Published on May 10th, 2021 | by Robert Barry Francos


Jazz in China

Robert Barry Francos takes a look at professor, pianist, and now filmmaker Eugene Marlow’s documentary about jazz music in China called, well, Jazz in China.

Jazz is an oxymoron, such as is playing the sitar: there are relatively strict rules dependent on subgenre, but within those rules there is also a freedom of form and expression that makes the music itself nearly meta. To me, this seems to fit in why it works so well in China.

Media Professor and pianist/composer Eugene Marlow looks into the relationship of jazz and Chinese culture and music. This film is based on Marlow’s book, Jazz in China: From Dance Hall Music to Individual Freedom of Expression (2018).

The opening segments of the documentary, which is about the first half, is partly a history lesson of 20th Century China. It starts with the introduction of jazz to the continent, mostly through the ports of Shanghai. Just as Chinese furniture and styles such as silks were becoming prominent in the import cities of North America including San Francisco, Montreal, and New York, the United States started exporting music and culture. The free nature of the prominent version of jazz, namely swing, caught on through the introduction of vinyl platters and cinema.

Shanghai, especially, hosted many of America’s musicians, who played at upscale nightclubs. Because there were no segregation rules, both black and white musicians were allowed to play together in Shanghai venues. This changed, though, when Japan invaded the Chinese land, laying major damage to Chinese cultural institutions and clubs. And just as it was starting to ramp back up after the War, the Communist Revolution squashed anything that wasn’t government sponsored, including classical music.

After Mao’s passing, classical music was again permitted, and jazz came back not long after. But by this time, the jazz was more freestyle bop and fusion. It was quickly accepted, and was played on both western style instruments, as well as national, such as the Erhu (二胡).

The latter half of the film discusses more the modern (1980s and onward) influence of jazz, where it stands now, how the government views and regulates it, and where it might go into the future. All fascinating, especially if you are a fan of the genre.

Throughout, one of the main points are the influences in the country, ranging from the introduction of illegal cassette tapes to artists like Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald. There are multitudes of clips of these and other musicians spanning the years, placed at just the right moments of the narrative to enhance the commentary.

The talking heads here are brief, not overstaying their welcome, just long enough to give us the information we need. There are a few Western authors and academics, but mostly it’s the musicians themselves, such as Coco Zhao and A Bu, and organizers of the jazz festivals. Rather than focusing on the people who write about the music, a vast majority of those discussing the music are the Chinese musicians themselves, about how they discovered the sound and what it means to them. Again, we get to see many clips of each of them at their instruments in various venues. It is beautifully collected.

To add some of my own views here, in the 1920s and ‘30s, when swing jazz started to spread both here and in especially Shanghai, it was an explosion of culture as jazz was both accepted by the people in that city from the original musicians, both Black and White, as well as it being absorbed and assimilated by the local culture. This is shown in the early part of the documentary quite well, with recordings and films of the time.

When the Communist regime of Mao started to fade in the 1970s, the Chinese were in a similar situation as the African-Americans during the Jim Crow period of the U.S., full of cultural and governmental oppression, fear of persecution, and stifling of any other lifestyle than the Cultural Revolution. There was a sense of freedom with some hesitation (what I call cultural PTSD), that reflected the zeitgeist of what is known as the Black experience, and the Chinese, through a music that was used to break out of that strait-jacket in an explosion of free form jazz, identified with the undercurrent of what the music meant to its originators.

Also, I believe that as restrictions from the government have grown over the past few years, especially after Tiananmen Square (1989), the freedom of jazz became a concern to officials, as a symbol of freedom of expression. As one of the commentators says in the documentary, some cities, like Beijing, jazz festivals are an iffy proposition, and even in Shanghai, home of the world’s largest jazz festival, there is a mountain of red tape (no pun intended) that the organizers must wade through to get the fest on.

While I have not read his book yet, Marlow keeps the information flowing, and even more importantly, emphasizes his film’s comments with the actual music. Breaking it up into sections with title cards wss just the right thing to do, and having the name identifiers captioned under the artists multiple times was extremely helpful.

The viewer can tell this is a film of passion by Marlow, as well as that of its participants. The organizer of the Shanghai Jazz Festival describes jazz – in relation to rock or EDM – as peaceful and relaxing. I half agree, in that jazz may not make you want to jump up and down and mosh, but it is an exciting and heart-thumping sound when it is done right. And Marlow shows how it can easily cross both oceans and cultural lines. Bravissimo.

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About the Author

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has lived in Saskatoon for over a decade, having spent most of his life in New York City. Part of the New York punk scene from nearly its inception, he has been known to hang out with musicians, artists and theatrical types. His fanzine, FFanzeen, was published from 1977 through 1988, giving him opportunity to see now famous bands in their early stages. Media, writing and photography have been a core interest for most of his life, leading to a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. This has led to travel to Mexico, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Israel and Egypt, and recently he taught a university class in media theory in China.

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