[EDITOR'S NOTE: President Clinton's diplomatic trip has offered the world a new view of contemporary China through international media coverage. When jazz writer Dan Ouellette covered the Beijing International Jazz Festival last November, he was able to view China's cultural and political evolution through a different lens.]
Jazz swings and bops its way to the most unlikely places, even the command center of the People's Republic of China. It's a chilly November day, and I'm at the sound check for opening night of Beijing's week-long festival celebrating America's indigenous music. Adorned with blue and gold insignias and gold tassels, the music stands are spread across the stage as the Chinese big band members, most wearing black leather jackets, black T-shirts and black slacks, unleash a cacophony of sound as they warm up on their trumpets, trombones and saxophones. Behind them is a huge sign with Jazz 97 written in hot pink.
These preliminaries could be at a jazz concert anywhere. But this is communist China, after all, where people are only beginning to utter the J-word because the music is officially frowned upon as a pollutant of Western culture. The young pianist pounces on the keys to cue the band's chug into "Take the A Train," the Billy Strayhorn composition made famous by Duke Ellington's band, while gray-around-the-temples conductor Dieter Glawischnig shouts sternly, yet encouragingly, in his thick German accent, "More sving, more sving!"
"We only worked together on this set for two weeks, so don't be too critical," Glawischnig tells me. He conducts the Hamburg radio band NDR and performs in the Ensemble for New Improvised Music, which is also playing at the festival. Today he's tutoring these Chinese jazz neophytes in the fine art of swing. He informs me that the band will perform two other Ellington classics, Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and a Chinese folk tune arranged for a big band especially for the show. "It's called 'Evening Song.' It was President Jiang Zemin's favorite when he was a child."
That's a politic move if you want to play jazz in Beijing. It's an even more strategic repertoire decision if you're the People's Liberation Army Big Band, which, under Glawischnig's direction, makes its jazz debut tonight. As improbable as it seems in a country notorious for its clampdowns on anything remotely related to free speech (in the case of jazz, free improvisation), the adventurous Beijing International Jazz Festival is celebrating its fifth year.
Tonight's show, like most of the concerts this week, is already sold out. Later this evening the 1,400-seat house will be filled with the emerging middle class of Chinese citizens, who are reaping the benefits of the influx of Japanese and American capital jump-starting the Chinese economy. But tonight especially, it's a given that the audience will also include high-ranking soldiers in the PLA, who will scrutinize the big band's music, and officials from the Ministry of Culture, which rubber-stamps the festival each year. These cultural guardians (read: police) will make sure nothing gets too far out of hand.
I'm "unofficially" here covering this best-kept secret of the jazz world for Down Beat magazine. A point of clarification: I'm on assignment to write about the festival for DB, but in the eyes of the Chinese governmental bureaucracy, I'm a tourist, not a journalist. In fact, according to my visa, I'm a road manager for the Jon Jang Sextet, one of the two American bands performing here. As Jang told me back in San Francisco, identifying oneself as a journalist immediately raises a red flag with Chinese officials. And, he added, it's not the right red flag.
Prior to my visiting the Chinese consulate to request my visa, my contact in Beijing fired off an urgent fax: "Please, Dan, do not indicate that you work for the media. Everything that smells like foreign journalism is suspect in China and must be approved by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs after very complicated and long procedures." Because getting official accreditation and work permits would require jumping through more hoops than the festival was willing to or could handle, it was either bend the truth or jeopardize the story.
I hear Glawischnig shouting for more "sving" as I leave the International Theater at the Poly Plaza Hotel and walk outside for the first time since landing in Beijing the night before. I'm not exactly seeking fresh air, just a change of scenery. It's a good thing because, as I soon discover, Beijing is one of the smoggiest cities in the world. There's a gray gauze over everything -- a combination of car exhaust and grimy residue of burnt coal, the country's primary heating source.
I go back inside and seek out David Moser, a teacher of English and translation at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. In the two months prior to my Beijing visit, I e-mailed Moser, a jazz aficionado playing in a band with several Chinese musicians, asking him what to expect. A 30-something guy with glasses and gray-streaked brown hair, Moser is hanging with his buddy Du Yinjiao, a saxophonist and the moving force behind the PLA Big Band. Du beams when Moser explains that I'm here from Down Beat, which is not only the oldest international jazz magazine but arguably the most respected.
Du is eager to reveal his jazz experiences in China and agrees to meet two days later with Moser acting as translator. Where should we rendezvous? Come to the barracks, Du says via Moser. I ask: The army barracks? Are you sure? He laughs and nods, yes, of course.
As a jazz journalist, I have access to a lot of places where most people aren't allowed: backstage, recording studios, even a musician's home. But an army compound in a communist country? Two days after the PLA band turns in an impressive, though not fully swinging performance, I nervously take a taxi across town, getting stuck in an enormous but apparently normal traffic jam on the Second Ring Road, to hook up with Moser in front of the Shangri-La Hotel. We walk a short distance to the PLA barracks where Du, casually attired in a brown suede jacket and army-green pants, is waiting for us outside the gate.
The only English Du speaks is jazz talk: swing, bebop, Miles, Down Beat. He's a good-looking guy, 32, with short brown hair and an easy smile. He's energetic, often making a point by snapping his fingers in rhythm or tilting his body to blow an imaginary sax. He cavalierly invites us into the compound, passing by a blue-uniformed guard who balks at allowing two foreigners to enter. Du rattles off an explanation, jokes with the guard and then lightheartedly straightens one of the yellow braids on his collar. The guard shrugs his shoulders and lets us enter.
Moser explains to me that I'm the third foreigner -- and the first journalist -- to set foot in this military facility. Of course, there's no way I'm here to steal state secrets because, to the best of my knowledge, there are none at this music camp. In fact, Du later says that he's happy being a member of the band because he'll never have to wield a gun. Still, this is the musical corps that Mao Tse-tung established, so I'm apprehensive. On the other hand, I'm smugly satisfied in knowing that Mao would not have approved of my presence here.
We walk across the exercise/rehearsal yard with its two basketball courts. It's 4 in the afternoon and getting dark as we enter one of the three-story dormitories and climb the unlit staircase to the third floor. Du gets the keys to the band's practice room from his supervisor and we walk the long corridor to a classroom filled with black folding chairs, chalkboards and lots of instruments, from kettle drums to a vibraphone.
I unpack 40 promo-advance jazz cassettes that I've lugged to China. They're worthless to me (give me either a CD or LP, but trash those cassettes). But it's as if I've poured gold coins onto the table when I unpack music by Miles Davis, Jacky Terrasson, Rachel Z, Evan Parker, Fred Wesley, Artie Shaw, Pat Martino, Geri Allen and even a Christmas jazz collection called Yule Be Boppin'. Moser tells me that the musicians in China are so hungry for jazz that the music on these cassettes will be copied hundreds of times.
"Is this OK?" I ask as I pull out my tape recorder. Yes, Du nods. In my articles, can I say I was here in the barracks? He nods again. Can I use his name? Of course. Once he feared getting caught for dabbling in jazz. Now he's confident he's no longer in any danger.
Du tells me his story. In 1982, he began to secretly listen to his shortwave radio in his barracks dormitory room. The 17-year-old tuned in the nighttime Voice of America broadcasts of this strange music called jazz. He sat in the dark and quietly tried to figure out the fingerings of the melodies on his saxophone. Little did Du suspect then that 15 years later he and several of his PLA cohorts -- who play state-sanctioned marching band music and the national anthems of visiting foreign dignitaries -- would form a jazz ensemble, learn how to improvise and open a festival celebrating this music.
In defiance of his superiors, Du was so intrigued by jazz that he slipped away from the barracks to blow his tenor sax in local clubs and hotel lounges where embassy kids and American students were hanging out. He tried to get his fellow army band colleagues to listen and play, but jazz was so alien from the classical marches they were learning that he didn't get much response. So he continued sneaking into the city, which is where he met Moser and formed a band with him. At one of their gigs, Moser recalls making the mistake of introducing Du as an army band member. Du made sure Moser understood not to do that again. Meanwhile, Du's superiors made veiled threats that disciplinary measures might be taken.
However, Du's zeal for playing overrode his fears. "It's been my goal for the last three years to get the leaders to at least admit that jazz is a legitimate art form and not decadent music," he says. "I've finally succeeded, which is why the big band was allowed to play at the festival." Even with official approval, jazz still has a long way to go in the hands of Chinese instrumentalists. Moser points out that growing up in a culture where creativity and originality are constantly quashed makes it difficult for Chinese musicians to loosen up to express themselves improvisationally. "A lot of Chinese people have said that before a great soloist can emerge there must be a stronger sensibility of individualism in the society."
I ask Du if he thinks that will happen in China, where the collective spirit is deemed more important than individual expression? Can the jazz dichotomy -- where ensemble uniformity meshes with improvisational free speech -- thrive in Beijing? Du thinks so. "Individualism is good for the collective. It gets us all dialoguing, communicating with each other. Before, everybody kept their heads down and was afraid to take chances."
Moser, who secured the charts for the PLA performance and arranged the Chinese folk song "Evening Song" for the big band, points out that Du has been a courageous risk-taker for speaking his mind about jazz. "The time is right in China. Jiang Zemin just returned from the United States and the 15th Party Congress just reaffirmed its commitment to modernization. So, the atmosphere has loosened up. It wouldn't have been the time to do what Du is doing five years ago and certainly not 10 years ago. Still, someone had to take the first step. Du represents jazz to the younger musicians in the army band. He's encouraging his superiors to come hear the music. He even has plans to take the big band to universities. A foreign group wouldn't be able to do that in a million years. But because it's the PLA, Du's promotion of jazz will probably get approved."
It's dark when we finish our conversation. I hitch a ride with Du to Poly Plaza for that night's concert. It's a wild drive through the heart of smog-hazed Beijing, where bicycles without lights jockey for the road with large sports vehicles like Du's and the hundreds of tiny honking taxis. Pedestrians charge right into the fray, and at one point, with a funky tune playing on Du's cassette player, a mammoth double bus swerves toward us in the congestion. Like the fine improv player that he is on his sax, Du effortlessly whirls the steering wheel and avoids impact.
Back at the festival I tell Glawischnig, who has been a festival regular since 1994, about my visit to the PLA dormitory. "Can you imagine the Chinese communist military band playing jazz?" he says. "Those kids are all so enthusiastic. I wish jazz students everywhere would have such open ears. Their playing has already improved. They will only get better as they get more materials and get more exposure to jazz. Rock is here. Michael Jackson is famous in Beijing. Why not Miles Davis?"
The festival shows take place every evening. When I'm not scribbling notes during sets by a variety of top-notch jazz players from all over the world, I hang in the hotel bar with the musicians, go to the U.S. embassy for the welcoming reception Ambassador James R. Sasser is throwing to welcome jazz diva Betty Carter and party in smoky Chinese nightclubs where jazz has taken root with a youthful generation sponging Western culture as a small rebellious gesture against the authoritarian government.
One of the hippest underground clubs is Keep in Touch, across the street from the Kempinski Hotel and halfway between the Second and Third Ring roads in Beijing's northeast sector. It's a funky, low-ceilinged gallery and performance space with a wooden-plank floor, dim lights, a bar that serves Chinese beer and Bacardi rum and even a few old computers rigged up for Internet access. There's a sign on the door in Chinese and English listing the bands -- from the jazz-ish Tang Dynasty to Coba, the first all-female rock band in China -- playing there this month. Every Wednesday night art films such as Fellini's "8 1/2" and Truffaut's "Jules et Jim" are screened. I feel like I'm in a smoky juke joint deep in the Mississippi Delta -- except that instead of the blues the sound system is pumping out a steady stream of hip-hop and jazz.
The house is packed with 50 to 60 college-aged Chinese club-goers. They're here to catch local Chinese jazz musicians jamming with some of the European jazzers playing at the festival. Shortly after midnight, the makeshift band hits the tiny stage and begins to deliver a rousing set of cutting-edge free improvisation. It's the sonic equivalent of abstract art with its flurry of gripping instrumental forays as well as surprising blats and bangs. These are unusual sounds for the audience, but the crowd nonetheless enthusiastically applauds. Fifteen minutes into the impromptu set, the lights go out and the microphones go dead. The club either blew a fuse or, as my companion suspects, the local authorities have surreptitiously pulled the plug on this evening's party. Taking the power outage in stride, the club owners light candles and the musicians continue to jam without amplification.
A short cab ride away, Beijing's top jazz club, the fully lit CD Cafe, is also hopping. This venue is more like something you'd find at a university in the urban United States. The horseshoe-shaped bar dominates the middle of the house, which seats 150 to 200 people. Again, the club-goers are in their 20s and early 30s. The walls of the club are filled with 2-feet-by-4-feet photos from old jazz album covers. There's Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie.
This is where I meet 37-year-old Chinese jazz pioneer Liu Yaun, who leads a band of young Chinese musicians through fake books of mainstream bebop standards every Friday and Saturday night. Liu, a fine tenor saxophonist who has performed at all five of the city's festivals, is as close to a jazz star as you get in Beijing. Before he takes the stage for his second set, a young woman asks him if she can have her boyfriend take a picture of the two of them. Shyly, Liu agrees, stands next to her and smiles for the camera. Back onstage, he blows his sax with deep soul and big swing. The audience is rapt. There's drinking, smoking, but no talking -- the kind of concentrated listening atmosphere that jazz requires.
Classically trained on the suona, a Chinese wind instrument, Liu was first exposed to jazz when he toured Romania in 1978 with the Beijing Opera. Liu, who was then 18, recalls, "I saw a group playing jazz in a bar and thought: Wow, what is that? I was immediately drawn to the saxophone." (Even though Liu knows enough English for basic conversation, I ask for translation help from filmmaker Victor Huey, who's in Beijing working on a documentary on the burgeoning music scene.)
When Liu returned home, China was beginning to crack open its doors to the West. But the only music filtering into Beijing was John Denver and disco. Liu borrowed money to buy a Chinese-made sax and picked up licks from pop songs until he heard a Grover Washington Jr. cassette in 1986. But his best jazz education came jamming at hotel bars in Beijing with embassy-based jazz amateurs, listening to music that friends in the U.S. sent to him and then touring the States with Cui Jian, the controversial Chinese rock star who has become Beijing's Bruce Springsteen. "We were a rock band, but every night after our shows we'd go to jazz clubs. In New York, we went to the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note and Small's."
Liu, who cites Coltrane, Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman among his favorites, says the impact of Beijing's jazz festival has been immense. He notes that in addition to the concerts, the festival encourages visiting band members to participate in master classes at the Central Conservatory of China, the Beijing MIDI School and the New Institute for Contemporary Music. "Before, young people used to go to discos. Now they go to the jazz bars to listen to the music. The festival has established jazz in Beijing."
"Jazz has become hip here," says Beijing Jazz Festival co-coordinator Robert van Kan, a burly guy in his 30s with a flowing mane of blond hair, who works as a cultural exchange attaché at the Royal Netherlands Embassy. We're sitting at a tiny restaurant not far from Poly Plaza. He brusquely orders enough food to feed the entire PLA band and we do our best to finish the feast spread before us: a cold cucumber dish, a greasy but delicious eggplant plate, a spicy shrimp concoction, a chicken-with-peanut-sauce delicacy and a couple of bowls of rice on the side with sweet Chinese beer to wash it all down.
During dinner, van Kan proudly talks about the festival, which has been growing steadily since its humble beginnings as a one-night affair in 1993. Originally a rock'n'roll fan who got turned on to jazz appreciation through Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock fusion, van Kan's been on board since the second year of operation. "In the beginning, the crowds at the festival consisted of expats and foreigners. Now Chinese dominate the audience. The cultural elite and arts avant-garde communities come to the shows as well as regular Chinese people from the emerging middle class. They're really into it."
As for government reaction, van Kan smiles wryly. "The import of Western culture into China is seen by conservative groups as undermining social stability. Jazz is allowed, but not actively promoted by the authorities. Politically, it's a sensitive subject. So we're careful in what we present."
Jazz was prohibited during the Cultural Revolution -- branded decadent, spiritually contaminating and, worst of all, bourgeois. Even though Sino-U.S. relations began to thaw in the early '80s, there's been very little exposure to the music. According to festival founder Udo Hoffmann, at the time of the first shows, Chinese awareness of jazz was a blank slate.
"Deep knowledge of jazz didn't exist here," says Hoffmann, a German citizen who has lived in China for eight years and today works for the Beijing YiRen Cultural Arts and Exchange Center, an arm of the Chinese-owned YiRen advertising agency, which serves as the Chinese sponsor. He's backstage making sure every sound and lighting detail has been taken care of before Betty Carter's concert, the festival finale. "Jazz is so difficult to define because it encompasses so much, from Dixieland to free. So we figured if we were going to present a festival we needed to educate people by showcasing the full spectrum. This is a new world of music for the Chinese. They're motivated to hear more even if they don't like everything. China is changing and developing. Jazz is part of that."
Tall, thin, dark-haired, gregarious and full of nervous energy, Hoffmann was inspired to present jazz shows when he heard rocker Cui Jian, a classically trained trumpeter, trying to figure out how to play the classic jazz tune "Take Five." "I thought young Chinese musicians would really like the taste of jazz," says Hoffmann, who was working for the Goethe Institute at the time. He contacted friends at embassies to help import acts from their countries for a low-key four-group program in 1993.
Hoffmann remembers the reaction well. "The audience was stunned. It was like they were breathing something new. Some people got a headache, others felt it was unhealthy. Still others felt it was capitalist pollution. But the Chinese musicians loved it. They've become the offspring of the jazz festival. Each year another new band crops up. The jam sessions with visiting groups in the clubs have been invaluable. The Chinese musicians get to touch these artists, to feel them, to learn from them how to express their feelings, to dialogue with these guys. It's been amazing."
Hoffmann hopes that Chinese jazz, now in its nascent stage, will eventually reflect Beijing. "The Chinese music tradition is rich, long and full of treasures. Jazz would be a wonderful vehicle to further explore this. Not all kinds of jazz will work in China. Chinese culture as reflected in its painting and calligraphy is attracted to the abstract. My guess is the same thing will happen with jazz. But right now, the Chinese jazz musicians are just scratching the surface."
I embark on long meandering walks every day, past dozens of new high-rises, cranes perched on top, being built with Western capital, through the tiny back alleys of ramshackle shanty towns where tourists are rare, along locust tree-lined roads where bicycle repairmen set up shop with their tool boxes and tire-patching kits, through dusty parks where white-jacketed barbers snip hair and old men hang their pet birds in bamboo cages. Close to embassy row, I see more foreigners. An old woman with a broomstick and a tiny child slung on her back begs for money beneath the yellow arches of one of several McDonald's in the city. Just past the Beijing Friendship Store, where you can buy everything from jade rings to Chinese medicine balls, the spit-spotted sidewalks are filled with entrepreneurs openly hawking flimsy-looking erhus, the traditional Chinese two-stringed instrument, and the red book of Mao's sayings.
Then there's the music. Even though the Ministry of Culture seems to tolerate the jazz festival, pop music of any Western stripe remains underground out on the streets of Beijing. Several people approach me and whisper, "CD? CD-ROM? CD?" in a clandestine manner reminiscent of the way dope dealers on Telegraph Avenue near People's Park in Berkeley used to push their stashes.
I joke with Jon Jang about how much he's paying me to "manage" him this week. An excellent pianist and composer, Jang has become a friend over the past decade. He's the guy who clued me in on the existence of the Beijing festival and helped me figure out the best way to get here. We take a cab to the Summer Palace and then after walking around the peaceful grounds flag a bright yellow cab to Tiananmen Square to meet up with other members of his sextet. We head to the site of the Chinese government's bloody clampdown on free speech, the 1989 event that Jang, a third-generation Chinese American, staunchly critiqued in his poignant 1993 CD, "Tiananmen!"
"Do the authorities know about that album?" I ask Jang, who is making his first performance in his ancestral homeland. He says he conveniently excised mention of it in the bio he submitted for his visa. Even so, he's not too worried about the Chinese government, although he acknowledges that the festival plug could be pulled at any time. "Instrumental music isn't considered to be as threatening as overt protest music," he says. "You just can't flaunt your point of view while performing. Still, to get clearance to play we had to submit a video and a CD to the Ministry of Culture. We were warned by festival organizers to make sure there was no nudity in the video or political sloganeering in the music."
Van Kan notes that there are also rules prohibiting artists from moving into the audience during a performance, but he considers government scrutiny a minor obstacle. However, he says, official approval doesn't come from the Ministry of Culture until shortly before the festival opens, which means that for the time being the Beijing Jazz Festival will not be advertised to the world as a jazz vacation destination. "We're doing this more for the Chinese anyway," he says, then adds diplomatically, "We'll see how it all progresses." As for the jazz press, Udo Hoffmann says inviting journalists is even trickier because of government restrictions. "We're not prepared for an influx of jazz critics. At this time, we're doing the festival as a commitment to expose the Beijing community to jazz."
Times are changing in China. It's inevitable. After dozens of years under the authoritarian government's rule of force, the clampdown is slowly eroding as an increasing number of Chinese people, especially the youth, are coming to an understanding of what it means to cherish that which cannot be forced.
At Tiananmen Square, the benevolent yet severe countenance of Mao Tse-tung oversees the historic meeting place and political rallying site. But at the opposite end of Tiananmen, there's the cheery, finger-licking-good face of Colonel Sanders perched atop one of several Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food joints proliferating throughout the city. It's as if there was a staring contest between Mao and the Colonel -- and the chairman blinked first, an act of surrender that opened the floodgates and allowed the Western economic and cultural tides to begin lapping onto the shores of China's major cities.
Indeed, profit-driven marketing has been making inroads here. In fact, the jazz festival has broken new ground by securing corporate sponsors such as Volkswagen and Bacardi. Commonplace in the West, this has been a first for a Chinese cultural event. But the biggest impact of U.S.-style commercialism comes via the television airwaves. In my hotel I tune into China's Channel V, the MTV-like video station that not only airs sexy clips of stateside singers like Sheryl Crow and Blossom but also promotes a number of Hong Kong-based Madonna wannabes. It's tame, G-rated fluff by U.S. standards, but in China, with its puritanical values, the cleavage, salacious pouts, bare midriffs and tons of sexual innuendo are no doubt frowned upon as scandalous by Chinese authorities.
I also watch CNN quite a bit, which gives plenty of coverage to Chinese dissident Wei Jingsten, the former Beijing electrician who was released from jail shortly before I traveled to China. While I am in Beijing, Wei holds his first news conference in the United States, which CNN covers. Incarcerated as a political dissenter, Wei says, "I've waited decades to exercise my right of democracy." Sidney Jones of the group Human Rights Watch comments in the same report, "Governments, even China's, can be made to bend."
Channel surfing is an eye-opener on how much Western culture permeates Chinese TV. There in its schlock and gore is big-time wrestling, plus dubbed Mighty Mouse cartoons, Chinese soap operas, Japanese films with Mandarin and English subtitles and black-and-white episodes of the '60s spy series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." with Ilya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo fighting communist devils lurking in the shadows. And what about that half-hour infomercial touting the National Basketball Association: exciting "I Love This Game" highlight clips of alley-oop dunks, behind-the-back passes, killer-crossover dribbles and in-your-face struts and taunts.
It must seem like a dream world to those few Chinese viewers who have the money to own a television set and the even fewer with cable access. But the NBA footage makes me think of what happens not far from my hotel every morning at 10. A bell clangs at the middle school, and its playground, which I can see from my window, fills with a mass of children doing their daily exercises. The teacher barks out the instructions, and recorded march music blares out over the loudspeaker system. The kids obediently respond with shouts and squats, performed with military precision. This lasts for 15 minutes, then most of the students return to their classes. A small group of boys, either in a physical education class or at recess, remain on the playground, where they bounce basketballs and shoot hoop.
Freed from the strict mandates of the exercise drills, these young guys seem to come alive as they catch a b-ball groove and dribble-shoot-rebound with a casual fluidity. They play a game, improvising moves, fakes and passes. I can't help but think how much basketball reminds me of jazz.
Back at the festival, after her potent display of vocal improvisation, Betty Carter gives new fans flocking to her for autographs some jazz basics. While being interviewed by a Beijing television station, Carter says, "Jazz means that you can speak your mind musically and be accepted for doing it. You can do anything you want, change the tempo, put a new meter on a tune, anything. You don't have to conform to what other people expect you to do." It's jazz talk, but it sure sounds like a lesson in liberty too.