Shanghai’s Jazzy Roots Sprout A Growing Scene

Shanghai might proclaim to be a “jazz capital” in its tourism marketing materials, but is it really? Though undoubtedly the Asian center of the genre in its jazz age heyday, where is Shanghai’s re-emergent modern scene at in 2013? Talk sat down with many of the folks who have been following, and in many ways forming, the re- awakening of jazz in the city to find out. 

During Shanghai’s jazz age, from the 1920s until the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949, musicians were streaming into the city from around the world, and especially around Asia, to play the jazzy swing tunes popular at the time in Shanghai’s numerous dancehalls.

Andrew Field first came to Shanghai in the mid-90s to study the city’s jazz age and has since written a book, Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954, about those aforementioned dancehalls. 

According to Field, it was Shanghai’s elite, particularly Westerners, who encouraged the introduction of jazz in the city, as they wanted to get their groove on to the same kind of tunes that were being played in clubs across the Western world, from New York, to London and Paris.

“That’s how the Jazz Age started, but
I think what also happened was that Chinese society took up the rhythms of jazz and made it their own, created their own modern style of pop music in the 20s and 30s,” he said. 

Li Jinhui and his band of merry (for a little while anyway) orphans and other assorted outcasts started a musical movement fusing Western and Chinese styles. Surpassing everyone’s expectations, including Li’s, their fresh, jazz and swing-inspired tunes caught the public’s imagination and became known as China’s original pop music.

Before long however, the boom in jazz music became bourgeois and local musicians  either stopped playing altogether, or took their craft underground, playing at small, private parties risking serious repercussions, to play the old standards loved by many Shanghainese.

Chen Xianguo was just a boy when the Communists came to power, but he had already acquired a taste for jazz, having followed his older brothers and sisters to clubs to hear the foreign musical stylings of American and Filipino bands (the latter were numerous at the time because they were both technically capable and cheaper to hire than Western musicians; not dissimilar to Shanghai’s cover band situation of today).

“Jazz has actually always been able to represent how I am feeling, it makes me really happy. If you are feeling annoyed, if things are bothering you, you can just listen to some music and give yourself a good feeling,” Chen told Talk in the lobby lounge of the Peace Hotel as a young lady in a qipao played gu zheng (a traditional Chinese string instrument) in the background.

We are at the Peace Hotel, because that is where Chen works. Not that he calls it work. As a trumpeter in the hotel’s world famous Old Jazz Band, Chen is now making up for many years without his instrument and he has no plans to quit anytime soon, pointing out that their band’s oldest member is about to turn 90 (almost 20 years the sprightly 72 year old’s senior) and still going strong. “For a long time we kept our love of jazz music a secret because it was thought of as unhealthy music. Listening to any kind of music, maybe especially jazz, was not okay. We normally didn’t get to listen to jazz at all. Sometimes we would quietly listen and play at a friend’s house, but it wasn’t so simple, we couldn’t let anyone see us or hear us,” Chen explained.

But come 1980, virtually as soon as Deng Xiaoping reopened China to the world, Chen and his fellow Old Jazz Band members were back in business, playing long lost – though never forgotten – jazz standards to appreciative audiences.

Thirty years since jazz has been back on Shanghai’s radar, the genre is again developing quickly, being embraced by more and more people who encountered the return of the old Shanghai standards at five-star hotels in the 1980s, then more modern representations of the genre with the opening of Cotton Club and House of Blues and Jazz in the 1990s. 

By 2000, Ren Yuqing, a rock’n’roll musician best known for playing bass guitar in Cui Jian’s band, decided to come to Shanghai, even as his friends in Beijing pronounced the city a cultural wasteland.

Ren’s Shanghainese grandfather had told him tales of this city’s great jazz age and the musician, who was getting into jazz in a big way, decided it was time to really get the party started again. He opened JZ Club in 2003 and in the past decade has seen the scene grow exponentially.

“Shanghai has always had this international feel and people are really open to picking up new things, like international music,” Ren explained over a late-night latte at the club.

“I think [jazz in Shanghai] is booming. I think back to 2003 when we opened JZ, there would only have been 1,000 people who liked jazz in the whole city, but now I think there are hundreds of thousands of people
who like jazz,” he said.

“At that time only one or two foreign bands would come to Shanghai per year, but now we have top bands coming every month. The world also sees this thing is happening, because all the stars are contacting with me and saying, ‘Hey man, I want to come to Shanghai.’”

As well as a growing roster of impressive international acts gracing Shanghai stages, the last decade has also seen the rise of a new generation of homegrown Chinese jazz musicians.

Many of these artists initially trained as classical musicians before being exposed to jazz and, in many cases, were mentored by the foreign musicians taking up residence in Shanghai jazz clubs. 

Coco Zhao is perhaps the most famous local jazz vocalist in Shanghai, and is no exception to the classically trained rule, having attended Shanghai’s Music Conservatory as a promising oboe player before stumbling upon the road to jazz.

He sees jazz as a perfect musical fit for his adopted city, with both exuding internationalism and a fusion of influences.

“Shanghai has always been a good fit for jazz. Both the city and the musical genre have a lot of space for improvisation, and Shanghai is a city where different cultures and different people live together. Jazz is also a music form which can mix and accommodate all kinds of music styles and elements as well,” Zhao said.

Musically, Zhao and his contemporaries, including Peng Fei, Huang Jianyi and Li Xiaochuan, are also working to infuse their own cultural identity, as well as Shanghai’s jazz legacy, into their music. Though intrinsically an American art form, Zhao points out that regionally specific jazz styles have already emerged in other parts of the world and been accepted into the canon – he sites Africa and South America as two such examples – and one day, he hopes to see a distinctive “Chinese jazz” emerge.

“We are all expanding jazz as a musical form with personal touches from a Chinese musician's point of view,” he said. “I am sure there will be more and more Chinese musicians who will add more flavors on this never ending road of music and creation.” Though all those Talk interviewed for this feature are excited about the evolution of Shanghai’s jazz scene, they are, on the whole, still a little hesitant to proclaim the city a jazz capital of the world. For now, that is. “I would definitely say that jazz is a big part of the musical identity of this city, both in terms of the imaginary identity of the city and in terms of the historical legacy,” Andrew Field said.

“I certainly feel as though jazz in this city is very well nurtured, and it will continue to be more and more important. So I think the city is living up to its imagined legacy and I think, given the current trends, we will see more and more growth in the jazz scene, and more and more Chinese people will be introduced to jazz in one way or another.”

Ren Yuqing is also, unsurprisingly, a believer in the future of Shanghai’s jazz scene. According to the rocker-cum-impresario, as young people get more and more exposure to jazz, the momentum of the movement will only get stronger.

“I think everything will continue and we will get more and more good young musicians in China coming up and more international artists will come to Shanghai, which will help China’s music scene,” he said. 

“Jazz is like a key, when you use this key to open the door, you also see on the other side of the door reggae and hip-hop, flamenco and a lot of different kinds of things. It’s the key to a lot of different and interesting music and I hope for the future, more and more young people can have the chance to get in touch with good music. Music is really the language of the world.” 


Shanghai’s Jazz History: Who’s Who


Li Jinhui

The father of Shanghai’s initial homegrown popular music movement, Li Jinhui was the first to mix the jazz standards being played by Western musicians in Shanghai with traditional Chinese folk music, with a traditionally Chinese (read: high pitched and somewhat nasal) singing style. Though his original intention was to spread a standardized form of the Mandarin language throughout China by teaching these simple songs to children, the tunes caught the public’s imagination and soon became ubiquitous.

Li’s brand of music was known as “yellow music” because many believed it to be pornographic and salacious, but before long, it was not only the sound emanating from risqué dancehalls, but was also the soundtrack to Shanghai’s burgeoning film scene.

As a young man, Li was known as a nationalist and patriot, but his success put him offside with both serious Nationalists and Communists. He was eventually persecuted to death during the Cultural Revolution in 1967. 


Zhou Xuan

Zhou Xuan was the most famous singer of Shanghai’s jazz era and was known as “Golden Voice”. An orphan, Zhou was passed from home to home until Li Junhui adopted her and made her the star of his (soon- to-be infamous) singing troupe at the age of 13.

Her career really took off with the launch of Shanghai’s film industry and she would often be the star of the show both on the screen and on the soundtrack of the era’s best- known films.

They say that success doesn’t equal happiness, and this was especially true for Zhou Xuan following the ascension of the Communist Party in 1949. She would spend the next decade in and out of mental institutions and her tumultuous life was marked by failed marriages, illegitimate children and suicide attempts before she finally succumbed to encephalitis in 1957 at the age of 39. 


Nie Er

When Nie Er was just a young musician fresh off the train from Yunnan, Li Junhui discovered him and trained him alongside his stable of starlets. Though he was something of a musical prodigy, Nie found it hard to concentrate on his music at first, and was living the good life in decadent 1930’s Shanghai.

That all changed when the Japanese attacked the city in 1931, Nie was caught up in the nationalist fervor, joined the Communist Party and denounced his mentor, Li, and his bourgeois musical ways.

Unfortunately for Nie, he would not live to see his beloved Communist Party take power. He drowned at the tender age of 23, but managed to leave a pretty major musical legacy before his death. His song, “March of the Volunteers”, is now better known as China’s national anthem. 



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