FOR 94-year-old Zhou Wanrong, being a jazz musician has always been much more than just an occupation — it’s a lifelong passion.
Being the oldest member of the Shanghai Old Jazz Band that performs every day at the Fairmont Peace Hotel, Zhou, once the trumpeter, now plays the fun percussion instrument, maracas. He performs twice a month. Next time he will show up on August 29.
The youngest member now is 79 years old. Every evening at 8pm, they dress up in suits and bow ties, just as in the old heyday of Shanghai jazz in the 1930s and 40s, and revisit the old songs echoing on the Bund.
The band, composed of six veteran musicians, was founded by Zhou on December 24, 1980, as China’s new economic reforms were starting to take hold. Jazz in China had gone quiet for decades before that.
Zhou’s musical career spans over half a century. He joined the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in 1952 and was the principal trumpeter before retiring in 1980. He also played with various jazz musicians at the old Paramount Ballroom before joining the symphony orchestra.
Born in 1920 in Wuhan, capital city of central China’s Hubei Province, Zhou first got his musical education at an institute named Juyuan in Wuhan’s former French concession.
“Jazz (in China) did not originate in Shanghai, but from that school in Wuhan,” Zhou notes. “I started when I was 14 and studied for three years.
“When I entered the school, there were also many Filipinos,” he recalls. “Their bands were good.”
But in the 1930s, Wuhan banned dancing and jazz, so Zhou moved to Shanghai. At that time, the live music scene in Shanghai was also dominated by Filipino singers, and Chinese musicians filled in when they left. But all-Chinese bands eventually emerged in what became the center of jazz in Asia.
When Zhou was young, American movies and music were everywhere.
“In 1947, a man named Jimmy King founded a jazz band in Shanghai,” he says. “He sang in the Hawaiian style.”
For veteran musicians, playing jazz late into the night is not an easy task. Even into his 80s, Zhou performed four hours every night as a trumpeter in the band, an instrument that demands significant physical strength.
After he had a stroke, he switched to other positions in the band, like shaking the maracas.
The current band plays three performances every night, each 45 minutes long. For those who have lived the schedule for decades, it’s a way of life.
“There are many stories at the hotel. It’s rare to have a band active for more than two decades,” Zhou says.
During the three years when the historic hotel was closed for renovation starting in 2007, the band moved to the Hua Ting Hotel Shanghai in Xuhui District but was almost dismissed due to lagging popularity.
When they went back to the Peace Hotel after it reopened in July 2010, the musicians were eager to come on stage again and rocked the opening night. There they’ve been ever since.
Zhou’s family also has close ties to music. While he was playing in the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, his wife was the orchestra’s accountant. His son, who now lives in Japan, plays the violin and his granddaughter plays the flute.
Zhou has traveled around the world performing with the band. German filmmaker Uli Gaulke made a documentary, “As Time Goes By,” following the Shanghai Old Jazz Band’s performances from 2011 to 2012, including the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam. The film premiered at the Shanghai International Film Festival that year.
Zhou has many loyal audience members, many of whom come to Shanghai to watch the band perform. Two months ago, an American in his 80s came to the bar asking if Zhou is still around performing, according to the band manager Xiao Xueqiang.
“The American’s father followed the band’s performances at the Paramount Ballroom before 1949. He then came to the Peace Hotel,” Xiao says. “He told his son that he had to come to the band’s performance when he’s in Shanghai.”