Jazz speaks to the soul of China

In 1935, Shanghai gang boss Du Yu Sheng (his mob was called the Green Gang) ordered musicians on his turf to create an all-Chinese jazz band, the first of its kind: the Clear Wind Dance Band. Today, in the Peace Hotel on the Shanghai Bund, 70-year-old veterans in impeccable dinner suits recreate the jazz of the 1930s and 1940s for tourists.

For most people outside the country who have any knowledge at all of jazz in China, that is probably where it ends. But, according to pianist Xia Jia, “even though it is slow, more and more people are coming to listen to original jazz in Beijing, and more places are opening up”.

Xia was born in Beijing, and early musical promise (his mother was his first teacher) seemed to be mapping out a career for him in classical music.

He graduated from the Central Music Academy, majoring in conducting, “but I was looking for different kinds of music, even then”, he said.

Xia started to play jazz in the mid-1990s. “There were already some guys playing jazz in Beijing. Mostly standards—and, even today, people mostly play standards. That’s what you will hear in hotels if you visit. You must remember, this was before the internet and before online music stores, so what we heard was limited. But Beijing is an international city and, I guess, through foreigners—journalists, students, people from embassies—we heard the music and both players and listeners got interested.”

Jazz offered Xia a new approach to creating music. “When you play jazz,” he said on the website Ninegates.com.cn, “you are a player and a composer at the same time — you get to break all the rules [of classical music] — Every time you pick up the instrument, the sound is unique to that time, place and state of mind.”

Xia studied jazz in New York, working with the New York Voices and studying at the Eastman School of Music, under Harold Danko, before returning to Beijing. “While I was in America,” he said, “I studied 20th-century music history. I dis­covered minimalism: the work of people like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich. The uses of space and silence really appealed to me, and that is what I am trying to do in my music.”

It is in that contemplative mood that Xia locates the national character of his music. “China is huge, with many different nationalities and musics, each one very distinct, with different harmonies and progressions. Of course, I hear sounds of China all around me in the city but I couldn’t hope to take in all those traditions. However, the Chinese philosophy of music seems to relate a lot to minimalism, and the pentatonic structure of much jazz is found also in many Chinese folk musics.”

Closing the gap
Xia has led several ensembles and played keyboards for rock star Cui Jian (“I really admire him. He’s a good musician and has stayed a star for over 20 years.”). He tours overseas and has worked with French experimental trumpeter Eric Truffaz. As well as teaching, composing and appearing at Beijing’s annual Nine Gates Jazz Week, his base is the increasingly well-known East Shore Bar.

Huang Yong, a bass player who is the father of the Nine Gates Festival, told China Radio International that he felt that “the gap between the jazz music made by Chinese musicians and by musicians from other countries is not as wide as that in the pop -music category”.

We saw that on Saturday when a South African audience responded well to Xia’s work. He returned the compliment by borrowing inspiration from our landscape. “Most of this material is new,” Xia said to the crowd. “It doesn’t have titles. But I have just visited the Cape, so beautiful, so I think I will call that last tune The Cape of Good Hope.”

Visit our special report online for the best coverage from the festival:
- Gwen Ansell’s festival wrap-up
- Our video featuring best moments of the festival
- A slideshow, including takes from Lauryn Hill’s “killing them softly” performance

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