Jazz in China Project

UPDATE: August 2014. A prospective publisher has sent out the manuscript for review.

UPDATE: June 2014. Eugene Marlow, Ph.D., recently completed an edited draft of his book on jazz in China. It is now a 100,000+ word, 20 chapter work. The manuscript has taken years to research–including a month-long trip in 2006 to Beijing and Shanghai to interview indigenous jazz musicians. Dr. Marlow hopes to have the book in the hands of readers by late 2015.
Jazz in China

Jazz in China (working title) (copyright 2006) historically contextualizes, describes, and analyzes jazz in mainland China in the early 1900s (primarily in Shanghai), its partial demise in the mid-1930s following the invasion of China by the Japanese, its eradication following the later dominance of the Communist party, and then its re-emergence circa 1980 with the new vision of the Chinese government following the death of Mao Tse Tung in 1976.

Is there jazz in China?

Beijing Jazz Festival '95The advent of jazz in China is an enigma. Chinese classical music bears only some resemblance to western music; on the other hand, European music (along with African musical traditions) forms the foundation for the development of jazz in the United States. Chinese culture–rooted in a strong nationalist feeling, especially since the King of Qin consolidated the nation in the third century B.C., and strong, highly traditional community feelings–bears little resemblance to western culture. Politically, economically, socially, China’s cultural values are uniquely eastern and can be difficult for the western mindset to understand.

MaoHowever, since Mao’s death in 1976, China has been in the process of transition. As one Chinese citizen said during my visit to the University of Shanghai in May 2000, “The government’s position is essentially ‘Make as much money as you want, but leave the politics alone’.”

In this context, jazz has grown as a “happening thing” in China, primarily in Beijing ( China’s capital) and Shanghai. Of course, there’s plenty of jazz in Hong Kong too, but Hong Kong’s inclusion muddies the story. Hong Kong is essentially a western style city that only recently became part of the Chinese mainland.

The Jazz in China Project, therefore, focuses on the advent of jazz in a land that for thousands of years walled out and excluded western culture, but now appears to have embraced capitalism (at least) and other western cultural aspects, including jazz. The forthcoming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing is but one recent example of China’s ostensible more open policy towards the west.

This apparent new attitude, however, needs to be seen in the context of China’s history in the 20th century: from colonialism in the first third of the century, to Communism mid-century, to quasi-capitalism in the latter third of the century.

WalMart’s recent announcement of the creation of 150,000 jobs in China, the growth of economic ties between mainland China and Taiwan (political saber rattling to the contrary), and a projected 10 percent economic growth in 2006, notwithstanding, China remains a country with a large peasant population; the real “modern” action is in the coastal cities, namely, Beijing and Shanghai and the metros that surround them.

modern shanghai at nightOverall, the Jazz in China Project blends several cultural aspects from the 20th century: media and technology (such as phonographs, radio, and film, as well as steamships and planes); Chinese history (pre- and post-Mao); the Chinese music tradition; developments in jazz in America; and the jazz musician–from America, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East–experience in China.

Interviews with Chinese-born jazz musicians in Beijing and Shanghai will serve as the most intriguing element of the story.

About the Project

Liu Yuan PixThe Jazz in China Project juxtaposes two central elements: jazz (as a western cultural element) and Chinese culture (clearly an eastern culture). The combination of these two disparate elements makes for a compelling story.

In effect, the story of jazz in China parallels the story of China itself in the 20th century and the very early part of the 21 st century. For example, the introduction of jazz into China in the early part of the 20th century is a doorway into a description of China’s evolution in the 20th century.

Many Europeans, Russians and Americans were present in Shanghai in the first quarter of the 20th century. These nations brought their culture with them—including jazz. With the jazz came other cultural values. For example, in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s racism was present. Even African-American jazz musicians (such as famed trumpeter Buck Clayton) ran afoul of American military personnel who violently expressed racist beliefs even though thousands of miles from the American mainland.

Shanghai was also a focal point of western colonialism in the 1920s and 1930s; eventually the anti-western feelings that evolved helped engender the rise of Chinese nationalism, Mao, and the communist party.

Jon Jang pianistEven after Mao’s death in 1976, the gradual return of jazz to the Chinese mainland parallels the initially cautious and then more rapid adoption of western style culture, such as capitalism, since 1980. In the last 25 years or so increasing numbers of jazz musicians from all over the world have traveled to China to perform. Similarly, China has grown more western economically, and more western companies have established economic footholds in mainland China.

Eugene Marlow, Ph.D., is the Jazz in China Project primary investigator.

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