First Views: Beijing International Jazz Festival

First Views: Beijing International Jazz Festival

by Dan Ouellette
Copyright © 1998 Dan Ouellette

In 1982 in Beijing, China a 17-year-old saxophonist in the People's Liberation Army Band surreptitiously listened to his shortwave radio in his barracks dormitory room. He was tuning in the night-time Voice of America broadcasts of this strange music called jazz. He sat in the dark and softly tried to figure out the fingerings of the melodies. Little did Du Yinjiao realize then that 15 years later he and several of his P.L.A. cohorts would form a jazz ensemble and open a week-long festival celebrating this music - still branded by Communist officials in the People's Republic of China as decadent, bourgeois and spiritually polluting.

In fall of 1997, after months of bureacratic red tape, Du and the Wide Angle Jazz Group finally received permission to perform from military authorities only two weeks before this year's Beijing International Jazz Festival (November 18-23). The big band did an admirable job launching the fest to a swinging start with standard Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock and Glenn Miller tunes. A well-kept secret in its five-year existence, the festival itself has grown from a fledgling intro-to-jazz concert series into a remarkable world-class event featuring a broad range of styles performed by an eclectic international cast. This year's headliner was Betty Carter, the biggest name jazz act to play Beijing thus far and the hands-down popularity winner, judging by the rousing ovation she received after her dynamic fest- ending set.

While jazz continues to be frowned upon by the Chinese government - reluctantly bowing to the influx of Western culture as a byproduct of modernization, yet still steadfast to its policy of authoritarian control - the music has taken the nation's capital by storm. Several Chinese jazz bands have sprouted up in recent years. Chinese students in their 20s are cramming into an increasing number of smokey clubs to inhale the music ed to capacity houses for eight concerts at the 1400-seat International Theater at Poly Plaza. Ticket prices ranged from $7 to $27, a steep price which essentially excludes the vast majority of China's impoverished population from attending.

"Jazz is hip here," says BJF co-coordinator Robert van Kan, who works as a cultural exchange attache at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Beijing. "In the beginning the audience at the festival consisted of expats and foreigners. Now Chinese dominate the audience. The cultural elite and arts avant-garde communities come to the shows as well as regular Chinese people from the emerging middle class. They're really into it."

Curious and intrigued by jazz, the BJF Chinese audience was treated to a rainbow of styles, ranging from big band swing and straightahead bop to funked-up fusion and out-on-the-free-edge improv. The line-up included pianist/vocalist Keiko Lee (from Japan), the Doky Brothers (Denmark), Nils Landgren Funk Unit (Sweden), Richard Galliano Trio (France) and the John Taylor/John Surman Duo (UK).

Festival standouts included Italy's superb ensemble Gianluigi Trovesi Octet (performing its lyrical, whimsical and singular Italian folk-cum-classical- cum-jazz in the best set of music I've seen in the last several years), the delightfully unpredictable Dutch group Willem Breuker Kollektief (which also performed a rollicking afternoon show for Chinese school children) and the creative music band Ensemble for New Improvised Music (which included pianist Dieter Glawischnig who also rehearsed and conducted the P.L.A. Orchestra). In addition to Carter, the U.S. jazz scene was represented by two adventurous groups, the Jon Jang Sextet and the Far East Side Band, which both played compelling music steeped in the Asian-American jazz dialect.

"We figured if we were going to present a festival we should show the full spectrum of jazz," says Udo Hoffmann, festival founder, mover-and-shaker and key member of the Beijing YiRen Cultural Arts and Exchange Center (an arm of the Chi e-owned YiRen advertising agency), which serves as the Chinese sponsor. "Jazz is so difficult to define because it encompasses so much, from Dixieland to free. Deep knowledge of jazz didn't exist here a few years ago. The festival has been educating people by showcasing the different stages of jazz's development. This is a new world of music for the Chinese. They're motivated to hear more even if they don't like everything. China is changing and developing. Jazz can be part of that development."

A German national who has been living in China for eight years, Hoffmann was inspired to get the jazz ball rolling when he heard controversial Chinese rock star Cui Jian, a classically trained trumpeter who has become Beijing's equivalent of Bruce Springsteen, trying to figure out how to play "Take Five." "I thought young Chinese musicians would really like to taste jazz," says Hoffmann, who was working for the Goethe Institute at the time. He contacted friends at embassies to help import acts from their countries and put together a low-key four-group program in 1993.

Hoffmann remembers the reaction well. "The audience was stunned. It was like they were breathing something new. Some people got a headache, others felt it was unhealthy. Still others felt it was a capitalist contaminant. But the Chinese musicians loved it. They've really taken to jazz. They've become the offspring of the jazz festival. Each year another new band crops up. The jam sessions with visiting groups in the clubs have been invaluable. The Chinese musicians get to touch these artists, to feel them, to learn from them how to express their feelings, to dialogue with these guys. It's been amazing."

Hoffmann hopes that Chinese jazz, now in its nascent stage, will eventually reflect Beijing. "The Chinese music tradition is rich, long and full of treasures. Jazz would be a wonderful vehicle to further explore this. Not all kinds of jazz will work in China. Chinese culture as reflected in its painting and calligraphy is attracted to the abstract. My gue same thing will happen with jazz. But right now, the Chinese jazz musicians are just scratching the surface."

Instead of running an import-only operation, Hoffmann and van Kan give the local jazzers-in-training plenty of performance opportunities at the festival. In addition to the P.L.A. Band, the festival booked the Wide Angle Jazz Group (a quartet with P.L.A. members saxophonist Du Yinjiao and drummer Jiao Quanjie and guitarist David Moser, an American who teaches translation and English at the Beijing Foreign Studies University) and the Beijing funk/r&b party crew the Rhythm Dogs (with Malagasy guitarist Eddie Luc Lalasoa from Cui Jian's band and American trombonist Matt Roberts). Wang Yong, another Cui Jian vet who plays guzheng (Chinese predecessor to the koto) and owns the hip Keep In Touch club, sat in with the Ensemble for New Improvised Music, and a Chinese string ensemble performed several numbers with Breuker's band. Plus, for the fifth year in a row, saxophonist Liu Yuan, yet another Cui Jian band member and a pioneer of Chinese jazz, was invited to join the festivities with his swinging, straightahead bop quintet.

A mainstay at the CD Cafe, Beijing's top jazz club, Liu was classically trained on the Chinese wind instrument suona. He was exposed to jazz for the first time when in 1978, at age 18, he toured Romania with the Beijing Opera. Liu, speaking through a translator, recalls: "I saw a group playing jazz in a bar and I thought, wow, what is that? I was immediately drawn to the saxophone."

When he returned, China was just beginning to embark on a reform period and crack open its doors to the West. But the only music to filter into Beijing was John Denver and disco. Liu borrowed money to buy a Chinese-made sax and picked up licks from pop songs until he got turned on to a Grover Washington, Jr. cassette in 1986. His best jazz education came jamming at hotel bars in Beijing with embassy-based jazz amateurs, listening to music that friends in the U.S. sent to him, and then touring the States wi Cui Jian. "We were a rock band, but every night after our shows we'd go to jazz clubs. In New York, we went to the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note and Small's."

Liu, who cites John Coltrane, Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman among his favorites, says the impact of the Beijing Jazz Festival has been immense. He notes that in addition to the concerts, the BJF encourages visiting band members to participate in master classes at the Central Conservatory of China, the Beijing MIDI School and the New Institute for Contemporary Music. "Before young people used to go to discos. Now they go to the jazz bars to listen to the music. The festival has established jazz in Beijing."

The P.L.A.'s Du Yinjiao, who used to sneak from his barracks in defiance of his superiors to blow his tenor sax in those clubs, agrees. With his pal and bandmate David Moser acting as translator, Du, who admires the playing of Trane, Michael Brecker and Miles Davis, says, "You can't expect fantastic Chinese jazz overnight because we are only now being exposed to the music through the festival. It's not like America where you have tasted jazz all your lives. We're only now beginning to absorb it. But the door is open and no one's going to close it."

Moser adds that growing up in a culture where creativity and originality are constantly squashed down makes it difficult for Chinese musicians to loosen up to express themselves improvisationally. "A lot of Chinese people have said that before a great soloist can emerge there must be a stronger feel of individualism." Will that happen in China where the collective spirit is deemed more important than individual expression? Can the jazz dichotomy - where ensemble uniformity meshes with improvisational free speech - thrive in Beijing? Du thinks so. "Individualism is good for the collective. It gets us all dialoging, communicating with each other. Before, everybody kept their heads down and were afraid to take chances."

Moser, who secured the charts for the P.L.A. performance as well as wrote an arrngement of the famous Chinese folk song "Evening Song" for the big band, points out that Du has been a courageous risk-taker. It's telling that we're sitting in the P.L.A. rehearsal room in the army compound - this is the first time a foreign reporter has ever set foot in the barracks. "The time is right in China. [Chinese president] Jiang Zemin just returned from the United States and the 15th Party Congress just reaffirmed its commitment to modernization. So people aren't as afraid of getting in deep shit anymore.

"Still someone had to take the first step and Du's doing it," Mosser says. "He's representing jazz to the younger musicians in the army band. He's encouraging his superiors to come hear the music, to discover that jazz is a legitimate art form and not decadent. He even has plans to take the big band to universities. A foreign group wouldn't be able to do that in a million years. But because it's the P.L.A., Du's promotion of jazz will probably get approved."

Du appreciates Dieter Glawisching's work with the P.L.A. band, especially in teaching the jazz neophytes how to swing. Glaswisching, who has been a festival regular since 1994, returns the compliment. "Can you imagine the Chinese communist military band playing jazz? They're all so enthusiastic. I wish jazz students everywhere would have such open ears. Their playing has already improved. They will only get better as they get more materials and get more exposure to jazz. Rock is here. Michael Jackson is famous in Beijing. Why not Miles Davis?"

Still the Chinese government's bloody clampdown on free speech at Tiananmen Square in 1989 still looms as a reminder of who's in control. The festival plug could be pulled at any time. Still, there's optimism. Even Jon Jang, whose brilliant *Tiananmen!* CD was a staunch critique of the event, feels that the authorities don't seem alarmed by instrumental music as long as it's not flaunting a particular point of view. "To get clearance from the Ministry of Culture, we had to supply a video of our performance a CD," reports Jang, whose compositions probe the links of emotion and melody in jazz and the music of his heritage. "We were warned by Robert van Kan to make sure there was no nudity or political sloganeering."

Van Kan, who notes that there are also rules prohibiting artists from moving into the audience during a performance, sees government scrutiny as a minor obstacle. He notes, though, that official approval doesn't come from the Ministry of Culture until shortly before the festival opens, which means that for the time being the BJF will not be advertised to the world as a jazz vacation destination.

"We're doing this more for the Chinese anyway," he says, then adds diplomatically, "We'll see how it all progresses." As for the jazz press, Hoffmann says inviting journalists is even trickier because of government restrictions. "We're not prepared for an influx of jazz critics. At this time we're doing the festival as a commitment to expose the Beijing community to jazz."

In addition to wowing the Chinese audience with her potent display of jazz vocalizing (she also played the Shanghai spur of the festival), after the concert Betty Carter gives her new fans flocking to her for autographs some jazz basics. While being interviewed by a Beijing television station, Carter says, "Jazz means that you can speak your mind musically and be accepted for doing it. You can do anything you want, change the tempo, put a new meter on a tune, anything. You don't have to conform to what other people expect you to do."

It's jazz talk, but it sure sounds like a lesson in freedom, too. Carter, upset that her record company dropped the ball on getting some of her CDs to the festival (at the moment, Kenny G is about all you can buy on the market), adds, "We'll be back. In the meantime, there will be more festivals and hopefully record companies will come here and help turn you on to all the different styles of jazz. It's a valuable art form and it needs to be heard all over the world. It's coming here. Maybe not overnight, but it through. It's coming."

- Dan Ouellette

Dan Ouellette has been a San Francisco Bay Area correspondent for Down Beat for the last ten years, is a contributing editor to Stereophile, a regular contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle and writes for a number of other publications including Pulse! magazine, Planet Jazz, Coda, Acoustic Guitar, Strings, Vibe and Escape. He has produced a jazz oral history for the Smithsonian Institute, an 8-hour conversation w/producer Orrin Keepnews, and has written liner notes for several jazz CDs. Dan can be contacted at his business address and phone: 2132 Prince Street, Berkeley, CA 94705, 510/548.7450. E-mail address:

C o m m e n t s

Your Salon article 1 of 1
Bruce K Woods
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December 23, 98

I just read another version of you China trip in Salon. It gave a good indication as to how to draw new jazz fans on a skeletal level. Thank you.

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