[JPL] Shanghai surprise
Jazz Promo Services
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Fri Oct 27 09:25:57 EDT 2006
Fascinating little volume on China's jazz age is a must-read for fans of the
Twenty years ago I visited Kunming city in Southwest China. For several
weeks I heard very little music and then, just as I was about to go through
a baggage check at the airport, a very familiar tune boomed out of the
facility's PA system: that most imperialistic of anthem's, Land of Hope and
Glory. It was a huge Mandarin language choral version and I have often
wondered how such a tune could have found its way past the Communist party
After reading Andre F Jones' impressive book, Yellow Music: Media, Culture
and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age (Duke University Press, USA,
2001), I have at last found some answers. Western music first arrived in the
early 1600s in China and a harpsichord was presented to the Emperor in 1601.
Jesuits brought hymns and choral works that have been assimilated and, well,
several hundred years later morphed into the revisionist version of Land of
Hope I heard at the airport.
Jones, an assistant professor of Chinese at the University of California, is
a specialist on Chinese popular culture. His main focus in this book is
charting the development of popular music in China by focusing on the
"Chinese jazz age" in Shanghai, that period during the 1920s and 1930s when
the city became the hottest musical spot in Asia.
Three key characters liven up the story: the African-American jazz musician
Buck Clayton, who later became a stalwart in Count Basie's Orchestra;
musician/composer Li Jinhui, who created "yellow" music from jazz and
Chinese folk melodies to create modern Chinese popular music; and Nie Er,
who began as a songwriter under Li Jinhui but later turned away from
sinified jazz to compose "revolutionary" music for socialist filmmakers. Nie
Er's composition March of the Volunteers went on to become the Chinese
The writer situates these three men in a Shanghai that is in turmoil as a
result of different factions vying for power, from Chiang-Kai Shek to
left-wing nationalists to power-broker and gangster Du Yu Sheng. It's
interesting to note how crime bosses and the birth of new music seem to go
hand in hand and not just in the USA; indeed, it was Sheng who "ordered" the
formation of Li Jinhui's The Clear Wind Dance Band in 1935.
Buck Clayton's experience in China mirrors that of Sydney Bechet in Paris -
both were received rapturously, without the evident racism they suffered in
their homeland. He and his band played the city's clubs and ballrooms before
their "engineered" dismissal.
But it is Li Jinhui's tragic story that I found the most fascinating. As
early as 1927, he was experimenting with Chinese folk tunes and Big Band
jazz, with the idea of creating not just a Chinese version of jazz but
Chinese jazz. Li also promoted the idea of a national language and was a
prolific composer of patriotic songs.
The irony is that despite Li's patriotic songs and commitment to promoting
Mandarin as the national language, his creation of "yellow music" brought
opprobrium from both ends of the political spectrum and he was branded a
"corruptor" of public morals. Jazz was considered a low decadent art form by
many of China's elite, a response similar to that of mainstream society in
the US during the early jazz era years of the 1920s. The Nazis and the
Japanese government in the 1930s and during WWII banned jazz music for the
same reasons. Li was hounded to his death during the Cultural Revolution, a
sad end to such a committed and creative musician.
While the focus is on music in Shanghai, Jones provides a wealth of detail
on the industry in the form of popular magazines and newspapers, records,
revues, cabarets, dance troupes (Li Jin Hui's daughter, one of the most
famous singers in Shanghai, was part of his dance troupe) and movies
(China's motion picture industry began shortly after the first public
screening in 1896 and music was an important part of movies by the 1930s).
To avoid a parochial approach to his research, Jones considers the influence
of Western colonialism and the American "culture" industry on the
development of Chinese popular music.
This is a fascinating book, attractively written with a wealth of
information on a complex subject. Jones is to be credited for managing to do
this in just 130 pages, and without the jargon that often bedevils books on
Some years ago I did some research on the rise of Japanese popular music and
came across again and again links to Li Jin Hui and the swinging Shanghai
scene. Japanese and Filipino jazz musicians learnt their trade in Shanghai
and exposure to "yellow music" certainly gave them ideas on how to create
similar music back in their home countries, and this spread like wildfire
across East and Southeast Asia. Was there a Thai-Shanghai connection in the
'30s, too, I wonder?
Jazz has returned to Shanghai after an absence of many years. This past May
I reported on the Miri Jazz Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia, where I enjoyed a
performance by the Shanghai Jazz Ensemble, who played a set of songs from
the 1920s and 1930s. The musicians were all in their twenties, technically
accomplished, and ready to carry the torch for a new generation of jazz
musicians in Shanghai. They also told me to get hold of Jones' book. It is
well worth reading.
This column can be contacted at: jclewley at loxinfo.co.th
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