Jazz in Shanghai

Words: Ashley Greenwood

When one thinks of Shanghai, that old image of the ‘Paris of the East’ might come to mind – the city of sin, smoky dens and, of course, intoxicating Jazz music. After this “pornographic” music was banned for decades, it has made a comeback, albeit with a slightly cleaner image, one that is more about the music.


At the beginning of the 20th Century, black communities in the Southern United States were developing a style of music that combined African and European music. Jazz evolved out of blues and ragtime, characterised by its use of blue and swung notes, improvisation, polyrhythms and syncopation. The first documented use of the word ‘jazz’ to describe this music was in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1915, and by the 1920s the it had reached mainstream popularity. It was brought to Shanghai’s foreign settlements where, as the ‘pop’ music of the day, it could be heard in the ballrooms and bars, from the Cathay Hotel to the Paramount. Shanghai became the most important place in Asia for jazz, although most of the performers, with a few Filipino exceptions, were Westerners.

The Clear Wind Dance Band

In 1935, Du Yue Sheng, the notorious boss of Shanghai’s Green Gang, ordered into creation “The Clear Wind Dance Band”, the first all-Chinese jazz group, to perform at the Yangtze River Dance Hall. He tasked Li Jinhui to put the group together. Li considered himself a nationalist and educator – he promoted the idea of a national language, contributed to reforms in education and was a prolific composer of patriotic songs (indeed his student Nie Er wrote the current National Anthem).

As early as 1927, Li had begun to develop a kind of ‘Sinified Jazz’, combining elements of Chinese folk music and Big Band Jazz. In assembling “The Clear Wind Band, Li wanted to emphasize the Chinese qualities of both the band and the music, so he chose musicians not only for their musical ability, but for their appearance too, preferring tall, Northern Chinese who would not be mistaken for Filipinos.

At that time, however, Li was a controversial figure, considered by the authorities as a corruptor of morality because dared to have male and female performers on stage together in his plays, and his work developing “Shanghai Jazz”, too progressive and open-minded for his contemporaries, suffered a similar misunderstanding.


1930s shanghai ballroom

Jazz music infiltrated the highest levels in China. In the American bandleader Whitey Smith’s book I Didn’t Make a Million (1956) he gives an eyewitness account from the wedding of Chiang Kai-shek and Song Mei-ling, at which he not only played “Here Comes the Bride” but also “I’ll Be Loving You Always” by the famously raunchy Josephine Baker. Whitey had moved from San Francisco in 1922 to play at the Carlton Café on Ningbo lu, and later became bandleader at Astor House. In his book he explains how many of the foreign jazz players at that time would try to ‘sinify’ jazz to make it more enjoyable for Chinese audiences, and notes the vast number of venues playing jazz:

“I believe there were more night clubs in the International Settlement of Shanghai at the period and subsequently than in any other city of comparable size in the world.”


1932 paramountAmong the most well remembered of the music venues from that era is the Peace Hotel. Known then as the Cathay Hotel, it was the tallest building in Shanghai at the time and one of the most famous hotels in the world. There was also the Art Deco-style Paramount on Nanjing Road, opened by a group of Chinese bankers in 1933, which became the centre of the Chinese jazz world, home to Chinese musician Jimmy King and his orchestra.



To combine Jazz, a Western (and black) form of music, with Chinese songs played by Chinese musicians in a club, with alcohol, drugs, gambling, and prostitution, was more than Shanghai’s authorities could tolerate. Li’s music was called ‘pornographic,’ ‘vulgar’ and ‘decadent’ by both the Kuomintang and the Communists, and when the PRC was founded Jazz music was outlawed as an ‘indecent’ form of entertainment. The Clear Wind Band came to an end, and Li was persecuted and died during the Cultural Revolution. The once bustling nightclubs were shut down, converted into Communist buildings and factories; the Paramount became a cinema and then fell in to disuse, until Taiwanese investors restored the building in 2001. In Chinese movies of the period, jazz was used as background music whenever the enemy appeared.

shanghai jazz

Towards the end of 1978 at the Communist Party’s 3rd Plenum, Deng Xiaoping relaxed many of the prohibitions of the Mao-era, and once again Jazz was permitted in China. The first stirrings of a return began in the 1980s with saxophone player Liu Yuan in Beijing. Then in 1988 Old Jazz Band pianist Gao Ping released “Jazz in China,” one of the first jazz recordings to be made in China since 1949.

In the 1990s a number of artists made considerable contributions to resurrecting jazz in Shanghai. Vocalist Coco Zhao and guitarist Fu Tian Yi (who now owns live jazz venue La Vida) were among the first of the new generation to perform jazz in Shanghai again. Pianists He Le and Zhu Mang and saxophonist Zhang Xiao Lu(now a professor at Shanghai Music Conservatory) were also among that pioneering first wave.



Today’s Scene

Shanghai now has one of the strongest jazz scenes in Asia, with a number of venues around the city. The House of Blues and Jazz was the first to open back in 1995. Run by local celebrity Lin Dongfu, the venue moved around before settling just off the Bund in an old colonial building where it harks back to the 1930s heyday of jazz in Shanghai. One of the best-known jazz clubs in Shanghai is JZ Club, which has established a solid reputation and loyal following thanks to the quality of musicians who perform there. The club opened in 2004 and has now branched out to include JZ School, where some of the clubs performers work as instructors, as well as the venues JZ LAtino, On Stage, and Wooden Box.


jz logoMark Elliot from JZ Club doesn’t entertain the idea that Shanghai’s 1930s Jazz heyday has left a legacy in Shanghai, but he does draw a comparison between the fast rate of change Shanghai experienced back then and the changes the city is undergoing now. Jazz music has a dynamic quality, open to improvisation and rearrangement, it is a music form to be played with, and Mark suggests these qualities are also integrally part of Shanghai’s culture and they’re the reason why Shanghai is known internationally as an exciting and compelling city. He concedes that the 1930s does provide an added authenticity to the new jazz being created in Shanghai today.

What is the new jazz of todays Shanghai? Since the rise of rock and hip-hop music, younger generations have new kinds of rebellious music and are listening to jazz less and less. But with jazz being banned in China for so long, and defining moments of jazz music, like the release of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue in 1959 missing China completely, surely jazz here is quite different, playing catch-up or evolving differently. As Mark explains “There are less pre-conceptions about what jazz was, is, or should be in Shanghai than other parts of the world. It truly is a blank slate”.


coco zhao

Who are the rising stars in Shanghai today? Mark names Coco Zhao as an artist who has perhaps gained the widest international acclaim for his part in developing today’s generation of jazz in Shanghai. Coco Zhao first encountered jazz music in 1995-1996 when he listened to a live jazz concert in a local club. There he heard a performance by American guitar master Matt Harding (who founded Shanghai’s Cotton Club), and Coco was immediately fascinated by the richness of the harmonies and the engaging melodies of the music. “The imaginative lyrics, the flexibility, the imagination and variety of its expression” are what Coco explains ignited his infatuation with Jazz.

So have attitudes to jazz changed in China? In the 1930s it was the music of an oppressive foreign presence in Shanghai, but now, alongside rock and hip-hop, does jazz still seem ‘pornographic’? Coco explains that when he began performing he started to understand more about the perceptions people in China have of Jazz today. In 1998 Coco performed at the Shanghai International Jazz Festival where he reinterpreted classic Chinese folk songs such as “Jasmine Flowers” and “The Dancing Golden Snake”, mixing these classics with jazz elements. This was too much for the audience, he recalls. “They did not understand why I had changed so much of their familiar Chinese songs into something different. It seemed that all the fun improvised parts of jazz were something too much out of the order for them.”

This reaction is not limited to the older, more reserved and conservative generation. Coco feels that many younger people would also prefer to listen to things they are more comfortable with – like folk or pop songs, and that to reinterpret a Chinese classic in a ‘Western’ way, in their mind, degrades the Chinese version. Jazz is very flexible with its rhythms, whereas Chinese classic songs are fixed. So here the music itself, with its free approach to composition, that is provocative and contentious for the local audience.

When jazz first began to return to China, finding resources to listen to and play jazz was still limited, so Coco would have friends bring cds and books from overseas. For most people it was a kind of social music to be heard live in the bars, and so the music once again became associated with wealth, with wine, and with the West. It became something of a status symbol to be a part of the jazz scene, and in this way, the jazz scene of today has not departed much from what it was all those decades ago.

However, this fashionable crowd is not one that is being encouraged by clubs like JZ. “People shouldn’t come to JZ bar because they heard it’s a cool place to hang out, or that it’s fashionable. They should come if they have an open mind, and a curiosity for different forms of musical expression”. The JZ Festival Shanghai is now the biggest jazz music festival in Asia, and is part of an effort to promote jazz music to wider audiences and change people perceptions of the music.


Read more (coming soon):

Shanghai’s Best Jazz Bars

Classic Chinese Jazz Albums

Find More Music Events in Shanghai

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