After a long hibernation, the live music scene is thriving in China's hippest city, with a host of new jazz and blues clubs, writes Tessa Thorniley.
Standing next to a white piano, between the colonial pillars of a dimly lit lounge on Shanghai’s Bund, Coco Zhao purrs into his microphone. “All you couples at the back, come closer!” he says, drawing listeners around him for a playful but assured rendition of Cole Porter’s songbook. Dressed in black, with an impish trilby, Coco is the face of Shanghai’s jazz renaissance, a sudden blooming of live music after decades of hibernation under communist rule.
Jazz clubs are multiplying across the city at a rate not seen since the decadent 1930s, when Shanghai was Asia’s most glamorous city, bustling with everything from big-band dancehalls to Viennese showgirls. Once again, Shanghai is an essential stop on the circuit. George Benson and Al Jarreau recently wowed Chinese audiences at a sell-out, one-off gig at the 1600-seater Yun Feng Theatre, and late last year Gilles Peterson, the British world music and acid jazz DJ, drew a large crowd at the annual JZ music festival organised by the city’s most committed jazz venue, the JZ Club.
But much of the talent is homegrown, and Coco, whose tremulous voice and ambiguous sexuality hide years of classical training, is leading the way.
At clubs across the city, he improvises in English and in Chinese, helping to create a scene in which Western and local performers are feeding audiences everything from Dixieland to fusions of Chinese folk songs with swing beats.
Shanghai’s colonial past is the perfect backdrop for jazz, and couples are once again ballroom dancing at the Art Deco Paramount Ballroom. Coco has his night, 4Play, at Lounge 18, inside the neoclassical former Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China on the Bund, built in 1923.
A rickshaw ride north along the waterfront, in the former warehouse district of Hongkou, is Chinatown, the creation of skateboarder-turned-burlesque promoter and nightclub designer Norman Gosney and his showgirl wife, Amelia Kallman.
Gosney, who was born in Bristol, England, made his name importing skateboards into the United Kingdom in 1975 before moving to New York, taking up residency in the Chelsea Hotel and opening the Slipper Room, the club that sparked the burlesque boom.
The couple moved to Shanghai in 2007. “Burlesque had become a dirty word in NYC,” Amelia explains, “mainly because it wasn’t being performed well.
“It’s about telling a story, it has to be clever, to be funny. It’s not just about taking your clothes off.”
Chinatown’s eagerly anticipated opening is scheduled for early April and the duo have hired Joey Altruda, who helped score the movies Swingers and LA Confidential, to be their musical director. Also on board is a burly American, Frank Bray, who looks like a rugby player but croons “like Sinatra at his best”, according to Gosney.
The club itself is a former Buddhist temple, now tricked out like a Victorian theatre, with private boxes, footlights, trap doors and red velvet draped across every surface. Miss Amelia, a former Shakespearean actress, will put together a floor show, calling on the expertise of her multi-ethnic burlesque troupe, the Chinatown Dolls.
Further north still, in Shanghai’s Moganshan Lu art district, is a monthly gathering run by one of Coco’s pianists, the American Steve Sweeting, who set up a residency inside the Two Cities Gallery and plays everything from bossa nova to music from the central Chinese province of Hunan to a crowd who come to sip tea and wine.
Sweeting, whose collaborations with the soft and sensuous-sounding Chinese chanteuse Jasmine Chen have been likened to the work of the 1970s Broadway duo Barbara Cook and Wally Harper, draws a dedicated crowd of enthusiasts to an elegant and whitewashed space so intimate that microphones and amplification are unnecessary. For such simple instrumentation, Sweeting manages to create a huge range of sounds and tempos that provide a swinging backdrop to Shanghai’s night scene.
Acoustic jazzhounds are also making their way to the Melting Pot, the newest venue in a chain of three across the city, situated in the heart of the French Concession on Hengshan Road next to the down-at-heel Can Can bar.
Ruby Hsiao, Shanghai’s jazz matron, insists her bar is “all about the music” and is maternally protective of her house band, a jazz and blues outfit called Keepers of Swing, led by charismatic New York old-timer Ronnie Williams, currently Shanghai’s most sought-after drummer.
Bigger venues are also opening at an exponential rate. One enthusiastic Chinese fan sketched a “jazz map” on the back of a napkin to show just how much good music it is possible to cram into one night in the city. Almost all of his seven must-see venues have opened in the past six months.
Brown Sugar, a Taiwanese import, has quickly carved a niche for itself despite having only opened in December. Situated among the converted stone shikumen houses of Xintiandi, the swanky club is not faithful to any particular genre, but is packed out on most nights with glamorous Chinese, foot-tapping to the jazz and blues on offer from the All Stars house band. On the night I drop by, a celebrity guest singer from Taipei, David Huang, has packed the place with executives and artists from Shanghai’s pop scene. Huang is best known as a hit composer for Asian stars but nevertheless flits from atmospheric melodies to grander, bolder arrangements of what is more pop than jazz.
Finally there is Cabaret, a new club on the Bund around the corner from the Shanghai mainstay, House of Blues and Jazz, a sexier, plusher affair with a cut-crystal bar from which to order your bellinitinis. Helen Krenn, an American Fulbright scholar, is an experimental musician whose style of singing behind the beat has drawn comparisons with the late Betty Carter, who used to sing with Ray Charles. Sometimes playful, sometimes soft and sensual, she interprets the American songbook with a mixture of vulnerability and defiance.
Although the city’s newest venues are creating the biggest buzz, a music-fuelled session in Shanghai is never complete without a night at the JZ jazz hub, where all the artists mentioned here still play regularly.
It’s a venue that combines a serious approach to music with a party atmosphere and is always on the lookout for the freshest talent in town.
Shanghai’s famously fickle nightlife doesn’t let the grass grow under its feet. But, for now anyway, most toes are tapping to the same beat.—