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.
CHINA AND JAZZ
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
WORDS OF WYNTON
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
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?
BEIJING JAZZ SCENE
"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 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
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
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
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