Un-Jazz in Shanghai Triad and Zhou Xuan

Andrew Jones’ pathbreaking Yellow Music (2001) subtitles the musical timespan it scrutinizes as “The Chinese Jazz Age”. Almost in the next breath however the subject turns to Buck Clayton’s Harlem Gentlemen doing a bigband dancefloor gig at the Shanghai Canidrome in 1934. So far so good – surely Big band dancehall sound was right on the central axis of jazz’s development. (Though rather close to or even past the Jazz Age’s peak, which was a Prohibition linked cultural event, if we pay heed to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s working definition as well as gangster-speakeasy links). No matter: there surely was a honeymoon; China’s most illustrious “jazz age” entrepreneur/composer Li Jinhui was surely under the influence…

But surely there was another side to that “Age” as a venue or opportunity for jazz music and jazz musicians. It was the dark side, the cabaret side, the improv sessions up in Harlem, the non-stop band-counterpoint parties where the ivories tinkled all night never repeating what had been played earlier. And where there was no dancefloor proper, no bundling or earmarking by dance-style categories (rumba, tango, foxtrot, etc.). This of course the French so welcomed, the Whitemans so loathed and feared.

It is at this juncture that “Yellow Music” becomes a cross-culturally resonant term or at least has the potential to be, for the libido-liberated side of jazz performance was surely what Li’s many critics vociferated against; perhaps (if extremely hypothetically) the case can even be made that Li’s acculturation of Black Jazz into “Yellow” was triggered by the same fears.

But the acid test(s) of transplantational success can be comfortably posited to lie in two very concrete institutions within jazz as a performance medium. Blues and improvization – perhaps two sides of the same thing.

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