Home > iDEAL Focus > Features > Jazz band of brothers
Jazz band of brothers
By Yao Minji

RJ Big Band, a Shanghai all-Chinese jazz band, has stumbled into its second year, after numerous challenges since its more than 20 members - students, white collars and professional musicians - first bonded last October. RJ stands for Real and Jazz.

Among all Chinese cities, cosmopolitan Shanghai has enjoyed the richest tradition of jazz, the imported music from the West. Early jazz performances in the city can be traced back to 1930s.

Shanghai residents are known for appreciating this very different music style, and some jazz bars have been running for nearly 20 years.

Yet, it is not easy for a non-commercial jazz band to survive, when its members prefer to get together and improvise instead of performing for a paying audience.

"It hasn't been an easy year. We have moved six times since January (to find space)," Gu Yixin, the band's clarinet player and manager, tells Shanghai Daily. Rehearsal space has been the major problem since the band was founded.

Musicians have tried what many other artists are doing - collaborating with a neighborhood committee, which has space and funds for cultural events. They have been directed to promote culture, one of the pillars of the country's Five-Year Plan.

But it hasn't worked out. "The gap between our music concepts is simply too great to allow collaboration," Gu, a full-time administrator at the Shanghai Music Conservatory, recalls.

He adds that some organizations or committees who are willing to provide space ask them to perform non-jazz music, including revolutionary or patriotic songs. Some groups simply equate jazz with classic English pop, a common misunderstanding.

"We do include some old pop songs in our repertoire because they really cheer up the audiences, but that's definitely not the focus of our band. We simply enjoy playing interesting jazz melodies and improving our own skills," says Qian Mu, the band's art director and conductor.

Coordinating rehearsal time is another hurdle.

The band contains more than 20 musicians, averaging 25 years of age, between 18 and 40. The have all kinds of professional and music backgrounds.

For the past year, they have rehearsed for seven hours every Saturday, from 3pm to 10pm, no matter what happens, in addition to personal practice at home.

One third of the band members are university students, not all from music conservatories. A third are professional musicians who have to earn money after rehearsals on Saturday nights, the busiest nights for jazz bars. The rest have full-time jobs that have nothing to do with music - policemen, bankers, lawyers and designers - for whom overtime is common and weekends are precious.

Speaking of the name, RJ (Real and Jazz), conductor Qian says, "Jazz is the medium and real is the reality we face. The name implies our challenges to maintain the band in general and for each one member, the gap and balance between reality and jazz."

Qian, also known as Michael Kern, returned to Shanghai last April after studying jazz for eight years in Austria.

He simply wanted to survive by doing what he likes - playing jazz. He started teaching saxophone at international schools and music organizations and also played with the locally famous JZ Big Band.

Getting bonded

Only a few months later Gu and Qian by chance encountered a band comprised of graduates and former school band members from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and East China University of Political Science and Law. "We were touched by their passion and commitment to jazz, even though they are not professional musicians," Gu says.

They joined, and were followed by more professional musicians, who turned the band semi-professional. To make time for the fixed, long rehearsal on Saturdays, Qian quit JZ Big Band and stopped teaching on Saturdays, though that income was important.

Qian is far from the only one sacrificing personal time and income for the band, which is purely a labor of love. Professional players steadfastly help less experienced musicians, though they could be making money at hotels and bars. Newly weds and young parents in the band are fortunate their families support them, allowing them to rehearse for long hours.

"Since it's so difficult to get a rehearsal place and get everyone together, we all value the precious practice time," Qian says.

"We don't ever want to sacrifice rehearsal time to get more performances. In fact, we have held a few review sessions and realized we have performed a bit too much in the last half year."

By playing too much, he means two performances every month for the last four months.

The band has won champions in two competitions and played in various venues around the city.

The band will play for an hour at the JZ Festival Shanghai tomorrow before going into undisturbed rehearsal.

"We've never set a grand goal of accomplishing a certain number of performances or winning a certain number of competitions a year," Qian says. "We just want to play together, which already isn't easy in the busy city of Shanghai."

RJ Big Band at JZ Festival Shanghai

Date: Tomorrow, 1pm

Venue: East Theater,Expo Park

Tickets: 200-800 yuan (for one-day ticket at JZ Festival)

Tel: 6431-1075, 6431-7113

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164