, who has converted to Buddhism and is in semi-retirement. Beijing now boasts some truly awesome jazz muscians – “monsters” in jazz parlance – who could occupy any international festival stage and make China proud. I myself feel lucky just to have a chance to occasionally play with some of these talents. My first friend in Beijing’s jazz circles, Liang Heping, is not so lucky. He was paralyzed from the neck down in a freak car accident on a mountain road, and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to play a note on the piano. My PLA pal Du Yinjiao, meanwhile, has essentially given up jazz, and now spends his time teaching music and occasionally performing commercial music in concert halls to pay the bills.
During the break I go outside to the bank of Houhai lake with the drummer and bass player for some fresh air, swatting away mosquitoes. I can hear the faint background music from upstairs, Billie Holiday singing “You’ve Changed”. It’s one of her last recordings, and her is voice ravaged by years of drugs and alcohol as she sings:
You’re not the angel I once knew
I’m reminded about the changes that every jazz player must master, the changes that China must go through, the changes through which opposites give birth to cool and hot, freedom and constraint, East and West, all in search of the ultimate harmony spoken of in the original Book of Changes. The rest is just improvisation. ∎