By Terry Hsieh, Jazz Musician based in Beijing
Beijing’s underground music scene has been heralded as an epicenter of creativity in China: you can find everything, from dark noise, to grunge, rock, hip hop and avant garde jazz.
I’ve been a jazz musician in Beijing for nearly four years now.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing and even sometimes performing with some of the most amazing jazz headliners in Beijing, over the past few years: The Yellowjackets, Herbie Hancock, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Robin Eubanks, Jaleel Shaw, Snarky Puppy, Richard Sussman just to name a few.
There’s creative jazz music nearly every night of the week in Beijing: from jam sessions, where musicians congregate to play jazz standards and talk shop and network, to international headlining acts, where world famous musicians come to share their craft with the community. In July 2016, New York saxophone legend Antonio Hart, who spends time in China every year, quipped, after a workshop at Beijing’s East Shore Jazz Cafe: “Beijing cats don’t mess around!”
There’s also a sense of authenticity that resonates with many of the musicians here: “There’s a strong sense of Chinese culture and authenticity in Beijing, being a foreigner here you really experience that,” says Anthony Vanacore, a drummer from New York who’s been in Beijing for just a year. Traditional Chinese melodies infiltrate into the jazz idiom: musicians like guitarist Liu Yue and pianist Xia Jia have written modern jazz arrangements that include such melodies, reharmonizing and reworking them for piano trio with bass and drums, and even with horns and traditional Chinese instruments.
But most importantly (and concretely), there seems to be a community in Beijing that forms around jazz music– one that doesn’t necessarily exist in other music scenes in other places in China. On any given Tuesday, a crowd of jazz musicians descend on the jam session at Jiang Hu bar, an old traditional courtyard house that’s been converted to a performance space. It doesn’t feel like a New York session where the musicians are there to prove a point and call each other out, but a place where people are trying new ideas, patterns and concepts they’ve been practicing on their own, over jazz standards with a live band. Sometimes there’s a great crowd. Other times, the house is practically empty, but the band plays just the same. Despite the fact that they make about $30 a night, you’ll find the same guys coming back week after week. Do they need the money? Probably, but they’re also in it for the musical work out. Perhaps it suggests that a creative music scene can exist not just in spite of, but because of a lack of mainstream support. When you can make a lot of money playing a particular style or even song, it can affect your aesthetic judgment. In other words, it allows us to keep the main thing–the art–the main thing.
Terry’s blog is extracted from an article originally published in Forbes