Chinese jazz is hot again, thanks to 'Crazy Rich Asians'

Sep 24, 2018

Like any good film, Crazy Rich Asians would be incomplete without its soundtrack. From ‘50s-era jazz and acoustic pop, to rap and tropical rock, the sheer diversity and energy of the music is matched only by the vibrant colors and dialogue it accompanies onscreen.

But what really stands out in the film is Chinese-language jazz. Crazy Rich Asians director, Jon M. Chu, wanted to create the proper, vintage vibe during casting auditions. So actors would have heard Jasmine Chen’s original Chinese adaptation of the jazz classic “Take Five” (translated to “戏说戏”) in the background.

And while Chinese jazz has its own rich history, its place in the soundtrack helped reintroduce the subgenre to Hollywood’s global audience, making it one of 2018’s hottest, if not surprising, cultural exports from China.

The early days of jazz in China

But let’s go back to China’s love story with jazz. Back in 1920s Shanghai, the story of jazz’s explosion in the scene is not just one of music, but also about the rapid increase in pace of cultural exchange between East and West.

The first two jazz songs featured in Crazy Rich Asians paint an evocative picture of this rich history. The first, which plays during the opening credits, is Jasmine Chen’s performance of “Waiting For Your Return”—which was originally a traditional Chinese folk melody, but arranged in a big-band swing style for the film by veteran composer Christopher Tin (of “Baba Yetu” fame).

The second jazz song is “Wo Yao Ni De Ai,” an upbeat track recorded in 1961 by Chinese singer Grace Chang and adapted from American blues singer Louis Jordan’s 1953 hit “I Want You To Be My Baby.”

While released in different decades, these two songs outline the myriad ways Chinese artists have incorporated American musical styles into their own creative output—whether through translating English-language jazz standards into Mandarin, or through infusing Western arrangements with traditional Chinese instruments and melodies.

This unique stylistic blend permeated much of local popular music in the early 20th century, which today goes by names such as shidaiqu (時代曲, “songs of the times”) or simply laoge (老歌, “old songs”). Jazz in particular began to take shape in the U.S. in the late 1800s, and was exported to China shortly thereafter.

Bandleader Whitey Smith was one of the first American musicians to perform and record jazz music in Shanghai in the 1920s, followed by African-American instrumentalists like Buck Clayton and Teddy Weatherford. These expats were regulars at several local hotels, including the Astor House and the Fairmont Peace Hotel.

The first all-Chinese jazz bands then emerged in the 1940s—perhaps the most famous of which was the Jimmy King Jazz Band, which performed regularly at Shanghai’s Paramount Dance Hall (Chinese name 百樂門, which translates literally to “gate of 100 pleasures").

Like “Wo Yao Ni De Ai,” many popular Chinese jazz tunes at the time were simply translations of English standards, keeping the melodies and harmonies intact. Another such example from the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack is “Give Me A Kiss” (给我一个吻), a Mandarin adaptation of the 1950s country song “Seven Lonely Days.”

Importantly, the cultural exchange happened in the other direction, too. For instance, the 1940 Mandarin pop song “Rose, Rose, I Love You” (玫瑰玫瑰我愛你) was later re-recorded as an English-language single of the same title by American singer Frankie Laine. To this day, that song remains the only top-five Billboard chart hit written by a Chinese composer.

Jazz’s second wave in China: ‘no longer copying’

The outset of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s abruptly halted this first wave of jazz. Under his regime, Communist leader Mao Zedong banned jazz and all other Western music, shutting down major music conservatories and dance halls such as the Paramount in the process. Local jazz musicians were either left unemployed or forced to join traditional Chinese music ensembles to make ends meet.

It wasn’t until Mao’s death in 1976 that the Chinese government finally began to open up to Western music and culture again, catalyzing a second influx of jazz into the country. The one major difference from before Mao: this time around, many international jazz musicians from other countries beyond the U.S. began touring around China as well.

What’s more, in part thanks to new transportation and communication technologies, the local jazz scene began expanding beyond the metropolitan centers of Shanghai and Beijing into other cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Alongside new artists like Jasmine Chen, a slowly but steadily growing scene of Chinese jazz artists are gaining international acclaim, and continuing to build on the hybrid shidaiqu style. Pianist Kong Hongwei has brought his Golden Buddha ensemble—which combines Western jazz styles with traditional Chinese instruments such as the sanxian and tanggu—to countries like Croatia, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

Chinese jazz vocalists such as Coco Zhao and Le Zhang have been featured on NPR in the U.S. for their continued work of reimagining jazz standards through the lens of Chinese musical traditions, and vice versa. Even local voice competitions such as The Voice China and Sing! China often feature jazz singers like Joanna Dong as contestants.

“It’s like food: the music and culture you grow up with has such a big impact on you and shapes your taste later on,” says Zhang, who recorded a cover album of 1920s Shanghai jazz standards called The Classics in collaboration with the Shanghai Restoration Project.

“My grandparents’ generation listened to the first wave of these songs in the 1930s and ‘40s, and then a few singers like Teresa Teng and Fei Yu Qing made those songs popular again for my parents’ generation in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And now the artists coming up today who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s are continuing this hybrid style that resonates with so many different generations of audiences here.”

We’re not just copying...we’re using tools rooted in our own culture.

Jasmine Chen

Adds Chen: “We’re not just copying. We’re reinventing the wheel, using tools rooted in our own culture.”

Today, there are several festivals across the country celebrating both local and international jazz talent, including Beijing’s Nine Gates International Jazz Festival and the nearly 14-year-old JZ Festival (which is also the biggest jazz festival across all of Asia). The internationally-renowned institution Jazz at Lincoln Center also opened its first Chinese branch in Shanghai in 2016, while Blue Note plans to follow suit in the same city in spring 2019.

The rise of the local Chinese jazz scene is also inseparable from the rise of the Internet—especially given that educational opportunities for jazz in China are still relatively sparse.

The Shanghai Conservatory didn’t introduce any formal jazz education until 2006, when it launched a video exchange program with the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Up until that point, any musicians in China who were interested in jazz either had to be self-taught or traveled abroad to study at international institutions (e.g. Chen studied at the Leeds College of Music in the U.K., while Zhang studied at the New England Conservatory in the U.S.).

It’s thanks to the internet.

But with the help of the Internet, jazz artists from anywhere in the world could post their own video tutorials or blogs online and exchange knowledge with one another, democratizing music education and distribution in the process.

“In China, the rise of jazz seems to go hand-in-hand with the rise of entrepreneurialism,” says Eugene Marlow, author of the book Jazz in China: From Dance Hall Music to Individual Freedom of Expression. “Jazz is a freer, more democratic form of music, and entrepreneurialism is a more democratic form of doing business.”

In fact, most of the aforementioned jazz artists in China still release their music independently, in part because there are few flagship jazz-specific record labels in China that are akin to a label like Blue Note in the U.S.

As the local Chinese jazz scene continues to flourish and internationalize, some of its local veterans hope that Crazy Rich Asians will serve as a stepping stone to a long-term journey of exploration into East-West musical exchange.

“I hope we’ll have more chances to celebrate Chinese music from all styles and generations in the future,” says Zhang. “The musical era of the ‘20s and ‘30s featured in Crazy Rich Asians has caught everyone’s eye, but there have been many more artists who have come up along the way since then, blending different types of sounds. Hopefully we can explore that depth in future movies.”

Check out Cherie's Chinese jazz playlist on Spotify here.

Crazy Rich AsiansCultural RevolutionShanghaiJazz in ChinaCinema