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  Beijing Scene



Be-Bop in Beijing
by Chris Lew
Acclaimed African-American jazz saxophonist Wynton Marsalis brings his band to Beijing

The sound is unmistakable. The notes played just slightly out of time, the beat that you just can't help tapping your foot to and an outpouring of the soul that either grabs you by the collar or just softly takes you by the hand, leading you to places you never knew before.

It's jazz, a word that means so many different things but in the end comes back to just two simple ideas: freedom and harmony.

Due to its complexity, even in the U.S., its birthplace, jazz is far from the most popular form of music. Indeed, it's more like fine wine, requiring time to bring out its intricate flavors. Also, it's a very young form of music, only about a century old, and almost completely developed within the boundaries of the United States. Therefore, one of jazz's greatest challenges is to make itself understood on a global scale, especially to those areas that barely have an inkling of what this music has to say.

Although bringing jazz to the PRC has proven to be a long process of failure and success, the motivation has remained the same.

"Why would you not want your message to reach the largest population in the world?" Rob Gibson, executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, asks. "Culturally and artistically, that's the most meaningful thing you can do."

This conviction, shared by Gibson and concert organizers in Beijing, has been the driving force behind a two-year effort to bring a major jazz act to China. On February 15 and 16, all the plans and talks pay off as Jazz at Lincoln Center World Tour 2000, featuring world-famous jazz star Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, comes to the Century Theater in Beijing. While in town, Marsalis and the band will also be conducting lectures and workshops on jazz, and offering "Jazz for Young People" concerts.

By no means will this be Beijing's first brush with world-class jazz. Since 1993, the International Jazz Festival has been held every year in Beijing and other major cities in China.

At first glance, it's hard to imagine anything more incongruous than jazz and China. Jazz is a fledgling, all-American creation with a focus on individual expression and unplanned outbursts of emotion. China, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, stresses conformity and strict adherence to tradition. It would seem the two have no business being together.

But many Beijingers beg to differ.

"Every developing country goes through stages of musical appreciation," says Chen Jixin, executive vice president of China National Culture and Art Company, the organization that organized the Marsalis concert.

"At first (fans) want traditional things like opera and classical music. Then their tastes mature so they are ready to accept more variety," Chen says. "To continue its musical development, China needs to be exposed to new styles, especially jazz because it exemplifies such a high standard of quality and craftsmanship."

And who better to help with the process than Wynton Marsalis--whose extensive modern jazz repertoire merges seamlessly with his solid foundation in classical music.

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1961, Marsalis began classical training at age 12. Five years later he attended New York City's Juilliard School, one of the world's most famous music conservatories, and later joined famous jazz artist Art Blakey's band the Jazz Messengers. Marsalis began his solo musical career as a bandleader in 1982. In the past 18 years he has produced 30 jazz and classical recordings and won eight Grammy awards. Marsalis has also taken on the role of teacher and mentor as he lobbies continually for music education and conducts classes on jazz appreciation for fans of all ages and backgrounds. His role as an American ambassador is unquestioned, a fact which has been underscored most recently when he was named one of "America's 25 Most Influential People" by Time magazine.

Marsalis, who will be holding his first concert in China next week, says his objective is to go beyond simply performing music.

"Jazz is a music that reaches everyone who hears it," says Marsalis. "It is swinging and soulful, and it makes people feel good, and we want to share that with the people of China. We also want to share the spirit of American music with the people of China, and we want to learn more about their culture and music too. The 20th century was defined by communication and the 21st century will be defined by integration, so it is crucial that we embark on this type of cultural exchange."

Youthful and erudite, Marsalis has all of the necessary ingredients to be an effective ambassador, his hosts in Beijing say.

"He's not like a typical star," says Chen about her meeting with Marsalis after a performance in New York last year. "He's very ordinary and he never demands special treatment. He acts like he's everyone's equal and he doesn't want to stand out. In fact, the first words he said to me were that he wanted to go to China to see and be with the people."

Other Beijingers appreciate what Marsalis himself symbolizes.

"He brings with him the tradition and history of real jazz," says Liu Yuan, a local alto/tenor saxophone player and owner of CD Cafe Jazz Club. "The struggle of African-Americans and the legacy of their music is something that Chinese people should know about."

The legacy Marsalis will share with Chinese audiences next week will be that of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, one of the most revered innovators in American jazz history.

To most jazz fans, Ellington represents something larger than life, an icon that defies human constraints. He was one of the most prolific bandleaders to ever wave a baton. That he was able to compose over 2,000 songs and sell albums 50 years straight puts today's fad-driven, one-hit-wonder bands to shame.

"This is the perfect time to play Ellington's music," says Marsalis. "And we know that the Chinese people will be amazed at the sheer power and range of expression that exists in his music."

But can all of this really strike a chord with Beijingers and China in general? In a country where students wake up to the "East is Red" every morning and the Carpenters top karaoke bar request lists, does jazz stand a chance?

"A lot of Chinese just want easy rhythms and ordinary music so jazz is hard for a lot of them to accept," says Chen. "We don't have a lot of people here who can appreciate what jazz has to offer. When I first heard it I couldn't understand it either. This changed after I heard the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra play. I hope it will do the same to others."

Jazz bar owner Liu says he believes it might take another 10 years before the general populace is ready to embrace jazz. Both agreed that it is still too early for a jazz revolution, but in the same breath they were eager to discuss the possibilities.

"China wants international and foreign ideas, especially music," says Liu. "I believe that if you offer it there will be an audience."

He cites his club, which opened almost five years ago, as an example. At first only foreigners came to see the live acts, performed mainly by Chinese jazz artists, but now half the audience are locals. With the demand for jazz came calls for variety. Liu's club now offers live blues and reggae as well.

"I think Chinese people are attracted to jazz because it has rules, boundaries that you must work within to create harmony. But within those lines you have such freedom that you can make people forget that those limits even exist," says Liu.

Another popular venue for jazz in Beijing is the New Orleans's-style Big Easy Bar and Restaurant near Chaoyang Park.

"Before I came I was afraid about the audience's response," says Louis Ball, pianist for the Big Easy's house band. "I wondered if they would understand or wanted to hear (jazz). But now that I'm here and the longer that I stay, I can see that they're very receptive. I can hear it in their voices and applause, see it in their expressions and the way they react to the music."

The jazz scene in Beijing, which began with a few token CD peddlers with the occasional jazz album, has now spawned jazz bars, shows (including last summer's Heineken Festival, China's first open-air concert) and music shops stocked with volumes of relatively obscure artists.

Getting Marsalis to Beijing wasn't easy, says Chen, who first approached the Lincoln Center in 1998 at the International Association of Performing Arts Fair.

"At that time we couldn't do anything for a lot of reasons. For instance, the musicians weren't sure if they had the time. They didn't have any idea about Chinese jazz, and the costs were more than we could afford," Chen says.

In fact, compact disc recordings of Jazz at the Lincoln Center weren't even released in China because the parent corporation, Sony, didn't think there was a market in China. Then there were other concerns: Would Chinese fans be able to afford the concert? Who would pay for the performance fees and airfare?

"We talked to them three times," says Chen. "And finally I told them, China will make time and find a way to make this performance happen. In 1999, we got them to check their schedule and give us a date. We were so proud. This is very huge for us to get something that's so pure with no pop element."

In the end, both sides compromised for the good of artistic expression. Sony agreed to pay the performance fees and cover part of the airfare.

"This is a chance for the Chinese people to experience the real deal in jazz," says Danny California, music director at the Big Easy Bar and Restaurant and drummer for the house band. "I think they're dying to hear authentic jazz, not only for the sound but to experience it live because that's where the real inspiration comes from. It will help them grow musically and I believe it will inspire them in the same the way it inspired me."

Leave it to Marsalis to explain it this way: "We know that our experience in China will enrich our lives and everything we play in the future. Like the famous be-bop saxophone player Charlie Parker said, 'If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn.'"

Under Marsalis' musical direction, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra plays the music of Duke Ellington, Tuesday, February 15 and Wednesday February 16 at Beijing's Century Theater, Sino-Japanese Youth Center.

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