It’s no secret that Chinese, Korean and Japanese students have filled U.S. Conservatories these past few decades. The immense value placed on precision, disciplined practice and measured accomplishment in these cultures has attracted them to the high bar of the Western classical music tradition and many have indeed leapt to that height. But when it comes to jazz, the match has not been that obvious. The technique and theory required are still attractive, but the daredevil risk of improvising in front of an audience without knowing precisely ahead of time how it will come out has run somewhat against the grain of these traditional cultures.
Until now. Jazz has found its way to Asia. I heard some good quality examples in Beijing and again last night at the JZ Jazz Club in Shanghai. Shanghai actually has an unusual history of jazz activity in the 30’s and I hope to go to one of the old clubs tomorrow night and hear some of the older musicians. But it also has a new club created by Wynton Marsalis, a replica of Dizzy’s Club at Lincoln Center attracting world-class jazz musicians. And Beijing has a version of the Blue Note.
When introducing jazz in both my courses, I talked about jazz as the music of freedom. Without knowing the history or why it affects people the way it does, I felt the enthusiasm of the participants and the way the notes move the body in particular ways that suggest freedom. Indeed, several people testified something to that effect, how they felt free in a way that no other music unleashes, relaxed, in some life-affirming groove.
And this is a threat to the totalitarian state. People who feel free have more trouble obeying and goose-stepping to the rigid military beat of death and destruction. In Nazi Germany, you could be killed if you were caught listening to jazz. That’s how powerful it is.
So instead of feeling its presence here as yet another culturally imperialist invasion, I feel it as a messenger of future freedoms. The Jazz Revolution has begun.