Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Kew Gardens ’17: Jammin’ Shanghai (short)

In 2006, the government of Chaoyang Park in suburban Beijing demolished the Big Easy jazz club to erect a “Peace Plaza.” Then, in May of last year, the Mayor of Shanghai closed the city’s beloved JZ Club, by banning all clubs and bars on its street. That is a pretty sorry record of harassing a certain style of music. If you do not think two cases constitutes a trend, then how many other Chinese jazz clubs can you name? Filmmaker Song Jiayi came to document the vital scene that had coalesced around the club, but she stayed to record their out chorus in the short documentary Jammin’ Shanghai, which screens during the first ever Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.

Club owner-founder-house electric bassist Ren Yuqing had already been forced out of one space when he sat down with Song. Yet, he persevered, not only relaunching JZ Club, but also establishing a music school and a jazz festival. He was often out of pocket for his trouble, but fostered a genuine community of local musicians and American expats, such as tenor player Alec Haavik, who will be our guide through the Shanghai/JZ scene. As you would expect, he is thrown for a loop when the mayor shuts them down without hearings or due process of any sort.

It is a shame, because the musicians we hear in Song’s film all have a very groovy thing going on. Haavik sounds like he has synthesized influences from 1970s fusion and the Downtown 1990s Zorn and Knitting Factory scene. Ren brings the funk in the tradition of Victor Wooten. While for swing traditionalists, Teresa Lee interprets standards with verve and elegance. The house big band shares an affinity with all three styles, mixed with the aural colors of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis progressive big bands. All that adds up to a heck of a good venue for music.

Watching Jammin’ will make viewers want to hear the various musicians perform live, which proves how effective it is. There is some seriously hard swinging and grooving going on in the film. Song also captures the passion and commitment of the musicians (especially Ren Yuqing), who are always true to the music, even if their governments are not always true to them. Very highly recommended, Jammin’ Shanghai screens this Friday (8/11) at the Queens Museum, as part of a short documentary block during the inaugural Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.