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Winter Term 2012: Jazz students take Beijing by storm with three-week tour

Jan. 17, 2012

EJ Dickson

Terry Hiseh New
The 2012 Terry Hsieh Collective, from left: junior Alexander Cummings (saxophone), fifth-year Jacob Baron (keys), fifth-year Terry Hsieh (trombone), senior Peter Manheim (drums), and senior Pat Adams (trumpet). Bassist Jackson Hill '10 is not pictured.
Terry Hsieh

In the summer of 2009, double-degree student Terry Hsieh was studying Mandarin in Beijing. While doing language exercises one evening, he decided to take a break from his studies and pointed to a random spot on a map of the city, landing on the Hou Hai (“rear lake”) bar district. Hsieh wandered around the neighborhood until he stumbled upon East Shore Live Jazz Club, a tiny, dingy bar with a sign in English advertising live jazz. Hsieh, a jazz musician in the conservatory, decided to head inside, unsure what to expect.

Hsieh didn’t know it at the time, but he had stumbled on a small yet vibrant pocket of the Beijing music scene, composed of a tight-knit group of local jazz musicians.  The quartet Hsieh saw at the East Shore Live Jazz Club played music that was at once nothing and exactly like what Hsieh studied as a trombonist in the conservatory. “They were coming up with their own take on the jazz sound,” Hsieh says. “I was like, ‘Wow, I have to get to know these guys.”

Over the course of the next few weeks, Hsieh found himself becoming more and more immersed in the city’s jazz scene, befriending local musicians and attending jam sessions. Soon after his chance discovery, a mutual friend introduced him to Henry Zhang, the vice president of investment banking at Barclay’s Capital in Hong Kong and an avid jazz connoisseur. Zhang offered Hsieh $6,000 to bring a group of Oberlin jazz musicians to Beijing for a few weeks, a proposition that Hsieh enthusiastically accepted.

Since 2010, Hsieh has led his Terry Hsieh Collective on a tour of Beijing’s most swinging jazz clubs every winter term. For three weeks in January, the five-piece collective performs at music venues throughout the city, participating in workshops and jam sessions with world-renowned jazz musicians. They also teach masterclasses and lead recitals at the International School in Beijing (ISB), a non-profit, private school in Shunyi province with a thriving jazz performance program.

This winter term, the lineup features Hsieh on trombone, conservatory junior Alexander Cummings on saxophone, double-degree fifth-year Jacob Baron on keys, conservatory senior Peter Manheim on drums, and conservatory senior Patrick Adams on trumpet. Jackson Hill ’10, a conservatory graduate currently working in Beijing, is joining them on bass.

Although members of the Collective have the opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of Beijing in between gigs, Hsieh sees the trip as nothing less than an artistic exchange between two cultures. “Most Chinese people don’t know much about jazz — the vocabulary is completely foreign to them,” Hsieh says. “My goal for the project is to bring two countries together for mutual appreciation of this art form, by making music that speaks to their experiences.”

Indeed, the history of jazz in the People’s Republic of China is as complex as the art of improvisation itself. Although it thrived in Shanghai in the 1920s and early ‘30s, jazz was banned by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution by the Chinese government, along with other musical genres that were considered examples of bourgeois self-indulgence.

Consequently, most Chinese musicians are trained in more traditional performance styles, which emphasize discipline and moderation over the unrestrained, freewheeling aesthetic characteristic of contemporary jazz music. “Chinese musicians are influenced by classical music,” a local jazz club owner was quoted as saying in a story on Beijingscene.com. “They follow the bass, but there is no freedom or creativity.”

Despite the relative difficulties of introducing a Western art form to Chinese audiences, however, Hsieh says jazz is steadily gaining a foothold in the Chinese music scene. Jazz music is gradually becoming as integral to Chinese cultural identity as classical music, with Chinese musicians vying with Western musicians for the top spots in international jazz competitions.

Because classical performance is viewed as a reflection of national identity, Hsieh says that many musicians consider the mastery of an American art form an assertion of national pride. “In the States, jazz is taught as American classical music, so it’s treated as sort of a cultural relic,” Hsieh explains. “In China, jazz is new and modern, so it has more urgent political and national value.”

While jazz’s burgeoning popularity makes it an exciting time to work as a musician in the People’s Republic of China, Hsieh says that some audiences are still unsure what to make of a genre that falls somewhere in between American rock and classical music. In order to make jazz more palatable to a foreign audience, the Collective performs arrangements of original compositions and American standards, with a distinctly Chinese folk or classical flavor.

“We’re making an effort to connect with them and learn about their culture, not just force ours onto them,” drummer Peter Manheim says. “By trying to arrange Chinese songs in a jazz context, we’re showing that what we’re doing is relevant to what they’re doing, which puts us on the same page as the audience.”

Manheim also plans to use his experience abroad as an opportunity to build relationships with Chinese jazz artists and American musicians working abroad, including Theo Croker ’09 and Alex Morris ’10, both conservatory jazz musicians who are currently living in China. Manheim says that the relatively low cost of living in China, combined with an increased number of opportunities for gigs at local jazz clubs, have encouraged many struggling jazz musicians to seek out job opportunities overseas. “It’s feasible to make a comfortable living as a musician in China,” Manheim says. “By networking and making connections, I sort of see this trip as an investment for the future.”

Hsieh hopes that the exchange of ideas between American and Chinese jazz musicians will ultimately manifest itself into an exchange of career opportunities. Through the connections he’s made in China, Hsieh hopes to establish an international booking agency that will introduce Chinese musicians to the American market and American musicians to the Chinese market, and he is applying for an Entrepreneurship Fellowship to finance the project. He is also working on his Honors project, which discusses the relationship between Chinese music and politics by comparing the development of jazz in Shanghai and Beijing.

Although a combination of careful planning, extensive rehearsals, and the aid of generous benefactors bring Hsieh and his collective to China every year, Hsieh acknowledges that luck — or the art of improvisation — has played a prominent role in the project. Had he not gotten bored and decided to go for a walk one balmy summer night, he never would have ended up playing at the same jazz club he stumbled into that evening. “None of this would have happened if I just sat still,” he says. “Improvising is one of those fine arts that make you think on your feet. You roll with the changes, try to keep up, and, every once in a while, a gem comes out.” 

 


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