Shanghai Nights of Blues and Jazz

Checking out the view of Pudong's Lujiazui district from the rooftop of the Roosevelt Building on the Bund

Shanghai has a reputation worldwide--or had one at least--as a Jazz Age metropolis.  Back in the 1920s and '30s, the city attracted great jazz musicians from all over China, Asia, Europe and the United States who played in dozens of ballrooms and nightclubs around the city.  Back in that age, jazz was an integral component of mainstream nightlife in the city, and it was meant for dancing.  Sometime between the 1950s and 1960s, while Shanghai was in the throes of Maoism, jazz in the Western world underwent a transformation, and so did dancing.  Jazz became divorced from the dance hall and became a more esoteric and "high brow" form of music meant to be listened to with great intensity (this was the age of Coltrane, Monk, Miles Davis) but not dance music.  Out of the ashes of the swing era, new forms of music emerged that would eventually be labeled "rock'n'roll".  This became the new dance music, and dancing become more of an individual, freestyle performance rather than partnered dancing with ready-made dance steps.  The 1960s gave birth to the twist, and then the lid was off the pot and the pot boiled over with all sorts of individual dances where you didn't need a partner to perform.  

Meanwhile, TV killed the ballroom dance hall as a social space--why go out and have fun when you can just sit at home glued to the Tube?  So dancing itself ceased to be a mass activity where everyone did it and knew the steps.  Instead, dancing was relegated to clubs and bars for young single people.  People stopped learning ballroom dances and settled in their living rooms, got fat and vegetated.  Young people didn't learn the great dances of earlier generations such as the Charleston, Fox-trot or Lindy Hop.  In fact, they didn't really learn how to dance at all.  They just thrashed about.  Then disco came around and a new wave of dancing was born.  China missed out on all of these trends, since the only dancing people were doing in the PRC were daily salutations to Chairman Mao and the Wonderful Communist Party, Savior of the Chinese nation.  Only Mao and his cohorts in the higher echelons of the Party could dance ballroom style.  

By the 1980s under the Deng regime and the "opening and reforms" policy, people in China were dancing again, but because they had missed out on all the trends in the West, they were still doing old-style ballroom dancing.  Then disco came to China in the 1990s with all the overseas businessmen and tourists, and young people learned to dance by themselves.  Discos and dance clubs became popular and the nightlife of Shanghai, Beijing, and other cities took off with a vengeance.  I was there to see it all.  So was my colleague James Farrer.  Together we're writing a book about the revival of nightlife in Shanghai since the 1980s.

One of the sections of our book will focus on live music clubs.  Naturally, China has followed Western trends and the discos and dance clubs that arose since the 1990s featured DJs and canned music blasted through uber-loud sound systems.  But some Westerners brought their instruments to China and some Chinese musicians took up their own instruments and headed into the Shanghai night.  I've been following the jazz scene since it started up in the mid-late 1990s at places like the Gap Restaurant (not to be confused with the clothing store) with people like Jake Alpern and Matt Roberts--my old Dartmouth classmate who blows the meanest trombone this side of the Pacific.  Matt moved back to Beijing and Jake moved out of China, but others moved in and set the scene on fire.  By the late '90s the city featured a few permanent jazz clubs.  There was the Cotton Club on the corner of Huaihai Road and Fuxing Road, which is still going strong under the stewardship of American guitarist Greg Smith, and its co-founder Matt Harding, guitarist and blues singer extraordinaire, is back in town too after a few years hiatus in Spain.   Matt "Cadillac" Cooper, another great guitarist and songman is another staple at that club, and over the years they've nurtured and cultivated a long list of local Chinese musicians, many of whom were recruited from the nearby Music Academy (yinyue xueyuan).  Coco Zhao was another musician who came out of that scene, and over the years he's developed a great repertoire of jazz songs and a more sophisticated singing style.  Down the road is the JZ Club, which started up in the early 2000s.  This jazz club attracts some of the top talent in the city.  

Tony Hall's Blues Mission performing on Friday August 12 at House of Blues and Jazz

Then there is the House of Blues and Jazz.  This is one of the oldest blues and jazz institutions in New Shanghai, having been around since the mid-90s (I still need to check on some details of the club's founding).  It used to be located on Sinan Road but has moved around and is now on Fuzhou Road near the Bund.  While the musical offerings at JZ Club are more diversified and localized, I have to say that the House of Blues and Jazz is a more comfortable place with more of an "Old Shanghai" feel to it, capitalizing on the nostalgia for the "Golden Age" of the 1920s-30s.  I've been on many site visits to this establishment over the years.  This club books musicians from abroad on three-month contracts, and they play nearly every night.  Over the spring, I was there for several performances by a New York-based New Orleans-style jazz band called Reggie’s Red Hot Feetwarmers.  They performed many a golden oldie and looked the part--they even had a bassist and a clarinetist.  Since returning from Seoul last week I've been back there a couple times.  Last Friday I was there for the latest band they've contracted, a Boston-based blues band called Tony Hall's Blues Mission.  The drummer Tony Hall shares the mic with the other band members who played a range of tunes including some great covers of James Brown and other soul tunes.  The guitarist Timo Arthur is a blues master and the keyboardist Earl "the Pearl" Phenix had an infernal energy.  

The crowd was mostly foreigners.  There was a mix of ages and colors in the audience but it tended towards the 40s-60s range, with several old timers strutting their stuff on the small dance floor in front of the stage, while most of the crowd watched or listened from tables and the bar.  One thing I like about the House of Blues and Jazz over the JZ club is that the arrangement of the place encourages dancing.  JZ pushes its tables right up to the stage, which is elevated giving the musicians a distance from the audience.  They are meant to be watched and worshipped, though people do dance in the upstairs balcony area.  But at the House of Blues and Jazz, a few people are almost always dancing right in front of the stage, which is almost at floor level connecting the musicians more intimately with the audience.  It's more like a cabaret from the early 20th century than a "jazz club", and many people dress up for the occasion, especially those who like to dance in front of the band and become part of the show.  I've heard mixed things about the owners of the club.  The frontman is an actor named Lin Dongfu but apparently his wife really runs the show.  What sort of contracts are these musicians given, and how do they enjoy coming here to Shanghai?  These are questions I intend to find answers to in the future.  But I hope that folks like Tony Hill and his band realize that they share in a legacy that goes back to the 1920s when the first jazz bands from America arrived on Shanghai's shores.  Jazz musicians like Jack Carter, Valaida Snow, Teddy Weatherford, and Buck Clayton kept the dance floors of this city smoking hot as the Shanghailanders raged on into the war years.  If they're interested in finding out more about that age I suggest they pick up a copy of my book Shanghai's Dancing World and read all about it.