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What’s Happening in the Jazz (and Jazz Guitar) Scene in China

Doug Martin

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The jazz (and jazz guitar) scene in China has really started to blossom in recent years.

As a jazz guitarist who has lived in China for the majority of the time over the last 15 years, I have been able to see many of the changes first hand.

When I first moved to Beijing in Autumn of 2003 to study Chinese language at Peking University, there really wasn’t a whole lot going on in town in terms of actual jazz. There were a couple small local bars where some musicians would occasionally jam and if you looked in a Beijing guide book for a “jazz club”, it would list a venue like The Big Easy near Wangfujin where they usually had cover bands or singer/songwriters playing music that could perhaps pass for “jazzy” to non-musicians.

In 2007 I went to Shanghai for the first time for work and stayed there for two years.

This was a few years after my initial move to China and I was delighted to see some reputable venues that were dedicated to live jazz such as JZ Club, House of Blues and Jazz, Cotton Club, Melting Pot as well as several small bars that were open to hiring small jazz groups. This was all a delightful discovery and it also made sense to me as it is known that Shanghai has had a tradition of jazz acts going back to the 1930s. Shanghai is also the most international city in Mainland China having the largest community of foreign expats, so it also made sense for there to be more of a jazz scene there than other places in China.

Having been back in Beijing now since 2012, I have seen the scene blossom here up North.

A far cry from the early 2000s. These days in Beijing we have a handful of great venues including one of Beijing’s early strongholds, East Shore, and other venues dedicated to Jazz like the new Blue Note, Tango, Bricks, Good Bait, Chao Hotel and more. Additionally, several other live house bars regularly feature jazz like DDC, Modernista, Jianghu and others. If any jazz musician comes to town they will find hard swinging jam sessions at East Shore on Sunday Nights, Jianghu Bar on Tuesday nights, and Bricks on Wednesday nights. That means that in Beijing you can now find jazz just about any night of the week!

Though the two main cities in China for live jazz are still Beijing and Shanghai, other cities like Xi’an are working hard to get in on the scene.

Meeting Jazz, a venue in Xi’an for example just recently hosted Ulf and Eric Wakenius and have opened their stage to other guitar heavyweights in the past including Mike Moreno. How cool is that?!

Though Shanghai still has the largest number of jazz musicians in China, Beijing has been slowly developing its place. That’s great news for jazz guitarists like me who live here. The Blue Note in Beijing for example just hosted Scott Henderson for two days last week, Bobby Broom will be here in November, as will Larry Carlton. We have also had the good fortune to see other heavy cats like Lee Ritenour and Mike Stern come through town. This all would have been unimaginable ten years ago, heck even five years ago!

Hot Club of Beijing at Blue Note

Something else worth mentioning that is really cool to see on the scene here in China is the brotherhood of both foreign and Chinese musicians playing this music together.

Over the last ten to fifteen years more and more Chinese students have become interested in jazz and have studied with foreigners in China as well as have gone abroad to learn the craft and bring the art home. We are slowly beginning to see jazz take deep roots in China and who knows what the future will bring. Will there eventually be a new sub-genre of Chinese jazz? Only time will tell but what I can say is that the small but growing community of jazz musicians and jazz lovers in China is growing and I am ecstatic to be here in this day and age to witness it.

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