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Vol. 20, no. 2
April/May 2017

 

China Groove 
Story By: Nate Chinen
Photos By: Aurélien Foucault

Chick Corea is deep in the zone, hands flying over the keys of a Yamaha grand. The illustrious jazz pianist has just begun his first set at the Blue Note jazz club with a vintage original, “500 Miles High,” and already he’s stretching the song’s horizons in a charged interplay with the drummer, Marcus Gilmore. Stage lights cast a purplish glow on both musicians as a sharp-dressed audience watches from lamplit tables. The scene suggests the upscale end of a major jazz cosmopolis—making it easy to forget, at least for a moment, that this is Beijing.

Almost dead center, in fact, in China’s capital city, on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square. Corea is here for the grand opening of the Blue Note Beijing, located in the basement of a building constructed as part of the American Legation in 1903. Renovated to the tune of $7 million, it’s a gleaming addition to the Blue Note Entertainment empire, which has its flagship club in New York and recently opened handsome outposts in Napa Valley and Waikiki.

Beyond that, the splashy arrival of a Blue Note signals a new chapter in the story of jazz in Beijing, which is very much a work in progress. Corea nodded to that fact during a preshow press conference at which he gave the club’s Chinese owners and management team a friendly word of advice: “Make a vibe here,” he said, “where the local musicians and the local audiences can hang out and feel comfortable. That’s how you build a club that can live.”

That press conference also featured a brief performance by A Bu, a 16-year-old pianist from Beijing who recently won the prestigious Montreux Jazz Piano Solo Competition. A former child prodigy, A Bu is now in the pre-college program at Juilliard in New York while also touring internationally behind his second album, Butterflies Fly in Pairs. Slender and serious, in glasses and a black dress shirt, he plays a sparkling, rangy original to a round of generous applause.

“It’s growing every day now,” A Bu says of his hometown’s jazz habitat during a brief conversation in the club. He’s quick to add that there’s room for improvement, especially when it comes to audience development: “Most Chinese, I have to say, they do not know what is jazz.”

But the mere fact of A Bu’s emergence on the global stage points to a little-known fact: There’s already a jazz scene in Beijing, as I discover during a weeklong immersion. Small but bustling, that scene is now approaching a turning point, and the Blue Note will surely play a role in the changes ahead. Meanwhile a handful of resourceful musicians have been making a go of it in ways that embody the creative energy and cosmopolitan flair of this teeming city. To borrow Corea’s term, their Beijing has a vibe.

If there’s one general impression any visitor takes away from contemporary Beijing, it’s the everyday contrast between old and new. You can’t help but notice it during a cab ride along one of the city’s clogged highways, eyeing the skyline through a scrim of smog. Blocky relics of brute Maoist industrialism brush up against architectural statement pieces like Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy SOHO tower, a marvel of fluid curvature, or the China Central Television headquarters, a torqued, rectangular arch with a colloquial nickname that translates to “big boxer shorts.”

The duality of ancient and modern exists at street level, too, especially in and around the hutong neighborhoods, where the narrow alleys and crumbling courtyards date back to the thirteenth-century Yuan dynasty. Meandering through these districts, with their fabric shops, food stalls and random residential commotion, is a quintessential Beijing experience. My own wandering hutong exploration brings me into contact not only with trinket and souvenir peddlers but also past mobile phone kiosks, a neighborhood mahjong tournament and into the Slow Boat Brewery Taproom, where sustenance comes in the form of a Monkey’s Fist IPA.

It feels fitting, in a way, that the Beijing jazz scene is so interwoven with the hutongs, which manage to wrangle a massive urban topography down to casual human scale. Two of the city’s leading jazz rooms actually inhabit former siheyuan, traditional courtyard houses: Jianghu Bar, a laid-back hangout on Dong Mian Hua Hutong; and Dusk Dawn Club, more commonly known as DDC, about ten minutes away on foot. Both attract a vibrant young audience, partly by booking rock and folk acts along with jazz groups. But it’s not as if jazz isn’t capable of drawing a crowd there: The Tuesday jam session at Jianghu is always packed, and when I pop into DDC on a random Monday, the performance space and courtyard bar are at peak capacity for Jasmine Chen, a sure-footed vocalist from Shanghai, singing standards in English with a local rhythm section.

North of the Forbidden City, in a part of town still crisscrossed by hutongs, is where you’ll find the East Shore Live Jazz Café, the leading jazz club in Beijing and maybe the most important in all of China. It can be found up a narrow flight of stairs amid a huddle of unpretentious buildings near the Jinding Bridge on Houhai Lake. From inside, large picture windows overlook the lake and the reflection from lights on the opposite shore. The room is packed on this autumnal Saturday evening, with a crowd composed of local twenty- and thirty-somethings. A few muted conversations are under way, but most of the room is tuned in to the music—listening intently, and with good reason.

They’re hearing Xu Zhihan, a 22-year-old guitarist, lead a quartet of local jazz stalwarts: Xia Jia on piano, Ji Peng on bass and Bei Bei on drums. The music is sophisticated and sleek—a startlingly close approximation of what I might hear back home in New York. At one point the band segues from a Joe Henderson tune, arranged in a lilting odd meter, to an original with a luminous chord progression and an easy-drift groove. Xu Zhihan solos with low-key poise, hanging behind the beat as he spins variations on the theme. Xia Jia is even more impressive, reeling off piano improvisations that are soulful, harmonically forward and marked by painterly restraint. In my notebook I scribble a snap judgment: “Any scene would be lucky to have him.” 

After the set, the musicians and various friends head up to the roof deck, where Xia Jia lights a cigarette and reflects in English on the state of jazz in Beijing. “Even if it’s a small scene, I still like here,” he says. “At this venue, East Shore, we can play whatever we want. Sometimes the audiences are very noisy, but there are always some people really interested in the music.” Born and raised in a small western village, Xia Jia moved to Beijing precisely thirty years ago, at age 12, to study classical piano in a conservatory. He turned on to jazz in the mid-’90s, during the music’s first tentative bloom in China.

“At that time it was really hard to find any jazz records,” he says, recalling one prize acquisition: the 1989 self-titled debut by the Chick Corea Akoustic Band. “I listened to that one album for such a long time,” he says. “Endlessly. Because that’s the only thing I had.”

Liu Yuan has the gracious but quietly intense demeanor of a man accustomed to making things happen. He’s the owner of East Shore, where we talk over drinks one evening on the roof deck, with translation help from Nathaniel Gao, a Chinese-American alto saxophonist who arrived here from the States a decade ago, the same year that the club opened.

Thirty years ago Liu Yuan, a saxophonist himself, became one of the first prominent Chinese musicians to play jazz. He’d been trained on his father’s instrument, the suona, a double-reed horn common in the music of the northern provinces. He toured internationally with a traditional folk troupe, but his main gig, then as now, was with Cui Jian, a massively popular singer-songwriter known as the father of Chinese rock.

China was gradually opening to Western culture in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, but unlike Shanghai, a port city where trade and commerce have always sustained a vibrant nightlife, Beijing had few live music venues. For a while the only places to play jazz were a French restaurant and some hotel bars in the embassy district, where foreigners made up most of the clientele.

But in the mid-’90s Liu Yuan began playing at a bar called CD Café, eventually turning it into Beijing’s first dedicated jazz club. He was the club’s manager and main attraction, working with a handful of other early jazz adopters like the bassist Huang Yong and the pianist Kong Hong Wei, commonly known as Golden Buddha. In time Liu Yuan mentored a second wave of Chinese jazz musicians, including Xia Jia, Bei Bei and another drummer, Xiao Du.

A decade ago, seeking more independence, Liu Yuan left the CD Café and opened East Shore. “For the last twenty years, with all of these places, I’ve been trying to maintain a place for real jazz exclusively,” he says. “There has been some financial pressure. It’s still worth it.” Like most musicians I meet in Beijing, he characterizes the scene as motivated more by art than commerce—an explicit contrast to Shanghai, where there’s plenty of work but in a less creative vein, and the audiences are likelier to talk over the music.

Liu Yuan used to play regularly at East Shore, but he recently retired from performing, choosing to give over his spots to younger players. It’s a good sign that there’s enough available talent to keep the calendar fresh. A few bands, like one led by the guitarist Liu Yue, maintain weekly residencies, but every weekend is different. And already there have been nights when musicians working at the Blue Note turn up for an after-hours hang at East Shore. 

Still, Westerners don’t exert the level of influence they once did, more or less by default. The trombonist Matt Roberts, who first came to Beijing as a student in the late ’80s, recalls forming one ragtag early group with Chinese musicians playing folk instruments like the suona and the sheng, a reedy mouth organ. “We just kind of made it up as we went along,” he says. “I had about ten cassette tapes, and I kept loaning them out.”

The situation is drastically different for a newer wave of American expats like Gao, who grew up in Iowa City, and the trombonist and composer Terence Hsieh, who was born in Durham, North Carolina and studied at Oberlin Conservatory. Both are pillars of the scene, but they work on more or less equal footing with their Chinese counterparts, in a mutual exchange. “I’m pretty optimistic about the scene,” says Hsieh, “and part of it is that we now have a lot of guys who went to study in Europe or New York, and they’re coming back to Beijing after getting their undergraduate or master’s degrees. They’re bringing back whatever is happening in New York, direct to Beijing.” 

One of the first musicians to follow this path was Xia Jia, who got his bachelor’s in jazz studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. When he headed to the States in 1998, he was in some respects a pioneer. He recently decided to further his training at a master’s program in the Netherlands, where Bei Bei and Xiao Du have also studied. The trend stretches well beyond their peer group and beyond the urban center of Beijing. “This year I met some gifted Chinese musicians studying abroad who I never knew before,” marvels Xia Jia. “This is a very good thing.” 

Jazz has long been seen as a beacon of freedom in repressive political climates, from Eastern Europe under Stalinist rule to South Africa in the age of apartheid. During the Cold War the US State Department routinely sent jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck on tour as goodwill ambassadors. The political allegory is clear, but it also reinforces a simple binary that every Chinese jazz musician I encounter takes pains to disavow.

“Jazz, for me—it’s not politicized,” Liu Yuan says. “It was just a new method of expression. So in that sense it does represent freedom on a personal level.”

Hsieh has written articles about the misattribution of political motive among Chinese musicians. “Some very smart people, academics and such, assume that jazz must be an instigator of democracy in China,” he says at his apartment, in a hip hutong neighborhood near the Gulou, a nearly 750-year-old drum tower. “It’s a double standard, not just in jazz but with art in general. The West supports art in China that reflects a revolutionary narrative or protests against the government. But there are a lot of other ways to frame whatever’s happening here.” 

Our conversation continues over dinner at Hsieh’s favorite restaurant, in the central business district, a place whose name translates to My Soup, with a Cantonese pork-and-scallop hot pot that I won’t soon forget. The southern fare is a taste of home for Hsieh, whose parents are from Hong Kong. It’s also a reminder that Beijing is, like Los Angeles or New York, a chowhound’s dream: For the intrepid, myriad regional cuisines can be found in an authentic expression. One afternoon in the 798 Art Zone, a sprawling old industrial district whose Bauhaus-style military factories have been reclaimed as contemporary galleries, I drop into Xiao Wan Shi Tang, a venerable but no-frills Sichuan restaurant, and procure a killer bowl of sliced beef in glistening chili oil.

Of course, no trip to Beijing is complete without a feast of Peking duck, the imperial court delicacy turned longtime tourist-trap staple. The dish’s culinary cachet has recently been rejuvenated by celebrity chefs like Dong Zhenxiang, who serves a next-level take on the dish—roasted, at his insistence, with the wood of local pear and peach trees—at Da Dong Roast Duck, perhaps the most rarefied high-end restaurant in the city. I don’t feel comfortable rounding up a posse of local jazz musicians for such a splurge, so it’s fortunate that my research leads me to Taste of Dadong. The restaurant, a recent addition to Dong Zhenxiang’s elite portfolio, is tucked away in the Parkview Green Mall, a chic, glass-faced pyramid that won sustainability awards when it opened in 2012.

Taste of Dadong fits right into this matrix with a cool, Zen-minimalist décor. My lunch entrée is preceded by a plank of what amounts to Chinese pupu—steamed edamame, boiled peanuts, water chestnuts and a superb duck soup. Then, the main event: half of a sliced duck breast, the meat tender and succulent and the skin shatteringly crisp. It’s spectacular, almost too good to mar with condiments. No doubt whatsoever: This is one of the best meals to be had in Beijing.

In a way, Taste of Dadong is a reminder of the uptick of wealth and spending power in Beijing, which has had a limited impact on jazz musicians. A couple of years ago the splashiest jazz club in Beijing—Yue Fu, a pet project of the successful nightlife entrepreneur Leon Lee—was forced to close within a year because of insufficient revenue. There are guarded hopes that the Blue Note Beijing, which is owned by a Chinese company in a licensing agreement, will fare much better.

“It takes time to build the tourist business,” says Steve Bensusan, the president of Blue Note Entertainment, after walking me through the club’s impressive, spare-no-expense facilities. “But that’s what we’re striving for: the international traveler, the business traveler. We also want to expose people to the music. We’re making a big splash in the hope that it filters down.”

Xu Zhihan, the guitarist, has a twin brother: Xu Zhitong, who plays drums. They’re both studying jazz at conservatories in Germany, where the tuition and cost of living are cheaper than in New York. As a result, they speak broken English with an unusual accent, partly German and partly Chinese. 

We’re sitting in a booth at Jianghu Bar with Matt Roberts, the trombonist, who’s about to play a gig with his band. At one point I ask Roberts to explain the difference between the Beijing scene now as opposed to in the early ’90s, before Xu Zhihan and Xu Zhitong were born. “Oh, it’s very easy,” he replies. “You’re sitting next to two phenomenal musicians. And when I first arrived, foreign musicians knew how to play jazz, and Chinese musicians didn’t. It was very one-sided. Now the number of really exceptional Chinese jazz musicians is much, much larger.”

The generational transfer of knowledge, which has always been the gold standard in jazz, plays out neatly in the story of the twins: Xu Zhihan learned to play jazz guitar by studying with Liu Yue, whose drummer was Xu Zhitong’s teacher, Bei Bei. Unlike their elders, they’ve been familiar with jazz for about as long as they’ve been playing music. 

Their experience in Europe has been formative, and neither is sure about whether he’ll come back to Beijing for good. But they’re still an active part of the city’s scene, and its health is something they think about. “This is a good time for Chinese jazz,” Xu Zhitong says decisively. “Everything is better. Every year is better. More students learning, more people wanting to go to another country to get more information.”

After our conversation I stick around for the first half-hour of Roberts’ set, which involves confident arrangements of post-bop fare. Then I head out into the night, picking up a youtiao (the Chinese version of a cruller) to nibble while I walk down Minhua Hutong in the direction of East Shore. My thoughts turn to the unseen pressures on the jazz culture of Beijing: a perpetual challenge of audience outreach, the brain drain of talented youngsters like the Xu brothers and A Bu, even the forces of gentrification that threaten to replace the rickety hutongs with shiny high-rises.

But soon I’m on a bar stool at East Shore, listening to the Xia Jia Trio with Ji Peng on bass and Xu Zhitong on drums. Their set unfolds as a mix of smart originals and jazz standards in a meditative but deeply swinging style. It’s casual but entirely compelling, as strong a performance as I could hope for, and it snaps me back to the moment at hand.

At the same time, I’m reminded of something Xia Jia said about the future, as it pertains to the jazz scene in Beijing: “I think in a few years, if you look back at this moment, you will see that it was when everything changed, in some big step. I can feel that.” 

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