Monday, January 1, 2007

Shanghai Blues

Live: The Cotton Club House Band
Shanghai, China
New Year's Eve, 2006

On New Year’s Eve my good buddy Ethel the Frog and I found ourselves at The Cotton Club, a world class venue which is one of Shanghai’s premier jazz and blues nightspots. Welcomed in refined English and politely shown to our seats by Ellen, the club’s elegant Chinese hostess, I felt as if I had been transported to Shanghai’s jazzy heyday.

As China's coolest and most cosmopolitan place to hang, Shanghai has always exhibited an interest in a wide range of music. Like most world-class cities, it experienced a jazz boom during the 1930s and 1940s, and was the undisputed jazz capital of Asia.

Live jazz was at first played mainly by Filipino groups, but Chinese musicians soon became proficient by playing in foreign bands and soaking up American culture. As movies like Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad suggest, jazz was the perfect complement to the dissolute, opium-tinged underworld of the period.

However, the 1950s saw a decline with the closure of dance halls and the virtual disappearance of live jazz and blues from Shanghai. It wasn't until the 80s and 90s that things started to pick up again when, reflecting the emerging social and political changes, local hotels began to offer jazz performances to patrons.

Meanwhile, American jazz musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music helped set up Shanghai's first modern jazz band, inspiring young Chinese musicians to take an interest in the genre. Shanghai University now offers elective courses in jazz history.

Together with an appreciative audience combined of 60% Chinese and 40% foreigners, we enjoyed a fabulous, intimate show by The Cotton Club's multinational house band.

Two of the guys, including guitarist Greg Smith - a long-time fixture on Shanghai's blues scene - are from Utah, not exactly a place you’d think of as a hotbed of wailing blues, while the drummer is Italian and the trumpet player Chinese. All members are excellent blues, jazz and funk musicians, the multinational makeup of the band reflecting the exciting cosmopolitan character of Shanghai itself.

I couldn’t help comparing the club’s atmosphere and audience to the Japanese version with which I’m more familiar. The Chinese jazz/blues crowd seemed somewhat earthier and less cooly academic in their appreciation than their Japanese counterparts, and rather more inclined to let their hair down.

But no one could compete with Ethel the Frog. No sooner had the band started - concocting a heady brew of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and The Meters - than he was hollerin’ up a storm, and the tequilas supplied by an enthusiastic Chinese fellow at the next table sent him into an ecstasy of bluesy rabble rousing.

As we toasted the New Year, Ethel and I embraced. There were tears in my eyes and I couldn't help thinking of all the wonderful musicians who had created the history of the blues - often through suffering and misfortune - and how fortunate I was to be appreciating its legacy with my dearest friend in this unique setting.

The spirits of Robert Johnson, Ray Charles and James Brown were hovering above, communing with us through the devil's music, and somehow I know they'd have totally dug the blend of Shanghai's sensual hedonism with The Cotton Club's rootsy vibe.

As a teenager I was an indefatigable blues fan, like many youngsters discovering giants like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker by tracing the roots of rock idols like Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher and Led Zeppelin.

I’ve never lost my love for the blues, but in my obsessive search for new and exciting musical delights, I must admit I've sometimes lost touch with its timeless wisdom.

For my New Year’s Resolution, that’s an oversight I’m aiming to correct.


Pepe le Pieu said...

Happy New year, Shiffi! So THAT's where you were hiding on new year! Sounds like you had a good time in Shanghai. Your real identity is not a secret to some of us, but don't worry, we won't tell! Keep on writing the masterpieces.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your first comment of the new year on your blog! You welcomed the dawn of 2007 in Shanghai! It sounds very exciting! Your message conveyed well the charm of a cosmopolitan atmosphere in Shanghai and the heat of jazz and blues performed there. I went to Hong Kong and Shanghai and the two cities are definitely different in many aspects but to tell you the truth my memories of the two are confused. :D

Shiffi Le Soy said...

To tell you the truth, Anonymous, after all those tequilas I was rather confused too!