State Dinner Jazz Concert: The Long Road from Kenny G

Just under the wire, this note from Nicholas Charles Bouloukos, a jazz pianist and conductor now working in China, is too interesting not to share while the Hu Jintao visit is still more or less newsworthy. Bouloukos explains how the White House choice of a jazz-centric music program for last week's State Dinner matches developments in China itself:

>>Thank you for reporting on the important subtext behind the musical programming at the State Dinner. In the West we first see the foreground, but in Asia it is usually the background and larger picture that is often first recognized.... [Chinese leadership] will surely understand the message of the musical programming at the State Dinner, while Western media will not only miss the point but spend five thousand times the effort discussing Michelle's dress.

But you might not be aware of another level of reasoning behind the choice of performers. Shanghai of course has a long jazz history, and in the past ten years we have seen a jazz renaissance in Shanghai and greater China that mirrors the country's financial ascendancy. 

Kenny-G.jpgI first came to Asia in 1996, and at that time jazz equaled Kenny G for the greater part of humanity in this part of the world. In 2000, on my first gig in mainland China, I was often asked by serious Chinese classical musicians how I could improvise at great length on the piano without having any music in front of me. When I responded that I was playing jazz, the responses more or less were variations of this one theme: "But jazz is saxophone music!" [Kenny G photo -- helpfully supplied by me, not Bouloukos -- is from here.]

In 2002 I came to Shanghai to play at the House of Blues and Jazz, which is still one of the best jazz clubs anywhere in the world. At that time the local musicians could play some funk tunes ("Cantaloupe Island," "Watermelon Man," and "Chameleon," all by Herbie Hancock) and perhaps a vaguely Ellingtonesque version of "Caravan." My bass player at that time was Ren Yu Qing, formerly the bassist of China's only rock god, Cui Jian, and at that time a new convert to the music of jazz. [JF note: Watermelon Man, with Hancock on the piano, was in fact the opening number at the State Dinner concert.]   

Fast forward to 2011. Ren Yu Qing's JZ Group, which includes the JZ Club and JZ School, have for five years produced increasingly hip jazz festivals of international caliber. Last year's headliner was Diane Reeves (with Mr. Martin on piano). Dee Dee Bridgewater headlined the 2009 JZ Music Festival, and I was privileged to conduct and play piano for the performance with our JZ Big Band [YouTube here and here -- with Bridgewater plus Bouloukos on the piano.] Dee Dee and Herbie both performed at the Shanghai EXPO last summer as well, in concert with the students of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. These two dynamic ladies and others of heir caliber are not just great performers, they are true ambassadors of a great American art form; and as ambassadors they have largely been welcomed warmly and enthusiastically by not only the Chinese cultural authorities but by the general public as well.
As much as cultural control does exist on dozens of levels in China (I had to use a VPN just to access Youtube and give you the correct links to the Dee Dee videos -- annoying, yes, but in China there's always more than one way to get something done), jazz has been blessed, albeit tacitly, by the government. The scene in Shanghai does not yet rival Tokyo's, but as someone who has worked in Japan for many years, I can say we're not that far from reaching that level of global hipness.

New York is of course the center of the jazz universe, but at any given Saturday night at JZ Club in Shanghai there are thirty to forty serious, world-class musicians from the U.S., Europe, Brazil, Mauritius, Africa and Japan. Many of the cats here also work in New York and return for performances several times per year (myself included). We have titanic tenors, killer trumpeters, dynamic drummers, and pianists that would make Willie "The Lion" Smith crack a smile. The scene is growing, and more cats come here every month to set up shop and pursue a degree of musical freedom they are not finding in their home countries. To put the level of the scene in simple context, when Dee Dee ran through her first number with us at rehearsal ("Shiny Stockings), she took a dramatic pause and looked at me and said, "You cats aren't foolin' around, are you?"

President Hu might not have been tapping his foot at the dinner, but all of us who call China home do hope the government will let us keep tapping our own feet for many years to come. (It doesn't hurt that Lang Lang, who evidently by law must appear in every single promotional video for all things Chinese, happens to love jazz, and Herbie Hancock in particular.) And if we can get everybody snapping on 2 and 4 we'll really be making progress for peace and international cooperation. 

Best regards,
Nicholas Charles Bouloukos
Shanghai Youth Jazz Orchestra - Founder and Conductor
Hangzhou Youth Jazz Orchestra - Founder and Conductor (begins Feb 2011)
JZ All-Star Big Band - Conductor and Pianist<<

Like all other visitors to Shanghai before its modern boom, I remember the campy/antique jazz/Dixieland combo that played in the lobby of the Peace Hotel through the 1980s, featuring some performers who said they had played there as young rakes in the pre-Communist era. One more token of the pace of change in China -- and significant change even in the five years since we first moved to Shanghai. I will always think of the holiday season, 2006, in Shanghai as "the Christmas of Kenny G," since his holiday stylings seemed to be piped to every corner of the city back then. (I love saying "back then" about the China of less than five years ago.) But I speak no ill of Kenny G, who is an active small-plane pilot.

One other note: apparently a minor flap in the Chinese-nationalist blogosphere because the "Chinese song" that Lang Lang played after his duet with Herbie Hancock, as the only non-jazz element in the concert, is known in China from a famous Korean War-era movie about a battle between Chinese soldiers and UN/American troops. A barbed message, beneath all the happy talk? That seems far fetched. I think the New York Times explanation is more plausible: a perhaps inartful but not devious/ hostile choice of song. (As if "Over There" had been played as an American song for a visiting German dignitary -- or if "Lili Marlene" were played in Germany. Or even "Yankee Doodle Dandy" during a US visit by the Queen.) By chance, my wife and I had talked with Lang Lang for quite a long while before his performance. Trained in Philadelphia, based mainly in New York, with as devoted an audience in the U.S. as anywhere, manifestly excited about the whole event and his chance to play with Hancock, he seems an unlikely vehicle for a slyly angry nationalist message, via a movie from his grandparents' time.

Tonight, I'll introduce the new guest crew.