Jazz in China: The Book, The Documentary, The Journey

Dr. Eugene Marlow • Jazz FocusNovember 2022 • November 13, 2022

SBO+: Eugene Marlow’s work in documenting jazz in China is an important look into music in a country that is sadly becoming less accessible to most Americans. As leader and commander of The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” I had the privilege of touring in China in 2012 which resulted in a documentary, In China – The United States Army Band available on YouTube.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1889

Mark Twain’s famous quote about the positive impacts of travel abroad (based on his 1867 steamship travel newspaper reports to Europe, the Middle East, and the Holy Land) is germane to my accidental involvement in the world of jazz in China.

While I never considered myself prejudiced, bigoted, or narrow-minded—difficult to do when you’re the immigrant son of a Holocaust survivor, a one-time employee at the United Nations in New York during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and, as a United States Air Force historian stationed on Guam for a time during the Vietnam War era—my impression of mainland China was formed mostly by movie and television characters, and waiters in Chinese restaurants. My understanding of domestic Chinese history and China’s relation to international events over time was nil.

In early 2000 that all changed.

A colleague in the Department of English at Baruch College (City University of New York), where I have been teaching courses in media and culture since August 1988, approached me about giving a series of lectures about media in the United States—newspapers, magazines, radio, Broadcast and cable television, and the Internet—at the University of Shanghai School of Film and Television in May of 2000. I had two reactions to this offer: the first was “It’s a long flight and I don’t always travel well on long flights.” My second rection was: “If I don’t accept this offer to see another part of the world on someone else’s dime, I would be really stupid.” I accepted the offer and in May (along with a couple of other colleagues from Baruch) gave three lectures: one to undergraduate students, another to graduate level students, and a third to television and radio professionals from all over China who just happened to be convening in Shanghai during the same two weeks.

My First Jazz in China Experience
In the middle of this two-week trip to the other side of the planet, I innocently asked if there was any jazz in Shanghai. The answer was, of course, yes. A couple of nights later myself and a couple of our hosts piled into a cab and about 20 minutes later entered the famed Peace Hotel in downtown Shanghai. The main event was to listen to the renowned Peace Hotel Jazz Band which had been performing nightly there almost continuously since 1980. After consuming some smallish but very expensive sandwiches, out came six gentlemen who had to be in their sixties or seventies. I was bursting with anticipation. I was about to hear (I imagined) these six indigenous musicians play some very early jazz or Dixieland jazz. Within minutes of their playing what thoughts my imagination had conjured up were dashed on the rocks of aural reality. 

I need to insert here that I am, myself, a musician (jazz piano) and a composer/arranger with some 300 pieces in my portfolio. 

Their repertoire consisted of melodies from the 1930-1950s. Each tune never lasted more than two-three minutes. Correct chord changes were haphazard at best. Improvisation was barely present. The sound was more like their “impression” of a piece, rather than a correct version of the piece. Inwardly, I was very disappointed, but I could say nothing to my hosts. The other jazz bar patrons, mostly Germans and Aussies, all quite inebriated, were oblivious. The dance floor was filled to the brim.

During their first break I asked my host if I could chat with the sextet’s leader. The meeting was arranged, and we met in the hotel lobby just outside the bar. After the usual pleasantries, I asked the leader what life was like during Mao’s tenure. The meeting ended abruptly. This was the year 2000. Mao died in 1976, 24 years prior. I was taken aback.

A Nagging Question. Evolving Realizations
In the cab returning to the university campus and on the plane returning to the United States I kept wondering: Is there more to jazz in Shanghai than I was exposed to? And then the larger question evolved to: Is there jazz in China?

I returned to Baruch College to teach a summer session, but almost immediately I started to research the subject of jazz in China. Over a period of months, I must have printed several hundred articles about jazz in China. Several names of jazz players and jazz clubs in not only Shanghai, but also Beijing and Chengdu kept cropping up. 

What also emerged was a much larger story I had not anticipated. It was international in scope, the two Opium Wars of the mid-19th century being but one example. It was about the transition from the Victorian Age to the “jazz age” to the war in the Pacific, and the rise of Communism and Mao Zedong. It was the story of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” that killed millions of Chinese. It was about the spread of information (including jazz) by technology such as the steamship, sheet music, radio, early movies, the plane, audio cassettes, CDs, and, later, the Internet. 

Overall, it was about a democratic, individual freedom of expression form of music, namely, jazz and its inherent improvisation, characteristic, surviving and growing in a country with a very long history of adherence to a central authority, namely, China.

2006 Return to China
I returned to China in the summer of 2006 for a month’s long research trip to, first, Beijing, then Shanghai in preparation to write a book on jazz in China. It took two years of preparation. My now wife and I made maps of both cities to determine where all the clubs were so that our 18 days in Beijing and 12 days in Shanghai could be spent as efficiently as possible. All the planning paid off. We were able to interview in-person several dozen musicians, and ex-pats performing in China, and visit numerous clubs. We even interviewed a member of the German embassy diplomatic staff in Beijing, Martin Fleischer, an amateur bass player himself, who was very familiar with the jazz scene there in the 1980s before Tiananmen Square. I videotaped many of these interviews. We visited the Shanghai International Library which provided much historical material. 

Back in the United States I interviewed numerous Americans who had performed and even taught jazz in China, such as famed bassist and French horn player Willie Ruff, renowned stride pianist Judy Carmichael, jazz singer Mary Anne Hurst, and rock/jazz guitarist Dennis Rea. I compiled a list of all the Americans and international musicians who had travelled to China to perform since their opening up in 1980.

I read dozens of books in preparation, including (for me) the seminal work Yellow Music by Andrew Jones, and books on China history, the Opium Wars, and Chinese classical music. What I discovered was there was much material dealing with jazz in China from the first half of the 20th century, but other than articles, there was no book that dealt with jazz in China from all the 20th century and into the 21st century.

The Book
It was a slow, arduous process, but by 2015 I had a manuscript, over 180,000 words. Titling the book was an epiphany. If I had attempted to name the book early in the process, I would have been wrong. But after almost ten years of cumulative research, I realized what the book’s arc was. It became the book’s sub-title: Jazz in China—From Dance Hall Music to Individual Freedom of Expression. 

I began to shop the manuscript around. I fully expected a publisher to snap the book up. This book, after all, was about America’s cultural contribution to the world: jazz. It was about China, an emerging world economic power. It had the arc of history. This book was not only unique in its coverage, it had international meaning. I was wrong. It took three years to land a publisher: the University Press of Mississippi.      

The frustrating wait to garner a book contract eventually proved beneficial. By having to wait, several of the new generation of young jazz players made themselves known to me, such as A Bu. I met him in New York City when he was just 15 years old. He had already performed at the 2015 International Jazz Day performance.

The Documentary (versions 1, 2, and 3)
From the get-go I always had it in mind to develop multi-media product from my research, of which the book was the first salvo. 

The book was published in August 2018. The Jazz Journalists Association nominated it as one of the best books on jazz of 2018. However, the one thing the book could not convey was what jazz in China sounded like. Remember Twain’s quote remark at the head of this story? Almost without exception when told about my book and the forthcoming documentary the reaction was usually “There’s jazz in China?” usually expressed with a Yiddish lilt. Many people I’ve spoken to, including American jazz journalists and aficionados somehow have the impression jazz in China is somehow “different” or has a Chinese or Oriental flavor.   

Even before the book was published and as an incentive to a prospective publisher, I started to consider producing a documentary based on what the book had taught me not only about jazz in China, but about China itself. My motivation to do this was two-fold: first, I envisioned using the video interviews I had conducted in China in 2006. These were rare video interviews with some of the leading jazz musicians in China; second, my decades of experience in the media business (including 50 years of video and radio production experience) had taught me that content is content, whether it’s in print form (such as an article or a book) or electronic form (such as in a documentary, or an audio book, or on a website).  

The hours of videotaped interviews and performances recorded in China were like a moth to a flame. I had to use them. I hired an editor with Premiere Pro editing software chops (he was also a Broadway drummer) and went to work. Over a period of six months, we created a 33-minute documentary. He then had to go on tour which, in effect, put our working relationship on hold. I showed this version of the documentary at a couple of presentations to warm, but not convincing response. 

It was now late 2019. The book had been out for a little over a year and had garnered a few accolades. The New York City Jazz Record lauded it as one of the “. . .best jazz books of 2018.” But I wasn’t convinced. This draft of the documentary lacked contemporaneous performance footage and the 2006 interviews looked dated and technically lacking. I auditioned several editors and chose one to start work on the documentary from scratch. And then the pandemic hit in March 2020! 

As John Adams, second president of the United States, is quoted as saying, “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.” That spring 2020 semester all in-person courses were shut down and Zoom became the teaching technology of choice at Baruch College. It was a challenging transition. However, my decades of teaching experience and improvisational attitude, I knew I could make it work. 

That same semester I had an obvious epiphany: Zoom was to become “my production company.” I fortunately received some funding from Baruch College to hire two research assistants who went to work finding the dozen or so interviewees whom I knew should be in the documentary. To state the obvious, my years of work on the book allowed me to quickly identify who we should interview and where they would be. These two research assistants could not have done a better job. They quite efficiently found everyone we needed to interview, as follows (in alphabetical order):

  • A Bu, jazz pianist (Beijing/New York City)
  • Andrew F. Jones, Ph.D., author Yellow Music, University of California, Berkeley
  • Andrew Field, Ph.D., author Shanghai’s Dancing World, (Shanghai)
  • Coco Zhao, singer (Shanghai)
  • David Moser, Ph.D., jazz pianist/composer and sinologist (Beijing)
  • Huang “Adam” Yong, bassist, jazz festival founder (Beijing)
  • Jasmine Chen, singer (Shanghai)
  • Kabir Sehgal, author, Jazzocracy (New York City)
  • Kong Hongwei, jazz pianist (Beijing)
  • Liu Sola, eclectic, jazz-influenced composer (Beijing)
  • Martin Fleischer, amateur jazz bassist, Consul General, German Embassy (Guangzhou)
  • Ren Yuqing, bassist, jazz festival and jazz club founder (Shanghai)
  • Rolf Becker, jazz big band director (Shanghai)

I also hired (long distance) two-person video crews in Shanghai and Beijing to shoot jazz club exteriors and interiors and interviews with jazz club patrons. This resulted in one of the big surprises. The majority of jazz club and jazz festival goers in China are “young people, 25-35.” This is the complete reverse of the perception of who goes to jazz clubs and festivals in America and Europe. We did not expect to find this. 

I scanned through days upon days of performance footage and archival photos to expand on the interview clips.

The interviews took most of the summer of 2020. By fall we were into editing which was completed in spring 2021. This iteration of the documentary was 76 minutes. I managed to “premiere” this version through the good offices of UNESCO’s International Jazz Day (April 30, 2021) website.

I let several more months go by to put some distance between my constant viewing of the documentary and my impression of it. In September 2021 I watched the documentary after this several month absence. It had a lot of good content, but it just didn’t hang. I auditioned and then hired a third editor. This editor, Shanghai-born, but living in the United States for many years, became a true collaborator. She reshaped the program, cut extraneous material, and, in the process, we added more Chinese history to provide clearer context.

The documentary is now 60 minutes long (from 76 minutes). Now it hangs. On April 30, 2022, it was again premiered”as an officialw event of International Jazz Day 2022.

It is now October 2022. The feature-length documentary has been accepted at 11 domestic and international film festivals. It is the recipient of a 2022 Award of Excellence from the Depth of Field International Film Festival and it is the winner of the 2022 American Insight Freedom of Speech Film Festival. The award ceremony will take place in Philadelphia on November 19. I was invited to give talks on the documentary at the 2022 Aspen Composers Conference and (via Zoom) by the University of Chicago/Hong Kong.  

And the book is still selling. 

Looking Back, Looking Forward
Writing a book is often a solitary affair. Producing a documentary, on the other hand, takes a small army of people, from researchers to digital animators. Dozens of people worked on the documentary.

If I have learned anything (again) from writing the book and producing the documentary, it’s that these are two very different media. The book, almost 300 pages long, contains a lot more material than the documentary. The documentary purposefully focuses on the leading jazzers in China, their influences, and especially their performances. Against this are references to several key events in China’s history, such as the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, the establishment of The People’s Republic of China, The Great Leap Forward, The Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Looking ahead I will turn my attention to creating a teacher’s guide that will reference both the book and the documentary. I’m also hoping to raise funds to take the 12 primary interviews and boil each one down to six-eight minutes and place them on a web site for further teaching purposes. 

It has been a journey. 

Eugene Marlow is an award-winning composer/arranger, producer, presenter, performer, author, journalist, and educator. Marlow was senior curator of the Milt Hinton Jazz Perspectives Concert Series at Baruch College where he teaches courses in media and culture. 


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