Being connected with children as I have in my life, I feel that it’s important
to keep this alive, this fantasy. [...]What is reality? What is fantasy?” Don Cherry, March 12, 1970
Born in Oklahoma City (Oklahoma) in 1936,
Don Cherry is well known as the trumpet player of Ornette Coleman during his
successful attempts to revolutionize jazz music. Mind, my readers: we won’t
discuss here the principles of harmolodics, thing we hope we’ll face in the
future, even if we’ll talk diffusely about the records our two heroes gave life
together. For the moment it is important to stress that, if Coleman played a
plastic saxophone in order to utilize the microtones – do you remember what we
were discussing some
months ago when talking about soprano saxophones and straight horns? – to
create a freer music in comparison to bebop and the previous jazz music, Cherry
used a pocket trumpet, an instrument with a nasal and a less chrystalline sound
than an usual trumpet.
One thing that always hit me when I think about
Coleman and Cherry’s instrumental choices, and an example I want to use to
explain myself better, is that of those photographers who, in the digital i.e.
in an extremely precise era, go back to Polaroids and toy cameras. Leaving some
processes to the accident, to a form of creative chaos – as the saturation of
colors, the impossibility to control contrast through different films and papers
or, in the case of music, the difficulty in controlling instruments that are
not thought to be heavily precise – is a good way to play a music in which
there is no wrong note in a given process since it depends from what will
So, what Coleman and Cherry were trying to
obtain was an extreme freedom starting from extreme constrictions. If Something
Else!!!, the first album by Ornette Coleman (Contemporary, 1958) shocked the
audience of that time for its extreme freedom, it is true that it is an album
full of beautiful, recognizable and memorable melodies. Mind about Jayne, third
track of the album: trumpet and alto go at a nice unison before soloing, with
Coleman producing himself in his typical ‘laughters’ before playing a melody
with an undefined and mocking tonal center.
Things change a little with the following album
Tomorrow is The Question! (Contemporary, 1959) where piano is excluded from the
palette, which increases in tonal and harmonic freedom. Coleman is taking bebop
revolution to its extreme. If Charlie Parker and his peers were playing with
dissonances resolution trying to give life to a more and more complex game,
defying the listener and the other musicians involved, the music of Ornette
Coleman instead is prone to give into new directions.
Once John Coltrane, a Parker’s enthousiast
during his younger age and a contemporary of Coleman,told an interviewer that he was, during his ‘sheets of sound
period’, trying to express one sentence going in two different directions at
once; Coleman himself wanted to reach with his music every possible direction.
What we have here is a conscious attempt to go beyond the limits of an
intellectual experience as bebop became in the end, trying to open new paths to
the musicians who wanted to follow this new road even if at risk of not being
There’s in fact a huge tradition of musicians
who not only did not dig Ornette Coleman’s idea and practice of music, but also
a great quantity of musicians who imagined the jazz Coleman and Cherry were
creating was only a sum of incoherent, unrepeteable melodic lines in which
dissonance had the effect of destroying the musicians ability to change chords
and play with different intonations. Coleman music was taken by many – by
Charles Mingus as an example: take for instance his interviews contained into
the book Mingus Speaks by John F. Goodman where the bassist and composer talks
diffusely about the music of Albert Ayler and others – as an attack to the
seriousness and complexity of music itself.
If we try to observe better how things
happened, we will notice, instead, that a huge amount of musicians from the end
of the 1950s until the end of the following decade dedicated their energies to
sort out of the shallows of a more and more intellectual drift in order to
obtain always more freedom of expression. Albery Ayler with his ‘speaking in
tongues’ melodies, Coltrane with his ‘sheets of sound’ and then with his
collaboration with Pharoah Sanders in order to obtain the unpredictability of a
music driven by two different musicians instead of one, Archie Shepp with his
rawness and fierceness, and so on.
Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry gave life to a
music that conveyed different emotions, as one can feel listening to his most
known composition, Lonely Woman, that opens his third album The Shape of Jazz
To Come (Atlantic, 1959) where a simple and again memorable melody is played
through a rough and raucous style in order to create some anguish, as in the
famous picture The Scream by Edvard Munch. A nightmarish urban solitude is what
we can approach through Coleman way of playing. Don Cherry, on the other hand,
with his graspy and anti-crystalline sound is the perfect, crackling partner
for the altoist and composer.
And even if tracks like Peace and Focus on
Sanity are less anguishing, the unpredictability of where the horns will go was
leaving the linstener of that time with a potent sense of disorientation.
Things are going even worse – but we prefer to say: even deeper – with Free
Jazz (Atlantic, 1961), an album where two quartets, one led by Coleman and the
other led by his friend and pivotal figure of that time Eric
Dolphy, are intersecting each other in a disorientating stream of
consciousness of about 37 minutes.
Notably, the previous album This is Our Music
(Atlantic, 1960) features a Coleman composition titled Beauty is a Rare Thing
that in a way anticipates the trumpeter’s future enterprises as you can hear
through Mu, a collection of two LPs issued by Actuel in 1969. But let’s keep on
following the tracks in the right order. Obviously Ornette Coleman’s music not
only encountered solid oppositions, but also arose curiosity at a point in which
another contrasted innovator, the above nominated John Coltrane, in 1961 wanted
to record an entire album of Coleman compositions alongside with his partners
Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Percy Heath and Charlie Haden on bass, and Ed
Blackwell on drums.
Listening to the album The Avant Garde released
by Atlantic is a strange experience. One can hear Coltrane trying to fit
Coleman melodies with his peculiar style, not following harmolodic rules –
harmolodics is the name of the music theory Coleman gave shape through his
playing and thinking – but his own path. In a way this is comprehensible since
no jazz musician can play as someone else and everybody has to stay as close as
possible to his or her world of reference, but in another way this album seem to
me as a wasted opportunity since there is not a real encounter between Coleman
and Coltrane worlds, only a juxtaposition of compositions and styles into one
Anyway, soon Don Cherry started figuring out
how his own music would sound, and soon he signed a contract with Blue Note
producing his own trilogy in which one can hear how playing with two giants
saxophonists helped him developing his own conception of art. Cherry’s trilogy
embodying Complete Communion (Blue Note, 1965), Symphony for Improvisers (1966)
and Where is Brooklyn? (1967) is one of the most accomplished statements in the
realm of improvised music.
The concept is similar for each of the three
records: there is a theme introducing a ‘tutti’, a unison, and then there is
place for every soloist in order to express himself. If Complete Communion,
featuring Gato Barbieri on tenor, Henry Grimes (from Albert Ayler combos) on
bass and Ed Blackwell on drums, divided into two different parts, one for each
LP side, it’s the most airy and catchy, relatively speaking, while the ending
of the trilogy is left to the most newyorican, groovy and nervous Where is
Brooklin?, where Cherry is supported by Pharoah Sanders, increasing his debt
with Trane idea of sound and music.
Symphony for Improvisers, the album that stays
in the middle of the trilogy, is possibly the most complex. The line up is
comprised of Cherry on pocket trumpet, Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri, Henry
Grimes, Karl Berger on piano and vibraphone – possibly after the removal of
these melodic instruments from the Coleman groups Cherry would love to know how
they could be reintegrated into the music without loosing that peculiar stream
of consciousness his pal gave life to – and the resulting music is aggressive,
intimate and fluent at the same time.
Another couple of collaborations we have to
mention are Charlie Haden project of the Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!,
1969), where Cherry is present with both his pocket trumpet and a flute, giving
life to a melange between the songs the Hispanic anarchists were singing
between their courageous battles against the army of Francisco Franco and more
free jazz oriented parts, and the previous album recorded by the New York
Contemporary Five with Archie Shepp (Sonet, 1964), where Cherry, Shepp on
tenor, altoist John Tchicai, bassist Don Moore and drummer J.C. Moses give life
to a music devoted to Coleman’s and Monk’s heritage.
But Cherry is the kind of person who don’t
sleep on other people’s music theories, and by 1968-69 he starts exploring new
territories in music, thanks also to a fruitful collaboration with Terry
Riley, giving life to a previously unheard mix of improvised, ethnic music,
art rock and psychedelia (not all the subgenres are always present together in
the same project, but they convey into Cherry’s music as far as their essence,
leaving every album and every project free to develop where the particular
moment and musicians involved can make the sound fluorish).
More theatrical than his previous music, as one
can see through different live performances recorded live and reproducible
online, Don Cherry’s new path will be harshly absorbed by jazz intellighentzja,
but important tracks will be visible in artists like Sergeij
Kuryiokhin, a musician we talked diffusely last year. Mu – First Part and
Mu – Second Part (BYG, 1969 and 1970) are possibly Cherry masterpieces,
together with Symphony for Improvisers. Featuring the trumpeter accompanied
only by Ed Blackwell on drums in a series of beautiful duets where Don Cherry
plays time after time his pocket trumpet, a bamboo flute, piano, his own voice
and a series of small percussions, this couple of records helped the musician
in finding his own most personal voice.
Not ascribable exclusively to the realm of
improvised music nor to that of exotic or world music but living a life of its
own somewhere in the middle, this music is the higher point in Cherry’s career,
not easily replicable as the less accomplished El Corazon (ECM, 1982) will show
and an inspirational source for musicians to come, as the double CD Piercing
The Veil (AUM Fidelity, 2007) by Cherry’s enthousiasts bassist William Parker
and drummer Hamid Drake will show you.
Don Cherry’s releases at this point in his
career become discontinuous and sometimes repetitive even if in a way
fascinating. Orient and Blue Lake (both BYG, 1971) are attempts to broaden the
landscape adding tampoura – played by his wife Moqi Cherry – and other
instruments to the palette of the two Mu, but partly for the repetition of some
formulas partly because of a lesser compelling inspiration the result is
A fascinating result is, instead, Brown Rice
(Horizon, 1975) where Cherry, at his own pocket trumpet and also at Yamaha
keyboards is accompanied by Frank Lowe on tenor saxophone, Charlie Haden on
bass, Billy Higgins on drums and Ricky Cherry at acoustic and electric piano,
giving live to a music similar to the so called krautrock explored in the same
years by Can – raised by Irmin Schmidt, a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen,
where psychedelia and trance are scratched by Lowe’s statements and sweetened
by Don’s caressing but at the same time determined voice.
During his last years, Cherry’s music was
issued by Manfred Eicher’s ECM, a label famous for his peculiar sound design:
Cherry encountered old friends like Charlie Haden and new accolites like
percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, producing a less adventuros but better recorded
music coherently in line with his Theatre of Eternal Music idea. Passed away on
October 19, 1995, Cherry’s music is one of the most intriguing and personal statements
of one of the most creative of XX Century.
One of the main
reasons people love jazz is because it is a multi-layered music – since its
tradition and heritage – and being so it offers a multi-layered experience of
listening. Take for instance a multi-instrumentalist like Lao Dan from Dandong
(China): he plays jazz with a post punk attitude, not mixing two different
styles of music but bringing jazz out of the academia. In fact, he plays a
music that is usually based on reflexion and inner listening into the realm of
expressive urgency, even if what he plays remains jazz music (mostly and for
the most part of it).
similar happens with the album Eye of I (Anti-, 2023) released by African
American saxophonist James Brandon Lewis. In this case we have at least one
‘fusion’ of jazz with a completely different style – thanks to the Messthetics’
‘jazz punk jam’ in the ending ‘Fear Not’ – but not only: all the album is a
jazz album driven with the energy and the need to express something less
elaborated than in the conservatory-trained musicians.
is good until the moment in which you realise that Lewis, a solid player in the
tradition of Coltrane whose –isms are unluckily solid as the tradition he
echoes, is expanding his palette only to resemble others, clearly identifiable,
hystorical musicians instead of try to find his own language. This way, you can
run into the ‘Brotzmanisms’ of the 47 seconds of the machine gun-esque
Middleground, or into the ‘Aylerisms’ of Eye of I – there’s also a guitar riff
reminding the opening of Ayler’s The Last Album (Impulse!, 1969) – or again
into the ‘Wareisms’ of the oblique melody of Womb Water (listen to the album
David S. Ware released in 2010 by Amu Fidelity under the title of Onecept).
is difficult to decide, after listening to this album in its entirety, if Lewis
is only a true connoisseur/devotee to the history of the most innodic and/or
confrontational free jazz or if the shadow of some craftiness is emanating from
his personality, at this point in his career. Obviously one wants to believe
that a musician who is trying to find his place into the jazz continuum, and
not only into the market, making difficult choices like the one explained at
the beginning of this review is something more than a smart guy. But playing
jazz is also psychologically demanding since you don’t know where you will be
at the end of your rhetorical constructions, so the need for solid ground can
be tricky even if you are honest.
the moment we can enjoy these pieces of music, and also the likes of Send
Seraphic Being, a ballad tinged into the New York sound of the end of the 1990s
and the beginning of the 2000s, even if in listening to a piece like Within You
Are Answers one can notice how much less adventurous JBL saxophone raids are in
comparison to his models. Nonetheless this is an album that will be chatted,
because Lewis is the kind of musician many people are wanting to hear in order
to continue one of the most intriguing traditions into the jazz history, and
because his aesthetic choiches are nontheless intriguing.
It was 2000 when Age by Daniel Givens came out.
As a newbie of the so-called post-rock movement, and having in my collection of
CDs albums by people like Tortoise, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, June of ‘44,
Trans Am, Sigur Ròs, Enfance Rouge and Stereolab, and being also interested in
free jazz with the then new reissues of BYG Actuel albums, I hailed that record
by Givens, as some magazines did in my country, as one of the most intriguing
attempts to create a synthesis between many creative rivers.
Daniel Givens hosted the AACM member Joshua
Abrams on bass, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and guitarist Jeff Parker between the
many others, creating a music that has one of his peaks and manifestos in the
composition titled No Visible Colors, where he recites “No Visible Colors/No
Particular Race/No Sign of Borders/No Expiration Date”. If the last affirmation
is a sign of Givens idea that art can transcend mortality, the rest of the
quote is showing how much this music is behind every conceived boundary.
Unluckily Givens issued only another EP a few
times after and another album in 2008, so this idea of ‘popularizing’ hip hop,
post-rock, free jazz and the avant-garde creating from them a new form of music
has faded without any particular glory, and sadly enough I settled for
listening to different genres of music instead of a great, new form of art that
was able to mix them together in a unique vision from a single, peculiar
Obviously there are musicians mixing different
styles together, as Terrie Ex playing with his punk band and Getatchéw Mekurya
or alone with Ab Baars or Paal Nillsen-Love, and what about Tom Waits who mixed
songwriting with avant garde sounds for all of his life after 1983? But the
idea of people living in a ‘no safe zone’ where you can encounter elements of
jazz, of rock, of electronics, of rap, etcetera without any of them as a
mainstream or predominant element was still not perfectly embodied by anyone.
This is possibly the reason I reviewed
different kind of music on different websites: being a fan of a music that
doesn’t exist, I can listen to every other style without being prone to it. But
now, after a long period since my last article, I encoutered the music of Camae
Ayewa aka Moor Mother and finally that particular idea is finally carried up a
flag by a relatively new, and great artist. This is the reason I dedicate to
her this post on my blog, because the more I listen to her, the more I listen
to the music I wanted to hear from the very beginning.
Grown up at Aberdeen, Maryland, Camae Ayewa
faced since as a young girl all the difficulties of living in a community taken
as second class. She started also listening to various styles of music,
including rock, hip hop, ska and jazz. Becoming and adult, she started playing
bass in bands like Girls Dressed as Girls and The Mighty Paradocs.
I had the opportunity to listen to the 2007
release of the latter band, titled Live at Grape Street, and I took note of
that hardcore punk sound sometimes inspired by Rage Against The Machine (Burning
Mississippi, Copspit, Silence), sometimes by Dead Kennedys (Hollywood Meets
Bollywood, Story of Africa, Safety Patrol), playing on full and void dynamics
before the release of all the accumulated tension (40 oz of Hurricane/Pissy
Politician), and with some guitar solos betraying an heavy metal ancestry even
if rehashed (WMD’s).
At the end of the 2010s Ayewa started
experimenting with a microKORG, a vocoder/synthesizer, and gave life to her new
project named Moor Mother Goddess, whose principal elements are electronics and
samplings. Since 2012 she started issuing on the internet a hundred recordings,
mostly spoken poetries with music – a sample of Fugazi’s Waiting Room stands
out between the others. Soon the ‘Goddess’ fell from the name of the project,
and Moor Mother issued the single titled Change with Sham-e-Ali Naheem as a
A synthesizer burr and few hits of the
keyboards on contemporary electronic rhythms, Ayewa voice is in the foreground
while Naheem’s on the background. Moor Mother on that same years got in touch
with the Philadelphia underground creative scene, where she planted the seeds
of the projects that flourished the following years in Los Angeles, where she
started teaching composition at the Southern California’s Thorthon School of
As the collective Black Quantum Futurism
raised, with Rasheedah Phillips as major partner-in-crime, the first soloist
albums are released initially trough the label Don Giovanni, responsible of all
of her efforts until 2021, when she started publishing records with the label
ANTI-. Fetish Bones is a 30 minutes album that for its structure is reminiscent
more of some Terre Thaemlitz records than of Gill Scott-Heron or Daniel Givens.
The music, introduced by
industrial/dubstep/trip hop sounds mixed to spared percussions leaving then
space to the voice and sampled horns, is full of disturbing rhythms and free
jazz blows, percussions claiming the attention to an inner listening that is
heckled by some noise (Creation Myth), paranoid rhythms (KBGK), poems recited
on noise bases (Deadbeat Protest), dramatic tensions (Valley of Dry Bones),
Tricky’s rememberances (DIY Time Machine), hammering rhythms on distorted
melodies (Chain Gang Quantum Blues), martial rhytms with a distorted voice (By
The Light), more cinematic moments (Cabrini Green x Natasha McKenna).
If The Motionless Present (2017) breaks the
boundaries of noise and hip hop anticipating Moor Mother’s involvement with the
Art Ensemble of Chicago and Irreversible Entanglement, Analog Fluids of Sonic
Black Holes (2019) is the most varied output to that date: arcoes in crescendo
on which Ayewa declames a strange ritual (Repeater), a male and a female voice
mixed together on martial rhythms (Don’t Die), a collage of different voices on
a noise rug and a syncopated rhythm (After Images), a baritonal chant layed
over various effects (Engineered Uncertainty), African-American poet Saul
Williams featured on a trip hop base (The Myth Hold Weight).
Moor Mother starts in that period many
collaborations with the likes of flutist Nicole Mitchell and others, giving
life with Circuit City (2020) to an opera in four acts. This is the first Moor
Mother production I would advice to a listener whose ears are oriented towards
free jazz. This ‘cicle of afrofuturist songs for our climate’ is split in four
parts and features musicians like Steve Montenegro (electronics), Luke Stewart
(upright bass), Keith Neuringen (saxophone and percussions), Tcheser Holmes
(drums), Aquiles (trumpet, percussions), Madam Data and Elon Battle.
Working Machine, the first part, remembers some
of the Bill Dixon works in which musicians are painting more than playing
melodies and rhythms. Circuit Breaker sees Moor Mother declaim on what seems to
me as an attempt by the musicians to play without following the one the other –
as the Velvet Underground did in the famous film by Andy Warhol or Area, the
Italian prog band, did playing with Steve Lacy in 1976. Time of No Time seem to
come from Miles Davis and his musicians during the Bitches Brew sessions; and
in the end No More Wires is a Coltrane hymn.
The music is consistently different for Moor
Mother two last output with ANTI-. First of all, these couple of records seem
to be more a synthesis of Camae Ayewa’s music different sources, and they also
introduce a new, determinant factor: a good dose of soulqarianism. Do you
remember the records J Dilla, The Roots, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu created
during the beginning of 2000? Yes, ‘that’ idea of soul and hip hop is the
skeleton of a music that in Moor Mother sees influences from free jazz and
other musical souces – as we have seen – to rotate around it.
It is something new in the underground world: a
musician that takes inspiration on an almost mainstream movement, a little bit
of a minority but not a niche, like R’n’B and that shores it up with elements
coming from more underground musical languages. Another characteristic of Moor
Mother’s music is her style of spoken poetry, her ability, so to speak, to
‘loose herself’ repeating more and more one particular sentence until she feels
the music is coming back to her ready to put her on the trails again.
If Moor Mother were a man, for sure this two
traits would have been taken as expression of a new language, as something
authentically revolutionary, and we would have seen many other poets copying
it. In a male dominated world, this will not happen but it is not a bad case
since we will be able to appreciate the original instead of the many possible
copies. But let’s go back to the music.
Both Black Encyclopedia of the Air (2021) and
Jazz Codes (2022) start with percussions and a subtle melody remembering Daniel
Givens’ past works. Encyclopedia in particularly, less jazz oriented than the
follower, finds his roots in Gil Scott-Heron and in post-rock without being
derivative. It’s a synthesis and a new start. Mangrove and Shekere show a
mature artist, that uses her sound sources in order to express a precise
meaning: it’s not mere experimentation. Cello, rhythm and voice are mixing
together into a unity.
Obsidian is dominated by a limping rhythm that
creep into effected voices, as in the following Iso Fonk accompanied by liquid
keyboards. Rogue Waves sees a use of scat that is almost lettrist, Made a
Circle is almost chill out, Tarot is an attempt to create a groove with words
instead than with a rhythmic. And if Zami with his noise and spoken poetry
fusion remember the past output of the artist, in other places of the album the
trip hop tension is decisely transposing itself into analogic percussions.
Jazz Codes, nominated by some music magazines
and critics as the most interesting output of 2022, is, as we said before,
following Encyclopedia’s tendency lines adding to it the jazz flavour that the
many collaborations that Moor Mother is accumulating in that field, as we have
seen. In particular Ode to Mary sees pianist Jason Moran in a dialogue with
Ayewa’s words, in the track titled Woody Shaw spoken poetry and rap are mixed
with the keyboards pointillism, and Meditation Rag is a come back to a recitation
mixed with the horns and with a lyric chant.
But if the album is varied, at a point that it
is useless to describe every single track, the use of featurings and of
different musical sources, from sampling to real instruments, is at the service
of songwriting, a songwriting that it is pure and intense as we didn’t hope to
find out since many years. Since Jazz Codes close with a precise speech, in
which it is said that the word ‘jazz’ was a term indicating ‘sex’ at the
beginning, which is, being at ease with yourself and being natural, we will
close this monography remembering to our listeners that listening to music is a
Art is, as Moor Mother pointed out in
many interviews, a mean to be taken into another world. In this other world we
can see ourselves complete as we would love to be. This is why is so important
to be in a place that didn’t existed before also musically, as I explained at
the beginning of this post. Musicians like Moor Mother and Daniel Givens before
her gave life simply to the dream of every other musician: not only to be
original, but also to live through music in a new place. Someone would call
this new place utopia. A serious indication where we want to put our feet in
the future. Music is an invitation to that. Let’s follow it.
Linked as it seems they are, politics and jazz
in China are a delicate topic to write about. But, as it seems to me, many of
the musicians I chose to show you in this second article are in a way ‘rebels’.
Many of them are classically trained, but at a certain point in their career
they chose to become independent musicians. Possibly, a way to remove
themselves from a certain politeness, artistically speaking, and start
exploring new territories.
If John Coltrare wanted to be ‘a true force for
the good’, insinuating that there’s a link in the African American jazz tradition
between music and ethics (music and creativity as a source for ethics?), in
experimental jazz and avant garde music from China independency from morality
(from words and their meanings, as Carmelo Bene tried to do in his theatre
plays) and politics are a way to give life to a music that seek an
unprecedented freedom of expression.
Setting itself apart from politics and from
jazz as a link between the East and the West, claiming with their works that
avant garde jazz is bigger that the words of reconciliation because its source
is at the core of what’s vital in every human being, these artists are showing
also with their collaborations with musicians outside of their country that
there’s another way, not institutional, to create a net between people, between
musicians, and their audience, another way to make community and to
Incidentally this is a political act, even if
it belongs to the idea that a musician can express through music what he is,
indicating the art he is creating as a mirror for his own being (the metaphor
of art as a mirror is taken from an interview with guitarist Li Janhong). This
immediate correspondence between creation and creator, between what we are and
what we do, is almost revolutionary. Obviously it is valid for Ornette Coleman
and for Lao Dan, but seeing it riaffirmed with so much strenght in the 2020s
gives us so much confidence for the future.
Born in Dandong, a border city in Northeastern
China across the Yalu River from North Corea, Lao Dan started playing saxophone
at the age of 8. In 2007 he was admitted with the highest score to Shenyang
Conservatory of Music. But, instead of pursuing the conventional career path as
a professional conservatory flutist, he decided to become an indipendent
Saxophone and bamboo flute remain his main
instruments even if he’s capable of playing various world instruments such as
xiao, bawu, suona and duduk. He is always trying to put those instruments at
their extreme limits, exploring non conformist ways of playing and utilizing a
‘punk’ attitude towards his jazz music.
In 2018 he tourned America playing in different
cities with local musicians, while in 2019 he toured Japan, playing with the
legendary drummer Sabu Toyozumi. Finally last year an album we’ll talk about
later in this article was issued by No Business, a label devoted to new
material and to reissue historical works by the likes of William Parker and Sam
The album Self Destruct Machine (2022) start
alternating the high tone pitches Lao Dan is well known for with sparse
fragments of soft melodies, strong statements, vocal ‘scat’, severe outbursts
on saxophone. Solo albums are an interesting output for every jazz musician
from the 1960s onwards, and this record shows a musician that can be not only a
notable partner, as it happens with some more upper crust European young
improvisers we described in the past underlying their limits, but a true master
musician in his own right.
The record is divided in four parts: the
title-track we described here above, Clown, a meditative suite for flute and
more or less cacophonous various instruments interspersed with vocal
experimentations, until a more straight, intense saxophone statement. Fish Ball
Hotel is a shorter piece that sees again a progression from a meditative mood
to a rassemblement of higher pitches sparsed with silence and other fragments
of melodies. Finally, Marathon has this Evan Parker eloquence but more
physical, less abstract and spiritual.
Ze Ze The Milky Way (2021) by Jooklo Duo and
Lao Dan is a collaboration between the chinese multi instrumentalist and an
Italian interesting duo (Virginia Genta, saxophones; David Vanzan, drums) who
collaborated also with the likes of Sabu Toyozumi, Thurston Moore from Sonic
Youth, Makoto Kawabata and Chris Corsano. This album is comprised of five
tracks. Dragon Tongue starts with the drum sticks drawing interesting small but
quick rhythms in which what seem a keyboard introduces itself.
After, the magic of a flute (both Dan and Genta
play this instrument) starts being surrounded by small percussions in what can
be described as a theatrical approach to musical vision. Bamboo Secret is a
small composition for flutes, keyboards and percussion with a dramatic urge,
Drunk Funk maintains the promises of its title, while Dalla Cina Con Furore
sees drums and keyboards building an atmosphere suitable for the saxophones to
slowly but relentlessly explode, with the last two minutes devoted to a drums
and bass/keyboards plus saxophone march, and the final Tofu Blues is a mystical
but ironic immersion into the waters of an inner but cacophonous meditation
through the sound of pipes and the atonal keyboards.
Then, another record we want to analyze is a
duo album by Lao Dan (here on dizi, alto, duduk and duck whistle) and Li Daiguo
(pipa, prepared piano, tabla, bass drum, voice) as BBB & BBB (Ben Bo Er Ba
& Ba Bo Er Ben) titled Hu Nian An Yu (2020). This album, recorded live as
the previouses, is comprised of five parts where the meditating qualities of
the introduction are sometimes interspersed sometimes mixed with the materic
qualities of improvisation and the abstractness of contemporary music.
One of the most active sound artists in China
nowadays, Li Jianhong, born in Fenghua, Zhejiang in 1975 is now residing in Hangzhou.
In few times he became known as ‘the best noise musician in China’. In a long interview for
an Italian webzine the founder of the label 2pi and of the 2pi Festival stated
that his love for psychedelic music comes from listening passionately records
of historical artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Tangerine Dreams and Les Rallizes
Dénudés, plus from his interest in old sci-fi culture.
In his album Mountain Fog (WV Sorcerer, 2021)
the fist track Did You See The Fireball? It Just Leapt Beyond The Wanghai Gang
is composed mostly by noise feedbacks weaving through different rhytms and
peaks. The long titles and the practice of the music obviously makes one think
about the great japanese guitar player Keiji Haino, but the press (see the
reviews by the Chicago Reader) find more useful comparisons with the Sonic
Youth immersed in Buddhism and traditional Chinese Art (for sure the sense of
space and the lyricism is different than in Moore & Co).
Mountain Fog is, instead, a duo improvisation
featuring saxophonist and noise musician Wang Ziheng. 32 minutes of a live,
more granular and noisy music than the previous, that has this quality as a
kind of a sweetness emerging from the mass of sound. The saxophone is not
electronically treated but it sounds coherently in line with what the guitarist
proposes, with prolonged lines and sonorous slimes before elevating a painful
chant that soon emerges itself into a barrier of noise reminiscent of Einsturzende
Neubauten music, with that quality of something falling apart.
Another interesting project by Li Janhong is
D!O!D!O!D! featuring drummer Huang Jin, as you can listen through the album
Ghost Temple from 2005 where the music is more destructured and less fluent,
with drums and guitars elevating the wall of sound to a spasmodic research for
the highest noise peak. One for sure wonders if the 30 seconds metal/jazz gems
of Torture Garden by John Zorn had sons in the world of music, and this album
for sure can be taken as such, even if the noise tradition in Eastern countries
is solid and autochthonous.
Born in inner Mongolia, Deng Boyu has been
active in the Chinese underground music scene since the late 1990s. He is
appreciated as a drummer, as a solo electronic artist and as a collaborator to
many artists, including Marc Ribot, Lee Ranaldo and Akira Sakata. His music has
reached the Western ears also thanks to mini 20 minutes albums such as Inertion
issued by a label linked to the Café Oto, a famous venue in London devoted to
free jazz, avant garde and experimental music in general.
Deng Boyu uses electronics as the Art Ensemble
of Chicago used small percussions at the beginning of their shows in order to
create an atmosphere of contemplation and recollection, with pulsating rhythms
surrounded by different layers of noise and sounds. After a small pause, a
distinctive rhythm and an electronic melody take place, surrounded by the noise
of what can seem a guitar drone or a guitar feedback. This music comes from a
place where it is used in order to reflect, and is definitely not a word of
Tutu, a duo album played by Lao Dan and Deng
Boyu, updates the tradition of the albums with drums and horns as the
hystorical Mu (first and second part) by Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell. Less
teathrical and meditative than Lao Dan’s previous output analyzed, this record
shows a mastery and incisiveness by both players. The construction of melodies
and the noise parts are equally preeminent, and the use of different tools like
saxophones, flutes, voice and many percussions enrich the palette of the music
giving it a high range in dynamic quality.
Apart from the single musicians here above,
peak of the underground avant-garde scene in China, there are lots of
interesting labels who issue albums from China artists and artists coming from
all over the world. As an example, take Old Heaven Books, held by Ty Fei in
Shenzen, and that features artists exhibiting at the most important free avant
garde festivals in China, the OCT Loft Jazz Festival and the Tomorrow Festival.
One of the records described above, Ze Ze The
Milky Way, was released by Old Heaven Books. Other records recommended to me
are Burning Bookshops I & II and Faintish Radiations. Released in 2017, Old
Bookshops I sees a “jam session” between such musicians as Shinpei Ruike,
Hiroski Mituzani, Shinnosune Takahashi, Lao Dan and Deng Boyu, a lyrically
croocked suite in three movements where every musician has his glory moment.
Recorded during the ninth Tomorrow Festival in
2019, Old Bookstore II features Masayko Koketsu, Lao Dan, Li Daiguo and Deng
Boyu, and it follows its predecessor in exposing every musician’s mastery even
if emphasis is a bit more on the overall result than on individual efforts, and
it’s full of beautiful weavings of saxophones.
As one can hear, through the years and the
multiple encounters the various scenes – Japanese, Chinese, even Russian since
many musicians I introduced to you in the past from that country exhibited
themselves in the above mentioned festivals – have melted and learned to
collaborate in creating beauty.
Another label worth of being mentioned is WV
Sorcerer Productions; mostly devoted, as the name of the label itself report,
to ritual music, it also has a branch of its productions focused on
experimental music and free jazz. A good starting point in approaching the
label is the cassette Funcioning Anomie, featuring again Lao Dan recorded solo
for the first time in a beautifully rich of sounds natural environment reminding
the experiments of Peter Brotzmann and Han Bennink in the forest of
We, the Fire are One is an intriguing album by
reedist Wang Ziheng, who claims to have applied the film editing techniques
elaborated by Masao Adachi for his medium film “AKA
Serial Killer” to the music in order to paint shan shui, a classical
chinese technique of painting natural places, like mountains, cascades, rivers.
The result is a meditative music, that leaves space in equal part to sound and
silence, making you experience an inner space that becomes real only while
listening to music and that stays with you, at least for a little bit, even
when the music’s over.
For my readers it will be possible for
sure to recognize in these musicians the same creative fire we pursued in years
of listening and creating new music as the one you’re reading every month on
the pages of this blog. Lao Dan and his peers create music that has roots in
many aspects of Chinese culture, from painting to folk music, but that has
trascended their origins becoming a way to be confrontational and meditative at
the same time.
Honestly I don’t know if this bunch of records
would find a place in the emblazoned magazines devoted to more ‘classical’
jazz, but one thing I can say is that this music is vital, deep and it
maintains their qualities of breaking up with an embellised tradition without
loosing the force of the roots of those traditions, and at the same time,
mixing their own origins with innovation of free playing they’re creating
That’s why I’ll keep on searching for new music
in the world while reviewing material from more rooted and known musicians. At
the same time, I would like to express a big thank you to Liu Yuheng, owner of
a beautiful blog in Chinese about alternative music, who also translated one of
my article for his creature, for helping me on being aware of the music you
have read about in this post. Keep up the good work, my friends all over the
I have to admit it, this album comes in
the right moment in my shelves. A few time ago I bought for my collection a
double CD titled “Electronic Music – It Started Here ...” published by the
label Not Now, devoted to the reissue of old material in every field of
contemporary music, from the 1920s blues to jazz to contemporary music, and
this double CD was very interesting for me because it comprised two different
ideas of dealing with electronic sound.
On one hand you had people devoted to
abstractness, or with experimenting with new structurres if you want, as
Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer, on the other hand you had composers
like Ray Cathode who used electronic sounds to surround piano melodies and Dick
Jackobs who loved to reproduce the melody of the famous italian song Volare.
This almost schizoid abyss and difference
between this two kind of idea of contemporary music helped me in understanding
how insidious is for a musician to write or execute electronic music. This
style of music can be the most volatile, the most abstract, and while a
composer as John Cage argued that musicians could help human beings in having a
new familiarity with everyday noise of a city life, it is true that electronic
and experimental music need some anchor points in order to not fear the
abstractness, or newness, they carry with themselves.
That’s why I truly believe Qi Gong, an
interesting way people from the Far East tried to discipline the body of men,
was a real inspiration form for J. A. “Dino” Deane, one of those figures you
feel a profound interest for when you meet their work. J. A. Deane was devoted
to electronic music and sound manipulation until his recent death in 2021, long
before this album was completed by his collaborator Jason Kao Hwang. But let’s
start from the beginning.
Jason Kao Hwang is an important figure in the
field of improvised music. His art speaks loud outside of the barriers we put
on art forms because we feel we can understand them better that way. In an old
review for a reissue on double CD of old and complete recordings by one of his
first bands, The Committments, featuring a young William Parker, I
wrote in my language that that music was “indespensible, vital music, an
expression of the human at its best like few others”.
Mr Hwang, a first generation descendant of
chinese immigrants, has been raised near Chicago and partecipated very actively
at the first season of the New York loft scene held by Sam Rivers. His music
was a bridge between the AACM school and the New York sound, fusing them
together in his playing both violin and viola. In a way, he continued
experimenting in the tradition of other great players of string insturments
like the late Leroy Jenkins.
Very active in the field of improvised music
since the 1980s, with this last output Uncharted Faith he poses his idea and
practice of music at high peaks of creativeness thanks also to his
collaboration with J. A. Deane. After Deane lost her wife Colleen Mulvihill in
2019, he left Denver in order to live in rural Cortez, Colorado. There he
finished a book titled “Becoming Music, Conduction and Improvisation as forms
of Qi Gong”.
Deane sent one copy of his book to Hwang in
2020. Hwang answered sending Deane copies of his music, and the two decided to
collaborate despite the pandemics. Hwang in this album plays a Tucker Barrett
solid-body violin, while Deane, who died before the album was ended,
contributes electronics such as Sensei Morph touch controller, Spacecraft
granular synthesizer software and Akai MPC Live Digital Audio Workstation.
Just to go back at the beginning of this
review, the album is in the tradition of great experimention with sound, but in
a way it is also concrete. In fact Hwang violin is filtered or played, I cannot
tell precisely but this is the impression, through a wah wah pedal like that of
Hendrix or Miles Davis during the 1970s, plus echo effects (but it can be also
Deane post-production). I cited Miles Davis not by chance because the first
thing I thought listening to Parallel Universe, the CD first track, was that of
listening to an abstract rendition of On The Corner.
Miles Davis during the 1970 was not only
exploring with timbres and colors from rock amplification, he also tried to
change the structure of music, asking for help to his collaborator Paul
Buckmaster who suggested him to use modular, i.e. repetitive, structures taken
from Karlheinz Stockhausen and Indian music. Davis did it his own way, taking
bass figures from funk after listening to Sly Stone music in particular but
taking it all to a more abstract level.
Not dissimilarly here, we have on the first
track of the album a distorted violin surrounded by small electronic sounds the
same way Davis played his muted and distorted trumpet surrounded by bass, three
drums and electric guitars. Hwang is not playing a direct melody and is not
mimicking Jenkins’ trills and vibratos, but he’s finding his own way to
communicate in a more abstract, but also very concrete, world of electronic
sounds: he tries to win the battle against abstractness, and possibly he and
Deane has won this battle.
On Singularity, the collateral electronic
sounds are not following or preceeding the violin, but kind of dancing around
it. There are moments in which you hear the violin alone, as a moment in which
you recollect your ideas, then you are pushed again in the flux of music where
some small sounds are used as percussions in order to give a more vivid
rendition to the violin’s ‘quasi-melodies’.
Crossing the Horizon is one of those pieces of
music in which you cannot tell what is the analogic source for music and what
is the electronic one, and this is his charm: the music has a great variety not
only as far as sound used, but also as far as volumes and colors. Sometimes
this piece of music reminds me of Laurie Anderson when she was playing a violin
without strings and with a tape recorded at their place, but no voice emerges
from Hwang, only abstract shapes.
In Shamans of Light you can almost feel a
strange organ depicting a liturgic armosphere, while the violin, here a little
bit more material than in the other tracks, at a certain point explodes and
leaves you with the sensation of a transfiguration. Speaking in Tongues is a
title that makes me think of texts I was reading about Albert Ayler many years
ago, that idea of many horns playing different things together at once, but what
we have here are different layers of sound, from a small melodic background to
the violin, effected as in the first track.
Finally, the long, almost 20 minutes of
Uncharted Faith start with small electronic and violin sounds developing into
almost musique concrète and what in pop music is called a wall of sound, with
the violin expressing a mysterious chant and the electronics answering with
what can seem a ‘fire of sound’, with small percussions in the AACM tradition
and after them a strange organ or piano, pushing the music on more concrete
territories without losing that aerial and abstract quality.
A record that grows undoubtely one listening
after the other, Uncharted Faith is a great attempt to push the boundaries of
improvised and electronic music forward, in territories that in other hands
could result more tricky, but that in Deane and Hwang practice are for sure
thrilling and demanding. If you decide to committ, they will leave you
satisfied and wanting for more.
Have to admit it, being a music lover sometimes
makes your wishes coming true nightmares. I have promised myself to dig into
chinese free jazz first, in order to complete the series of articles I started
at the beginning of this month. Then I grabbed some interesting other material,
like a couple of old Pharoah Sanders records – who passed away recently – and a
copy of Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth full of material unreleased
So the amount of records I wanted to listen
carefully, both material I want to write about and other stuff I want to listen
in order to make up better my own mind, is increasing. Then finally I put my
hands on a copy of the record we’re talking in this review, and I could not be
more satisfied than that. But my record collection is increasing dangerously
for my own mind. Anyway, Broken Gargoyles is a record to talk about after a
closer look, since Diamanda Galàs is coming to her avant garde releases after
years and years of piano-and-voice records.
I met Diamanda Galàs first in 2002, when a
radio I was listening in that period here in my country transmissed
Holokaftoma, a gothic rendition of an old poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini
decontextualized and recontextualized during the Armenian genocide. I was
simply hooked. Finally I had the opportunity to listen to that album,
Defixiones: Will and Testament, and all the other stuff by Mrs Galàs, in their
entirety. So, I definitely know what I’m talking about when talking about her
When you first approach Galàs art, the thing to
take in your own mind is the fact that this form of art is made to divide. You
can have, from the very beginning, two different reactions: you can be
horrified and annoyed, or you can be positively inspired. In order to be
positively inspired, you have to take her vocal effects as a door into a inner
world of suffering – the suffering many of us have felt through their
terrestrial, which is the only, path, the only at least as far as we can prove
– without fear of a derange.
In the rich booklet of this album, it is
explained very well: Diamanda Galàs uses her voice as ancient Gorgons or Medusa
were using it in order to call to the battle. Her use of voice is an act of
warfare. War against religion used as a tool against homosexuals during the
AIDS pandemic in the case of Black Mass. War against the governements that
planned genocides in the past as in Defixiones. War against governements that
left people illed with yellow fever to die alone, or that left soldiers
disfigured apart from the rest of society, in the case of Broken Gargoyle.
The texts recited in German by Galàs in this
album are from poems by Georg Heim written in 1911. They describe the people
suffering from yellow fever and condemned to a slow and inexorable death far
from the rest of society in order not to infect it, plus the suffering of
people at war. This lyrics, surrounded by the sound design created by Daniel
Neumann were intended to be originally performed in the Hannover’s Kappellen
Leprosarium (i.e. the Sanctuary of the Lepers of the German city) as an
installation, and the Red Mask on the cover of the album this time is a
reference to the iron mask the mutilated from WWI had to put on their face to
prevent fear in their neighbours or in the public opinion in general.
This way, the album talks about war and
pestilence, and is a direct reference to the times we’re living. The Covid
pandemic, the war in Ukraine. Which side are we on, not simply in the conflict
but as an act of affirmation of our own humanity? Are we on the side of
knowledge and not on the side of obedience or disobedience as mechanical acts?
Are we on the side of peace for the people without supporting this or that
governement? These and other questions arise while we listen.
The album is not the best output by Galàs
creatively, I suspect because the personalities and the modus operandi of both
Galàs and Neumann have to melt better and I hope they will do in the future,
but this is for sure the best output by Galàs as far as sound. It is undeniable
you’ll be pushed into another dimension, with so much space and time in order
to be in touch with the emotions the voice, the words and the sounds will evoke
There are two long compositions on the album,
Mutilatus (‘Wounded’ in Latin) and Abiectus (‘Thrown Away’). Both are comprised
with lyrics and sound effects (violins, trombones, electronic sounds,, metal
sheets, modular synthesizers) in order to create a sound ambient in which
experience something massive coming from your inner self.
I experienced such installations many times (I
remember once being in a simulation of many rooms by John Duncan in London
about ten years ago, and again in a room in Piombino, in my country, few times
before, always by Duncan with a total loss of references as far as sound and
space) so it is not something completely new but it is something that for sure
will not let you insensitive.
After all, it is a matter of love. Love for
humanity, love for truth, love for life. Diamanda Galàs is like a modern
Antigone that refuses to be blocked inside her tomb by power and accepts the
duty of pointing the finger at the light at the end of the dark for everyone
who wants to suit this road. Political art if there is one, Diamanda Galàs’ is
contemporary as not that many because it refuses to be catalogued, aspiring
everytime to be alive despite of the wounds it carries along its road.
“There is in fact no such thing as art
for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or
independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole
proletarian revolutionary cause” – Mao Zedong
If you are a regular reader of Complete
Communion, you had found interesting stuff in the past weeks about jazz in
Russia and in Japan. Many years ago, for All About Jazz, I compiled a review of
interesting free jazz and electronic music
coming from Istanbul. Now’s the time to talk a little bit about jazz in
China. This last duty is a little bit demanding, since jazz is not only, in
this case, a matter of art and enjoyment, but also part of a strategy. That’s
why I read with great attention a thesis published in 2018 I found out surfing
Thesis is by Li Mo, issued originally in 2010 for the University of the
Arts of Nanjing and reproposed in 2018 for the University of Kent. As I did in
the past with a thesis by musician and musicologist Dana Reason Myers in an
article about the avant-garde and sexism, I’ll reproduce some of the most
interesting passages with my own words, and in a second post I’ll explore the
most interesting musicians now living and exploring music in China. But for the
moment, a little bit of history.
In 1972 Richard Nixon visited China. Not too
long after this opening, U.S. jazz came to Beijing, more and more taken as a
tool for diplomacy, as the case of the Blue Note opening in Beijing during
these last year will show. In december 1978, the Eleventh conference held by
the Central Committee of the Communist Party was going to an end, and president
Hua Guofeng, successor of Mao Zedong was replaced by Deng Xiaoping.
The country was reopened to the international
trade and media, and millions of young people resumed their academic careers.
Many forms of foreing music, previously disdained as immoral, were now
accepted. 1978 was also a turning point for jazz musicians entering China from
Europe. A post modern trend from the U.S. became internationalized, and
accepted by European audiences, with figures like Albert Mangelsdorff and
This type of jazz however was in decline in the
U.S. where Wynton Marsalis claimed it was a deviation from the great jazz tradition.
Post modern jazz found out in China a fertile ground in order to expand itself.
Beijing local musicians were already fascinated by them, starting a
collaboration. In 1993 first Beijing jazz festival appeared, promoted by Udo
Hoffman (from Germany). On the other hand, when Xi Jinping visited Barack Obama
there was a cultural exchange, in which the president of China introduced the
Americans to Chinese opera and Chinese were offered a jazz concert.
Prior to the opening of places where to study
jazz, Chinese musicians learned music from the records of Miles Davis and John
Coltrane. After it was possible to travel, more and more jazz musicians started
visiting and studying in New York, taken as the Mecca of jazz music. Nowadays
jazz in China is promoted as a way to create good relationships between the two
countries, educators are sent to China and funds are invested to enhance the
development of jazz in China.
In June 2015 Steve Bensusan, president of Blue
Note Entertainment Group extended its chain of jazz clubs into Beijing. The
local’s opening was delayed until August 2016. The place where the club is
placed is the line of the division between the Inner and the Outer city, where
there’s a thick wall and the gate and its vicinity is called Zhengyang Men
(colloquially Quianmen), a place for business and a performance center since
XIII Century. After the 1950s the communist governement removed the wall and
modified the transportation network. More and more commercial centers
fluorished in the Inner City. Sicha Hai, with its intense night life, is one of
these new centers, where live music is practiced since the 2000s.
Chinese Jazz Age is a time around the 1930s
when both yellow music and a new form of left-wing music arose. Yellow music
means ‘obscene music’, as jazz and jazz-tinged music before the 1980s was
referred to by people in China. Jazz has been introduced in China in the 1920s
and it was popular amongst the ballrooms of Shanghai. Buck Clayton, a trumpet
player in Count Basie’s band, talks about its experience in Shanghai in his
autobiography. He and his band was forced to leave U.S. by the difficulties of
living for persons belonging to a racialized group of people and to a
subculture like jazz music.
The continuous arrival of American musicians in
the 1930s made Shanghai the center of jazz in Asia, making of the city an
international metropolis. This premature globalization was of help for Clayton
and his fellow musicians, enjoying a respect they didn’t had in their home
country, but not all the people living in Shanghai were at the same level. Real
jazz was performed only in luxury ballrooms like the Canidrome, while poor
people felt it only like an extravagant and rotten culture brought by cruel
Liu Yuan, a preeminent saxophonist from
Beijing, states that this fist ‘jazz music’ was not real jazz: the chord
progressions were simply applied from classical music or Hollywood film music,
the rhythm was tipical ballroom style like waltz or Charleston and it was
totally composed, with no improvisation. Possibly it was Chinese popular music
played with saxophones, piano and drums, in order to give that music a jazz
tinge. Plus, most of the people were exposed to jazz only through films and
During colonialism in the 1920s and 1930s when
huge masses of people left campaigns for the cities, and economy was turned
upside down from old agriculture to a cities’ economy, young guys, and
intellectuals, were becoming more and more radical. In this situation, jazz
became a target of hatred. After 1978, as Bernoviz Nimrod states in his China’s
New Voices: Politics, Etnicity and Gender in Popular Music Culture and the
Mainland, the governement almost encouraged diversity in thought, and more
freedom in arts and lifestyles.
According to Nimrod, who in his dissertation
treats jazz, popular music and propaganda art as a whole, it seems that the
governement and the protesters shared many common notion in their ideology and
are tied together. Anyway, from 1978 to the 1990s jazz music has so much few
followers it was neglected or not considered by both the masses and the
Taken in the past under the Empire of China as
a sacred color, at a point that nobody could wear it without permission, after
the Opium Wars and the expansion of the West over the East, yellow was
considered as a synonim to obscene and immoral, after the importation of the
American phrase ‘yellow journalism’, a term used to criticize misinformation
and sentationalism – today we talk about ‘fake news’.
The use of the term yellow music in reference
not only to jazz but to a great variety of forbidden musics, reached the peak
during the Cold War. Morality and music are tide up in China since the West
Zhou Dinasty (1046-771 BC): moral music could assist a moral king to rule a
country to gain prosperity. This belief was conserved during the following
dinasties, linking itself with the affirmation of the patriarchy, even if
matrilineal lines never ceased completely to exist.
At the same time, music itself, or ‘yue’ in
Chinese, passed from the original meaning of a sum of sound, poetry, ritual and
dance only to the meaning of sound in itself, while ‘cai feng’ (songs from the
fields in Chinese) expanded itself as a earliest surveillance system on
ideology: crimes like corruption and insurrections were punished by execution,
according to the lyrics.
As a taboo in musical morality, the term ‘mimi
zhiyin’ (indulgent music) took its place. When the color yellow started to be used in the
media war during the 1940s, immediately it depicted also ‘obscene’ music and
art, and ‘mimi zhiyin’ was reinforced during the Cold War era. Since the fall of the Ming Dinasty (1368-1644)
women were restrained from public stages; losing their legal status,
occupational female musicians fell into an ambiguous realm between
entertainment and prostitution.
On one hand, we had in Beijing Opera female
roles played by male actors. On the other hand, artists were constantly living
at the margin of society, and this led to people living a life of gimmicks. From the 1910s, the New Cultural Movement
initiated by the Nationalist intellectuals started a series of politics to help
the women. Foot binding was banned and breast tie was prohibited. In 1910
Nanjing opened the first school for women. In 1920 this changes created new job
Women came in urban areas to find out their
jobs. A liberation movement of women grew, having its peak in 1926 when Chiang
Kai-Shek became president of the National Party and started leading China.
Unluckily the new ideas and laws didn’t affected women living in rural areas at
least at the beginning, and, more important, they were abandoned by their
husbands seeking job opportunities in the cities. And the ‘new women’ were saw
by the rural women as conditioned by a ‘Western virus’.
This difficult dialectic, or if you prefer
mutual intolerance between rural area and the cities, brewed into a catastrophe
during the Cold War era. Anyway, the changes in art and social life increased
in the 1930, with the rise of Chinese cinema, which romanticized lower class
women, prostitutes, or sing-song girls that appeared as a trend also in
literature works. Obviously this romanticization didn’t led to a better life
for women, particularly in cities.
As far as music, the first Western symphonic
band in China was established in 1879. By 1925, the Shanghai Public Band
performed only for Europeans and in segregation. Musicians coming from Europe
not only played in the band, but also teached music to young local pupils. In 1927
these young musicians became the core staff in establishing an orchestra
department for the newly built National Conservatoire of Music. Under pianist
Mario Paci from Italy the segregation ended and the band became the Shanghai
During the 1910s the rise of Western-style
schoolsbrought a new genre of music,
the ‘Xuetang Yuege’ or school song. After 1917 Russians refugee, in a
considerable number, moved into Shanghai and some became the main body of
musicians and dancers in middle-ranked cabarets. Live jazz concerts were introduced to Shanghai
during the 1920s. One of these jazz band was under the direction of Mario Paci,
even if we don’t know what music the band was playing.
The first jazz musician to tour China was
Danish American drummer Whitey Smith (1897-1966), who before coming into China
was a performer in San Francisco. He met Louis Ladow, owner of the Old Carlton
Café in Shanghai and in need of a band. Smith arrived in Shanghai in 1922 and
stayed until 1937, until the Japanese invasion. Valaida Snow (1904-1956),
African American vocalist and trumpeter, arrived in 1926, the year Chiang
Kai-Shek became president, and the year of the civil war, with the Jack Carter
She stayed only two years in Shanghai and there
are no much documents about her stay. When she left, the Nationalist Party won
the war and the capital was transferred from Beijing to Nanjing. These are also the years in which the USA
denied the concession of Japanes jurisdiction in China, encouraging Chinese
Nationalists in their pursue of power. Popularity of jazz in Shanghai was brief
and very limited: wars, rivalries and turbulence deprived jazz from a sustained
After cooperation between National and
Communist Parties ended in 1927, all cultural elements, including jazz, became
targets for communists to reject and denounce. The ‘old Shanghai jazz’, famous
in the 1930s and 1940s, was a mixture between chinese and jazz elements. The
more complicated chords were left out in advantage of the pure melody, and the
rhyhtms were simply taken from charleston, not swing.
After Snow, Buck Clayton, who was also a member
of the Duke Ellington orchestra, appeared on Shanghai jazz scene in 1934, after
he met the Chicago pianist Teddy Weatherford who toured China a few times
before. Still suffering for the effects of the Great Depression, Clayton
decided to go in search of a new odience in this foreign country. Unluckily we
have no recordings of this adventure. In the night clubs of Shanghai during the 1930s
many different styles of music were called ‘jazz’. A huge amount of Russians
and Filipino players exceeded African American musicians.
Soon a hierarchy was created: the foreign
musicians like Clayton often played in luxury locals like the Canidrome or the
Paramount for the élite, the Filipinos and Russians were hired for taxi cabaret
music, while the Japanese and Chinese players joined the stage later, in the
second half of the 1930s. The term ‘jazz’ was designing only the
instrumentation taken from jazz music, anyway. The music was a cabaret music
with percussion, piano, brass and reeds.
The only period of authentic American jazz
played in Shanghai was from the 1920s to 1937, the year of the Japanese
invasion when Clayton and other expats like him came back to the U.S. The earliest Chinese jazz band, Yu Yuezhang’s
Band, appeared in 1935 but two years later China was at war and entertainment
fell into a fragile situation.
Listening one of the few records of ‘jazz’
released in China (see video at the bottom of this article), the piece
Nighttime in Old Shanghai by the Whitey Smith’s Orchestra, what we hear is a
rhythmic base of Charleston, a Classical chord progression tidily ‘marched’ by
all brass players together with the incorporation of Chinese elements and a Tin
Pan Alley style melody.
Smith possibly was a big influence on popular
composer Li Jinui (1891-1961) and had a big impact on Chines audience, who
learned how to dance in his ballroom. This music became so the prototype of the
so-called ‘Old Shanghai Jazz’. In 1934 Buck Clayton reached China, pushed by
the economic crisis the U.S. was still coping to thanks to the Great
Depression. Unluckily no recording of Clayton band in China has survived, but
very likely he played Swing in the Canidrome. Musicians were adapting their
music to the situations.
In the nightlife of the 1930s many styles of
cabaret music were called ‘jazz’. The hierarchy we previously noted took place.
When Clayton lived in Shanghai, the Canidrome and the Paramount, top quality
ballrooms, were frequented by rich Chinese merchants, clerks and well-to-do
students. Russian and Filipino players were hired for taxi cabaret music.
Japanese and Chinese players joined only in the second half of the 1930s.
Anyway two crucial elements for jazz music,
improvisation and swing, were not present in the music played in Shanghai. Even
if a small élite had access to ‘true’ U.S. jazz, after 1945 this ‘smooth’ jazz
of Shanghai became the only form of jazz known in China when Jin Jiemei Band
became the most important band at the Paramount cabaret. Finally, in 1950, even
this semplified form of ‘jazz’ was banned: the relationship between China and
the United States faltered due to the Korean War and jazz was listed with the
ban on ‘yellow music’.
Li Jinhui’s (1891-1961) music was associated
with yellow music and was taboo. He was denounced as ‘the father of yellow
music’. Criticized by many to be a ‘charlatan’, or a ‘heretic’, the ‘father’ of
Chinese popular music and Chinese ‘jazz’ was pointed out this way since he
wasn’t following the European traditions of how to play piano, and since he
wasn’t obeying the norms and standards of the musical world (see video at the
end of the article).
1959, the year of the release of Miles Davis’
Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Uhm, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and
Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come was a pivotal year for jazz music.
This music was taken seriously and there was a debate about ‘serious’ or ‘real’
jazz music. That year for China was a nightmare. First
there was the Cuban revolution that pushed the Cold War into a new stage,
The year before Nikita Khrushchev became prime
minister of the Soviet Union. His negation against Stalin irritated Mao Zedong,
leader of China at that moment. In effects, while Mao was struggling to
increase its own absolute power as Stalin did – and this was the only
comparison between the twos – opportunists inside the Communist Party sought to
promote their own position and to eliminate competitors.
In the musical societies, amateurs musicians
saw an opportunity to overthrow the authority of professional and conservatoire
musicians. Critiques became a trend in academia and the media. The decade of the 1950s saw the world ‘jueshi
jue’ (jazz) as a taboo in musical morality in China, and the cause for the ban
was Korean War. The music media, affiliated with the political propaganda,
launched a campaign against American culture, criticizing more the life-style
of its consumer more than its musical traits.
Thanks to a collaboration between National and
Communist Parties, jiuwang pai (left-wing patriots) and xueyuan pai (academic
musical elites) formed an alliance in order to create anti-invasion musical
works. In the decade 1956-1966 sanctions on yellow music were made with great
intensity and jazz was put into this category. The term changed meaning in the
decade, coming to that of passiveness, indulgence, uncooperative, pleasure, and
even pure art. Moreover, the term yellow music was banned in an Orwellian
juxtaposition of red and not red music.
The period between the 1940s and the 1970s was
covered by a vacuum of jazz, whereas in the U.S. it was a period of
re-definition of the genre. Jazz reemerged in China in the 1980, when local
musicians from classical and traditional music saw this genre with curiosity
and adoration. In the same period, thanks to the diffusion of post-modernism in
Beijing, people fell into a chaos of ideology and intellectuals became more
A new trend in reviewing history emerged, and
the ‘art serves politics’ dogma was questioned. But again, with the 1989 military coup that
brought Jiang Zeming as president of China, designated by Deng Xiaoping, China
fell into domination of the conservative power and the situation suspended all
discussions about political issues and history. Censorship reached a peak until
the 1990s and ‘social modernization’ became the only mantra for ideas.
‘Obscenity’ became the most common
justification for censorhip. During this period, as seen, jazz was discussed
only from a moral point of view, and not from a musicological one. Only notable
exception is an article by Tong Changrong and Wang Ying titled ‘AmericanJazz’ where origins, history, instrumentation
and musical features of this music are discussed in depth, despite a
conservative perspective. This voice had been strangled in the revolutionary
moral cleansing of the 1960s, and jazz was forgotten in China until the 1980s.
During the 1980s discussions about jazz music
arose, and the moral vision was suspended. In 1979 Ozawa Seiji toured Beijing
with the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing also Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue,
and the affection for Gershwin music rippled through the conservatories in
Beijing. Jazz started being studied into the academia, this time only as far as
his musical and hystorical aspects, not the symbolic ones.
Works of jazz writers like Dan Morgenstern and
Max Harrison were translated. From the beginning of the 1980s the various
genres (pop, rock, folk, jazz) started to be seen not as a whole but singularly
in their specificity. And if from the beginning of the 1980s some small bands
started playing ‘chinese jazz’ again, the importing of records, cassettes and
more over in time CDs and their consumption created evidence of the difference
between the jazz played in China in the past and the original jazz music.
Before the 1990s even if there were jazz
ensembles in Beijing, they were playing only in private events. These were more
like jam sessions than real concerts. Thanks to the rising of clubs, hotels and
cafeterias, these musicians started to go public. In 1993 Udo Hoffman, a German
businessman and a jazz lover, initiated the first jazz festival in Beijing.
From this time local bands from Beijing started catching the attention of the
international media and the rising local entertainment industry.
According to the 1985 Temporary Administrative
Bill for Cultural Exhibitions only bands or individuals affiliated with a
musical institution could participate on the commercial stage. In 1993, the
Cultural Bureau started tu publish an Administrative Regulations for Commercial
Performances: bands and singers had to register and get permission in a
cultural and administrative institute before they could be hired.
In the 2010s the requirement of show licences
tightened, and censorship reduced its interference on artistic creation.
Immediately after China reopened for trade and culture in the 1980s, the
excitement for new opportunities and unknown risks became bait for adventurers.
One of these was trumpeter Matt Roberts. Born in Pennsylvania in 1960 and
chosen by Sun Ra as part of his Arkestra in 1990 at least in one occasion, a
concert in Boston, experience that tied him to the world of jazz, in 1987 he
bought a trombone and started exploring the world of jazz in Beijing.
Here in the Central Conservatoire of Music he
could rehearse and found friends musicians so to create an octet. Failing to
import jazz in institutions, at those times still in the hand of the conservatives,
on the other hand music businesses in Beijing were growing. Like Roberts, many
foreign musicians formed bands for gigs and jams. Because of jazz they knew
each other and started to create connections with local musicians.
Also arriving in 1987, Martin Fleischer – from
Hamburg, Germany – because of a diplomatic position he came to Beijing and that
same year formed his first band, the Joint Venture Jazz Band with local
musicians coming form different countries, not only Chinese, and with a second
band, The Swing Mandarins. After a small departure Fleischer came back in 1990,
and gave life to different combos with flexible participants.
Gradually jazz faded from the strict monitory
of popular music, due to its obscure musical expressions. Liu Yuan, born in
1960, started playing suona, a double reed instrument from China popular music,
because of his father and uncle were playing the same instrument. In 1979 he
joined the Beijing Musical Troop and toured Europe until 1981. He heard jazz
for the first time in a small town in Belgium or Romania, and thanks to the
import of cassettes or records had the opportunity to lsiten to Grover
Washington Jr. finding the ‘jazz’ played in China very different from what he
After discovering also records by Miles Davis
and others, Liu Yuan started to teach himself jazz, with a saxophone produced
by a local company. Around this time, orchestras and musical troops were
re-organized by the cultural bureau in Beijing: young musicians were recruited
into the new institutes. In 1990 Roberts formed a quintet called Alas, from a
brand of cigarettes, and started touring hotels and bars. At that time, jazz
was limited to the embassy district.
The first place outside of it in which Matt
Roberts could play was Sicha Hai, current center of the local jazz scene.
Roberts was teaching at the conservatory but gained much more from its activity
as live musician. In 1992 Roberts came back in the United States. When he
returned to China in 1994 he found out the community has expanded. There he
formed the Left Hand sextet, then finally with the support of Scott Silverman,
his current drummer, he founded the Five Guys on a Train.
The first jazz club in Beijing, the CD Café,
opened up in 1994, becoming soon the center of the jazz community in the city.
By the 2000s clubs and cafeterias hosting live performances grew in numbers.
Indipendent musical clubs also appeared. Divisions of styles gradually
crystallized, and bands formed based on these divisions. Since the same years
jazz clubs expanded into more areas of Beijing.
In 2015, Steven Bensusan, the president of Blue
Note Entertainment, announced his plan to open a club in Beijing. Way back in
1993 MIDI School of Music was founded, and it became the cradle for
institutional jazz education in China.