Friday, March 02, 2007

Jazz Behind the Great Firewall of China

As of today, this site is not censored by the Chinese government, according to a search run by the very enlightening Great Firewall of China. It is either encouraging that there are billions of potential Chinese readers out there, or discouraging that nothing posted here has been flagged as objectionable. I’ll take it as a challenge.

It also sparked a frustrating search for fresh news on the Chinese jazz scene. Most articles that turn up on Google are several years old. There is for instance, a CBC article on the Golden Angle Jazz Band, which they called at the time “the one and only ‘big band’ in China.” It was also comprised of soldiers from the PLA. That does not necessarily mean they are substandard musicians. Every branch of the American armed services has a first class big band or jazz ensemble. The CBC article did seem to be lowering expectations though. There’s hasn’t been much ink on them after 2000. Did they fall out of favor with the powers that be?

Also turning up is an article by Dennis Rea surveying the Chinese jazz scene, and giving the highlights of a 1996 tour that he and a group of western experimental improvisers made of China in 1996. He saw a surge of popularity for jazz in China, which he attributed to several factors:

“One obvious reason is that the country’s entry into the global marketplace has brought freer access to imported recordings and consequently greater public awareness of jazz and other foreign musical styles. A second factor is the continued suppression of live rock music, which has driven frustrated rockers to turn to jazz, seen as a much less threatening form of musical expression by the powers that be.”

Jazz seems to occupy the same precarious position it usually does in authoritarian regimes. At times tolerated, but never secure. Evidence of such would be the closing of the jazz club The Big Easy in the Beijing suburb of Chaoyang Park by the local authorities.

There does seem to be more exchange of musical ideas. Kenny Garrett’s recent pilgrimage to China produced one of last year’s best releases, Beyond the Wall. Yet, this is the same government that is blocking websites and the free dissemination of information. Recent mentions of jazz in China Daily just confirm the jazz cafĂ© scene is still viable, and they briefly profile Liu Yaun, considered by many to be the top Chinese jazz artist.

If anyone has any fresher info on the Golden Angle band or Chinese jazz in general, please send me an email. Looking ahead, The Missing Peace, an exhibit of art inspired by the Dalai Lama opens at the Rubin Museum March 16th. Posting a review probably won’t be enough to get banned in China, but it should be a good start.