Yukon jazz band New Orleans North drew massive crowds on its recent trip to eastern China — but they were crowds of motionless, stony-faced spectators.
“Not smiling, not tapping, not doing anything,” said Grant Simpson, the group’s pianist.
But as soon as a song ended, the crowd would “explode” with appreciation, he said.
“The first night, we played in front of probably 3,500 people and, after you finish a song, they’re screaming so loud that you can’t hear your own drums,” said Graeme Peters, the group’s drummer.
“Then afterwards you’d have 3,000 people on the stage trying to take pictures of you and get your autograph,” he said.
Not a typical response for a jazz band.
A Chinese music student explained to a baffled Simpson that the bizarre silence-to-euphoria response came about because the Chinese were still struggling to “understand” jazz.
At a music store, Simpson sat down at a piano and started plinking out a jazz tune.
“I turned around, and there were instantly a 150 people looking at me,” said Simpson.
They came as jazz musicians, but the members of New Orleans North suddenly found that they had become unwitting harbingers of “a new sound.”
“The organizers said that jazz in China started in 1999, and even then it’s been super slow — it hasn’t taken the country by storm,” said Simpson.
“The Chinese history of music is that they didn’t believe in writing emotional music,” he said.
“Music was meant to serve a purpose.”
“In free countries everywhere we tend to just do music for music’s sake … but the Chinese culture was forced into a zone of ‘what good is music unless it’s going to do something for us?’” said Simpson.
In the 1920s, some of the world’s top jazz musicians took their craft to China. After the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, the close association of jazz with the West quickly drove the genre into obscurity.
In Mao Zedong’s 1966 Cultural Revolution, the music was completely banned.
After US president Richard Nixon dropped in for an unexpected diplomatic visit in 1972, normalizing relations with the West set the stage for jazz to return to Chinese clubs and streets.
Jazz is slowly making a comeback, but the intensely emotional and individualistic quality of the genre has yet to resonate among Chinese jazz newcomers.
The playing ability of Chinese jazz artists is top-notch, but the “feel” still needs work, said Simpson.
“They’ve got a lot of catching up to do, in terms of knowledge about feel and knowledge about improvisation,” said Simpson.
“It’s almost like they figure out what they’re going to do, and then they play that,” said Peters.
As a jazz teacher, Simpson says he spends the first two years with a student “breaking down walls” to let them “play freely” — something that the Chinese jazz community still needs to do as a whole.
Crowds were continually captivated by the passion of jazz music.
From people of all ages, Simpson often heard the comment “your music moved me.”
At one outdoor festival, the front of the stage was lined with policemen facing the band.
“I looked down and this stone-still cop was tapping his foot like mad,” said Simpson.
Simpson smiled at him, and the embarrassed officer seized up and instantly stopped tapping.
In all sectors, the country seems to be in the grips of an emotional makeover — in music, culture and even in the bedroom.
Under Mao, sex was purely for procreation and public displays of affection — including hand holding — were banned.
At the time of the Tiananmen Square massacres, it was estimated only 16 per cent of Chinese engaged in premarital sex. That number has now increased to 60 per cent, according to estimates from Chinese sexologists.
Simpson read an article describing how older Chinese couples were visiting psychologists to “feel something for each other” again.
Yet the grip of China’s political repression was immediately obvious to the visiting musicians.
Simpson had to submit his songs months in advance to have them vetted by Chinese authorities.
In 2003, the Rolling Stones were banned from playing Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Women and Let’s Spend the Night Together during a Chinese tour.
The summer’s Beijing Olympics highlighted stringent Chinese media controls, as foreign journalists struggled with strict Chinese censorship laws.
“And rightfully so; we’re in their country and we have to follow their rules,” said Simpson.
“By us saying, ‘that’s wrong,’ that’s coming from our own perspective here in Canada,” he said.
North America, at one time or another, has had its own bouts with restrictions on music, said Simpson.
Ragtime was once banned in certain US states, as was jazz, he noted.
“But we still have that music; we got through it, and China will too,” said Simpson.
In his small glimpse at the cities of Shanghai and Nanjing, Simpson found “a lot” of personal freedoms in day-to-day society.
“I didn’t notice anything, other than there was a lot of policemen around all the time,” he said, adding that any gathering of more than 200 people is illegal.
In China, there should be more dialogue about political freedoms, but “I just don’t think it should be some white guy from Canada who comes and says it,” said Simpson.
Jazz has always held close ties to the cause of political and personal freedom in the United States — although not always overtly. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit or Nina Simone’s Old Jim Crow immediately spring to mind.
“Having your music empowering people in China to say it for themselves — that’s more important,” said Simpson.
Contact Tristin Hopper at