Jazz was dismissed as bourgeois western music in China during the Cultural Revolution
Liu Yuan, father of Beijing's jazz scene, founded the city first and only jazz bar in the 1990s
The city has witnessed an increase in jazz talent and fans in recent decade
New York's renowned Blue Note club is set to open an outpost in Beijing in 2016
When Liu Yuan started playing the sax in the mid-1980s, few people in China knew what jazz was.
“There were only four or five professional jazz musicians in Beijing,” Liu recalls. “It was brutal.”
Bars and clubs were rare in the city.
Liu says he had to “beg” the few bars that existed to let them perform.
But the music that originated in the U.S. African-American communities in the late-19th century as an emotional reaction to racial oppression has taken root in China’s capital over the past two decades and there’s now a vibrant and fast-developing jazz scene.
Seeing the potential in the market, New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club, one of the world’s most renowned jazz clubs, is set to open a branch in Beijing in March 2016.
Steven Li, who manages the Blue Note Beijing project, told CNN that the new club aims to bring in top-level international artists, targeting China’s ever-growing middle class and overseas returnees.
Jazz was regarded in China as bourgeois Western music in the 1960s and 1970s during the turmoil of the country’s Cultural Revolution.
As young hipster Chinese embraced more personal freedom the 1980s, Liu, then a folk-musician in his twenties, learned to play the saxophone through tapes that his Western friends brought back from overseas, while performing rock ‘n’ roll with Chinese rock legend Cui Jian.
“It was a really fascinating time,” says Liu. “The young people simply were in love with jazz and played hard, and nobody cared about return.”
It was mid-1990s, when he became dedicated to jazz, and determined to build a scene in Beijing.
He recruited talent from music schools and he and his new jazz scenesters began teaching, learning, and jamming together.
‘Locally grown’ jazz
Liu, now 55, doesn’t play as much as used to.
Now he co-manages Beijing’s only venue dedicated for jazz – East Shore Live Jazz Cafe.
Every day, jazz fans come to this wood-paneled bar with floor-to-ceiling windows near Beijing’s Houhai Lake, enjoying all kinds of jazz, from funk to fusion, avant-garde to experimental, standards to original compositions.
Since 2000, Beijing’s ranks of jazz musicians have expanded quickly, Liu says.
Thanks to the Internet, local musicians are cmore losely connected to the international jazz community.
Influential musicians like Stefan Karlsson, Rafal Sarnecki, Antonio Hart and David Binney have all performed in Beijing, some playing with local artists.
“Today’s Beijing jazz scene is a world of difference from the ’90s,” Liu says.
“Many of the kids have won international jazz awards, and are able to play with world class musicians on the same stage.”
Over the last decade, Beijing has also become home to many foreign jazz musicians who have influenced the local scene.
Nathaniel Gao, a 31-year-old Chinese American saxophonist and teacher, came to Beijing in 2012 from New York.
He’s a familiar face on the Beijing jazz scene.
The son of a Chinese father and an American mother, he enjoys playing in a smaller jazz scene in Beijing, and believes he can make more of a contribution here rather than in New York, where competition is tough.
As China’s man cultural hub, Beijing has a diverse music scene, which has a positive influence on jazz, Gao says.
“There is a lot of interaction between musicians from different scenes, more so than in a place like New York, which is so big that everything is huge, so you really are just in your own scene,” he says.
“Whereas in Beijing, everything is a bit smaller, but it’s a big city, so there’s a lot going on.”
The audience is always new – and young.
“Most of the people who come to our concerts I’ve never seen in my life,” he says. “Even though a lot of them might listen to it once or might not get into it, there is always gonna be some new people who are exposed to it and might come back.
“That’s exciting because you are exposed to a newer, less ripe audience.
“Unlike the U.S., which is piled up with people in their 50s, 60s and up, you go to a jazz show and everybody in the audience has gray hair.”