Left to right: Jimbo, Andrew, and Tim (aka Little Lord Fauntleroy)
Last night I returned to the House of Blues and Jazz to catch the band they've currently booked for a three-month stint. I was hoping to get a chance to talk to some of the musicians about their backgrounds and why they came to Shanghai. With a little help from friends, that's what happened.
My friend Tim is in town, visiting from Beijing. He and Jimbo and I used to spend a lot of time together four years ago when I was up there running the Dartmouth program. Tim is one of those rarities--a white dude who grew up here in China and speaks and reads Chinese with unbelievable fluency. He's been getting jobs translating Chinese classics and his latest contract is for a translation of the classic novel Journey to the West (西游记). Not an easy job. I wish him luck.
Jimbo Szysko, swing dance king of Shanghai
Jimbo is an old friend who I met back in 2002 or 2003, when he first arrived in Shanghai from San Francisco, where he'd been working as a programmer. He'd gotten caught up in the swing dance craze and decided to bring it to China. He succeeded in doing so. For about two years, he ran a swing dance class and educated a mixture of local Chinese and foreigners. I interviewed him and filmed him and his classes for a film I was making on Shanghai's nightlife and I also took lessons with him for about six months (not that it shows). He was a fantastic teacher. I wish I'd been a better student. Eventually he realized that teaching China to swing wasn't a sustainable career and he moved on to other things, but some of his prize students took up the banner and have continued to operate a swing dance club in the city.
So I figured that Jimbo would enjoy the swinging band that was playing at the House of Blues and Jazz.
And he did.
He even danced a round, and later during the "open mike" session they have on Sunday nights, he substituted for Tony Hall (who I think was happy to take a break) and took up the drums. And he did well. I was proud of him.
At one point during a break in their session, I told Jimbo that I was hoping to talk to the band members and he obliged by going over to the keyboardist who was hanging at the bar and persuading him to join our table. Earl Phenix is his name, and he seemed a lot younger close-up than he did on the stage. Earl was happy to talk to us and tell us the story of how this band got together. Here's what I remember of the conversation:
Earl is from Cincinatti Ohio and he told us that he'd been "a big fish in a small pond" within that city's blues scene. Then he moved to Chicago and found that he wasn't such a big fish anymore. After a few months of hard training he finally dared to sit in on a few blues jams. Eventually he moved to Boston where he met Tony Hall. Both of them did a stint in Shanghai at House of Blues and Jazz in 2009 and they loved it. When an opening arose in the 2011 schedule, they jumped on it and put together this band, "Tony Hall's Blues Mission," which explains why I wasn't able to find any info on it online other than that they were playing at the House of Blues and Jazz. Timo Arthur, the guitarist, was substituting at a gig in Boston (I think) and they saw him play and immediately coralled him into the band. The fourth member is bass guitarist Kevin C.McElroy. Earl explained that it was hard to put together a band to play a three-month session in China, given that they had to leave their lives, families, loved ones, and their gigs back in Boston, but he was obviously elated to be here in Shanghai. He spoke highly of the club owner Lin Dongfu and the treatment they'd received, including their contract and housing. I didn't ask him for specifics on that, figured it wasn't appropriate, but he sounded happy with the deal they have to play at the club.
I highly recommend checking out this band. They've got a winning combination of heart, soul, and flare, and they play well together. This band is bursting with energy and good vibes. Bring your dancing shoes and come on down.
OK, Lin Dongfu, I've given you some free advertising, so next time I can expect a drink on the house?