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Andrew Jones on The Story of Shanghai Jazz

In the 1920s and 1930s, a hybrid form of Chinese jazz mixing the fresh big band sounds of the U.S. with folk melodies of China blossomed in the cabarets and nightclubs of swinging Shanghai, at a time of great social and political upheaval in China’s history.

Afropop Producer Marlon Bishop sat down with the expert on the topic, Andrew Jones, while producing “Africa in Asia: From Shanghai Jazz to Tokyo Rastafari” for our 2011 Hip Deep season.

Andrew Jones is the author of “Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age”. He teaches at U.C. Berklee in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.

Marlon Bishop: To start: set the scene for us in the Chinese jazz age. What was it?

Andrew Jones: What was it? That’s a good question. Musically,  it’s the era in which you first had modern Chinese pop music start to develop out of the melting pot of Shanghai.

M.B.: Can you describe for me what was Shanghai like at the time?

A.J.:  Shanghai at the time was the biggest modern city in Asia, the first place with street lights, street cars and department stores. It was open to anyone. You didn’t need a passport. It was colonized by many different western countries, as well as Japan, and that made it a pretty exciting place. It was a place to which intellectuals, revolutionaries and dreamers from all over China went to make a new modern culture.

It was the center of publishing, media and the record industry. It was China’s first Hollywood in the 1920s and ’30s, so out of that came some new kinds of pop music. You had a lot of African-American musicians taking the steam ship lines from the West Coast  and doing a kind of circuit through Asia and then ending in Shanghai, basically creating a jazz scene there.

And you also started, for the first time, to have Chinese musicians who fused together jazz, the  kind of pop music that they were seeing on movie screens – Tin Pan Alley kind of U.S. pop, Bing Crosby, that kind of stuff – as well as working with Chinese folk tunes, folk music and instruments to create a really interesting hybrid, mish-mash music, which was what was then called yellow music by Chinese critics who didn’t like this kind of stuff.

M.B.:   That was a great description. Tell me a little bit about what was happening in China at the time. What was the kind of set up politically?

A.J.: In the 1920s and ’30s, China was something of a mess. It was in a great deal of turmoil. There was a new republic that had been born in 1911 but wasn’t doing very well. It was hard to maintain centralized control. China was also threatened both by imperialism – that is, a lot of western countries, as well as Japan, trying to horn in on its business and take away its resources militarily and economically – and there was also a looming threat of Japanese invasion.   It was a tense time, a difficult time, also a time of global depression, but an exciting one. There was a lot of revolutionary activity and a desperate bid to change and modernize China culture to respond to these threats.

MB: But at the same time – there’s this decadent world of nightlife, from my understanding, right?

A.J. Yes, Shanghai was an amazing space for night life. There was everything from extremely exclusive clubs catering mostly to wealthy foreigners, to countless “taxi dance halls” where you’d buy dance ticket to dance with women who were there as escorts. Then there were a lot of kind of down and dirty dive bars, which existed to entertain military personnel: American GIs, or French sailors, that kind of thing.

M.B.:   It seemed like a lot of fun [laughs].

A.J. [Laughs]. The phrase that people used back then for Shanghai is “heaven built on hell,” and the hell, I guess, was the kind of plight of a lot of common working people there. There was a lot of child labor and there was a lot of prostitution business that was pretty oppressive for local people. But, at the same time, it was a kind of glittering modern city with lots of entertainment.

M.B.: Tell me the story of Buck Clayton in Shanghai.

A.J.: If you’re a jazz aficionado of the swing era, Buck Clayton is a huge figure. He played trumpet for Count Basie for many, many years, but I was really surprised and intrigued in reading his autobiography to find that his first band – the first band that he led – was actually in Shanghai.

He was from Kansas City, but he ended up in L.A. He got an opportunity to take passage on a steam ship over to Shanghai with a really crack band of great musicians. He got a contract there at this very high-class cabaret in Shanghai and started living and working there for a couple of years. By all accounts, he had a fantastic time. He went out and got beautiful suits made. He enjoyed the high life there. He hung out with Russian émigrés, with Filipino musicians, with all the various adventurers and characters that you found in a city like Shanghai.

Unfortunately, he had to do that because his gig at the Canadrome, this very fancy place, was ended because of some kind of dispute reputedly with an American marine who thought that he looked the wrong way at a white woman.  That’s the lore. The whole incident might have actually been invented. But, in the end, he ended up playing for a slightly lower-class night club with a lot more Chinese patrons, and learned to play some of the local Chinese jazz music that was flowering at that time.

M.B.:   I read in your book that the most prolific jazz composer of the period was Li Jinhui. Who was he?

A.J.:     Li Jinhui is a really interesting character. When I first started studying the music of this era, I had already done some work on studying Chinese rock ‘n roll music in the 1980s and 1990s. I was pretty interested in finding out about the pre-history of that. Where did modern Chinese pop music come from?

So, I ran across this name, Li Jinhui, and he was almost always –  How should I put it? He had a bad reputation. He was supposed to be a bad guy who created the degenerate form of music that was called “yellow music”. “Yellow music” means, basically: pornographic, salacious, off-color music in Chinese. It was a music that had been banned by the Chinese Communist Party.  It was a kind of music that was seen as being decadent and colonial and unfit for Chinese ears after 1949, after the revolution.

But what I started to find out about Li Jinhui was actually pretty surprising. He was known as the founder of pop music but, in fact, he began his career as a nationalist and a patriot who was trying to modernize the Chinese language by instituting a new, standard Mandarin to knit together the patchwork of different dialects in China to create a stronger, more unified nation.  The way that he hit upon to do this was actually to write operas for children using Chinese folk tunes, western instruments and having scripts for the kids to sing in standard Chinese.

M.B.: That doesn’t sound anything like it has anything to do with this “off-color” jazz hybrid.

A.J. Well, it’s kind of an interesting story. He had a group of orphans and poor kids who he took on as his protégés. He taught them how to sing and dance, so he had a song and dance troupe. Then he started recording these songs to promote them more widely, but what happened is those girls started to become stars.

At the same time he was doing this,  there’s an explosion of local Chinese cinema and local Chinese pop music. So he, along with his song and dance troupe, got sucked into this new, emergent media industry. Pretty soon, all the young girls that he had trained became the biggest stars in Chinese pop music and on Chinese screens. He, himself, became a very famous song writer and kind of pioneered this new style of modern jazz music, almost against his will or expectations.

M.B.:   What happened from there? How did these orphans end up being a huge national phenomenon touring Asia and everything?

A.J.: Back when he was writing his operas, he was looking for a way to find funding. One of the ways he made money was he started touring. His most successful tour, in some ways, was to southeast Asia, to Thailand, to Singapore, to places where there were very large Chinese populations of Diasporic Chinese who were very interested in seeing the latest stuff from Shanghai and hearing the latest songs. So, his music actually started entering into, I guess you could say, a broader circuit. It was popular both in the big cities in China but also throughout the Chinese-speaking world.  You can find his records still in dusty old shops in Chinatowns in Seattle, San Francisco or Vancouver. It was very popular in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, so it kind of had a global audience even at that time in the 1930s.

M.B.:   Li Jinhui was a composer, but who were the faces of Chinese Jazz?

A.J.: There was Zhou Xuan, who was probably the greatest voice of the era, and Zhou Xuan was really interesting. She was also an orphan who had been adopted by Li Jinhui, and then her career took off when she started playing in the movies. Movies always had theme songs that helped to sell the movies, but also helped to sell the records and also helped to create a star image for the singers, as well. So, Zhou Xuan became the greatest vocalist of the era, and she’s known as the “Golden Voice.”

There was another singer called Yao Lee who actually was discovered by Zhou Xuan when she was in a radio studio doing a jingle. Later, apparently Zhou Xuan started to regret that she had discovered Yao Lee, who became known as the “Silver Voice.

Beyond that, there were many, many more singers. It was a kind of constellation of stars at that time.

M.B.:   Was it literally Li Jinhui who was writing all of their music, or is that an exaggeration?

A.J.: In the early days, he wrote many of the most popular songs, but as time went on, of course, there were other composers.

The other interesting thing is there were a lot of refugees from Russia in Shanghai at that time, and a lot of them were in the music business. So, the band at EMI Pathe, the biggest music label in Shanghai, was composed in part of Chinese musicians, but also Russian musicians, some of whom went onto to become pretty famous modernist composers after they left Shanghai and went to the U.S. They were doing the arrangements.

M.B.:   You mentioned a little bit that this was a fusion, but what did this new music sound like? What was its characteristics? What would you hear on a typical Li Jinhui track?

A.J.: It changed a lot over time.  The vocals do sound a little bit foreign, I think to contemporary ears. They’re pretty high-pitched and a little bit nasal, which is drawing on Chinese opera traditions. But also people enjoyed a kind of cutesy little girly type vocal sound at that time, partly because this evolved from children’s songs, so that’s how they sang in the beginning.

That would be mixed with some pentatonic melodies, that is, Asian-sounding melodies, often drawn from local folk songs. But the instrumentation would be piano, guitar and jazz bass sometimes mixed with some local elements like clappers or gongs from Chinese opera. So, it’s a kind of weird fusion. As time went on, it became a little bit more modern sounding, that is, it sounded a little bit more like U.S. jazz in the orchestrations, with horns and the kind of harmonies that you’d hear in swing.

M.B.:   Was there anything unusual about these singing stars being these public figures? Was that transgressive in terms of gender expectations at the time?

A.J.: That’s also a really interesting part of the story. As late as the early 1920s, it was really seen as pretty risqué for women to be on stage, to be actresses, to sing in public because, basically, singing in public was equated with being available sexually. So, selling songs was often seen as selling one’s flesh.

There had also been restrictions against women performing in traditional opera in China during the Qing Dynasty. This wasn’t necessarily originally a Han Chinese thing; it was imposed by the ruling Manchus. But by the early 20th century, the tradition was that even female roles in Peking Opera, for instance, were played by males because women weren’t supposed to be on stage.

When you have this first generation of singers who are nurtured by people like Li Jinhui or women who decide to do modern drama on stage, they were often seen as lighting rods for the development of a new fashion industry and a new media centered around enjoying and buying the image of these women but also they became politically controversial. They were see as too modern, too risqué, too provocative, too sexy.

I think these women like Zhou Xuan actually played a really important role in making for a new visibility of modern women in Chinese life at that time.  That’s also one reason that Li Jinhui took a lot of criticism because his stable of young girls that he’d cultivated and nurtured doing children’s operas all became the kind of luminaries of Chinese pop culture in a very open, revolutionary way.

M.B . Let’s talk about how the music of Li Jinhui and, more broadly, jazz  got caught up in what was happening politically at the time. What was the conflict?

A.J.: By the 1930s, you started to have a pretty powerful political conflict between the Nationalist Party and the newly-formed and insurgent Chinese Communist Party, which, of course, escalated eventually into civil war after World War II.

So, you had leftists who were, essentially, trying to stand up for the oppressed working classes and the peasantry and who were influenced by Marxism or Communist ideals in one way or another. Then the Nationalist Party that was pretty much representing the idea of a strong capitalist Chinese nation-state. That was basically the battle lines that were drawn in that time and Shanghai was the battleground.

These new pop songs, I think, probably elicited the anger, distaste and displeasure of both sides of all political camps because they saw them as not being serious, as being too much involved with pleasure, frivolous nightlight, sex and commercialism. So, whether you were a serious nationalist or you were a serious Communist, you thought that probably the mass media shouldn’t be used for pleasure, but should be used for propagating some political line.

M.B.: What was the leftist side trying to accomplish with music?

A.J.: Probably the best way to talk about that leftist side is though  Li Jinhui’s student, Nie Er. He was a young musician from the boonies, from Yunnan Province in southwest China, who arrived in Shanghai. He was kind of a prodigy. I think he had a very fun life in Shanghai.  He was hanging out with all the starlets who Li Jinhui was training. But also, like a lot of people at that time, he witnessed the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1931. And, like a lot of other people, I think he was radicalized by that and he saw the crisis that China was facing.

He started to feel –like a lot of leftists – that Li Jinhui’s music was too colonial, not spirited enough. It wasn’t going to be the kind of music that would mobilize Chinese people to fight the Japanese and to create a better nation.

So, he kind of rebelled his teacher and his boss and started writing poison pen pieces against him saying, “His music is just commercial trash, it’s exploiting the female charms of his starlets, it’s politically degenerate and we need a new, more revolutionary music to replace it.”

And so Nie Er, started to write those kinds of revolutionary songs. He worked with the film studios on a new kind of generation of Chinese leftist films that were trying to mobilize people to fight, to organize, under really difficult conditions of censorship. One of the songs that he ended up writing was called “The March of the Volunteers.” That was a very stirring and inspirational song that is now, actually, the Chinese national anthem. So, if you watched the opening ceremonies for the Olympics, you heard that song written by Nie Er, Li Jinhui’s student and rebellious disciple.

M.B.:   Someone should make a movie about this, it’s such a great story.

A.J.: [Laughs]. There was a movie about Nie Er made in China, actually.

M.B.:   Didn’t he die at a really young age?

A.J: He was in his early 20s when all of this was unfolding. He had visited Japan and went swimming one day. I think he was a very romantic sort of brash soul, so I think he went swimming where he shouldn’t, swimming in the surf, and drowned I think at the age of 23.

M.B.:   What did this leftist music that was coming out like in comparison to this? What were the musical elements that made that music?

A.J.:     It was really completely different, and all the ways it was different had to do with politics or with ideology. Since Nie Er was criticizing the kind of sensuality and femininity of the music that Li Jinhui had been writing, the kind of Chinese jazz music that existed, he replaced mostly female vocalists with chorale music.

He replaced the jazzy rhythms with a more march-oriented rhythm, so it was a much more militaristic music, a music to mobilize people to march together as a nation. He replaced the jazzy melodies with melodies  were perceived as being more masculine. Also, there was a lot of influence from Hollywood film music, of the more kind of adventurer, hero-story type, as well as Soviet martial music. So, it’s a totally different kettle of fish.

M.B.:   It’s interesting: It’s like one form of western music is being used to criticize another form of western music that’s considered decadent.

A.J.:     Right, in both cases, there are still influences of Chinese melodies and a sort of Chinese feeling, which comes through in the melody, but, essentially, they’re brokering different varieties of musics that were circulating globally.

M.B.:   You mentioned the leftist side. What was the assault on the Nationalist side against Shanghai Jazz?

A.J.: In the early ’30s, the ruling Nationalist Party had a movement called the New Life Movement. It was basically a propaganda movement to instill proper virtues and morality in the people. The Nationalist Party at that time wanted to adopt or re-champion Confucian morality as a sort of ideological glue for the nation. So, they wanted to clamp down on Li Jinhui because they saw the music as being decadent. There was a lot of hypocrisy in that and, of course, once you ban something, it just means it does even better in the marketplace.

M.B.:   At a certain point, the two strongest political factions are very much against this music. Is there anyone standing up for it?

A.J.: In a way, I suppose, the market talked because the records still sold. They were still very much a part of the film culture at that time. Even some of the leftists when they wanted to criticize this music, they’d use this music to criticize it. They’d have movies with the same stars and some of the same music but they’d rewrite the lyrics or rewrite the scenarios to make it clear that this music was decadent and the people who were singing it would go wrong. But, of course, they were getting people into the theater through the attraction of the music and the starlets who were singing it, so there’s a kind of irony in that, as well.

M.B.:   From my perspective, if I’m a Chinese media consumer, all these great jazz songs and this great fun music all of a sudden gets replaced by austere movies about the struggle of the proletariat with military marches, I’m not as interested personally. Maybe that’s just me [laughs].

A.J.: Part of it, it has to be understood in the context. In 1932, the Japanese attacked Shanghai and there was a brief, very fierce modern warfare that took place in Shanghai. As a result of that, a huge Chinese neighborhood was basically burnt to the ground. It’s as if, all of a sudden, a big chunk of Brooklyn is gone. To the people who are in Manhattan, I think that would change your feeling about what’s important about what kind of citizen you’re supposed to be.

Basically, you had a kind of sea change in the tenor of the times. People started to get extremely worried about what they saw as the very survival of their country. So I think there was some kind of fertile ground for music that was based on peoples’ feelings of fear, desperation and anger.

M.B.:   So – after going through this research, what do you think about the music that they were making?

A.J.:     In what way? Aesthetically?

M.B.:   Well, I guess more about what they were doing. What did you take away from it?

A.J.:     Part of what my book was trying to do – and this has actually somewhat happened in the last ten years – is rehabilitate this music.  For many, many years, from the 1950s until the 1990s, really, this kind of music was seen as being politically incorrect and of very limited value. It was seen as being trivial, vulgar, unimportant and not worthy of respect or scholarly attention, or even the attention of fans.

Part of what I was trying to do was say, “Hey, that story is actually very complex and China’s engagement with modernity and with global music goes back a lot further than we think, and it’s a lot more complicated than people think, as well. It’s not just a question of colonial influence or western influence; it’s actually a kind of interesting interchange, exchange or transaction that took place between China and the West.”

It’s interesting, since the book came out – and this isn’t only or even principally influenced by the book, although I think it did have some influence – Li Jinhui has now been rehabilitated in China. In fact, there was a postage stamp issued with his face on it quite recently, last year, which was very interesting to see. Now he’s actually being championed as a sort of visionary. So, times have changed.

M.B.: One thing I forgot to ask – did the Chinese associate this new jazz music with the African-Americans that pioneered it at all? What were their perceptions of the music as “black” music?

A.J.: It’s kind of a complicated question. I don’t think, actually, in the ’20s or ’30s most Chinese people had black people very much on their radar screens. To a certain extent, a lot of stereotypes that circulated in the U.S., say, on Hollywood screens made their way to China, as well, so you got some of that, too. There were racist stereotypes that were kind of transmitted by the power of U.S. culture abroad.

But, at the same time, there were some Chinese intellectuals and writers who were reading Langston Hughes. When he visited Shanghai, he was kind of a star. He met with one of China’s most famous modern writers. He was featured in magazines and there were, in fact, articles about the struggle of black people in the U.S. at that time. There were some people trying to make connections and trying to link China’s colonial struggle to the struggle of other oppressed people in the world, including African-Americans.

That tendency, I think, was really picked up later on after the revolution in China where, very self-consciously, the Chinese Communist Party tried to paint itself as a champion of third-world peoples and  the champion of Africa. Interestingly enough, that is now continuing.  There’s been some controversy and a lot of talk about a very increased presence of Chinese investment and Chinese people in Africa these days. It’s a kind of continuation of that policy during the Maoist period of supporting Africa and casting China as a friend to Africa.

M.B.: What happened to this music after the revolution? Did it disappear completely?

A.J.: I think what’s very interesting is that this music did not disappear at all; it just went into exile. By the 1950s, this kind of music had been clamped down on but, following the record companies – especially EMI – and some of the film studios, it just moved. It moved to Hong Kong and it moved to Taiwan. It moved to what was called during the Cold War “Free China” and thrived there and flourished there.

So, contemporary Chinese pop music, in many ways, is still very much the product of this earlier encounter between American pop and Chinese folk. Nowadays, for instance, the dominant Chinese pop music is a kind of fusion of contemporary R&B sounds with Chinese folk. So, the more things change, the more they stay the same in some ways.

M.B.:   I guess, overall, what strikes me about this story is just how much music seems to be important to people when they are  defining what happens with the political future of China at this time. Music is not “just music” in this instance; music has much higher stakes to all parties involved.

A.J.: Yeah, I think you could tell a really interesting alternative history of modern China through popular music, but also through the fact that for more than 100 years there’s tradition of Chinese people engaging with America and other kinds of global cultures and remaking their own culture through that dialogue.