Like many forms of "Western" music in China, jazz has had its challenges gaining ground with local audiences. Officially prohibited during the Cultural Revolution, the genre was then viewed as a bourgeois and decadent social evil.
"To look at the jazz scene in Beijing today, and think of what was happening here musically 25 years ago, one sees amazing growth", says Jessica Meider, a 10-year veteran of the Beijing jazz scene and vocalist for jazz ensemble Quattrology.
There is still a ways to go, of course. Liu Yue, mentioned by many as the top jazz guitarist in Beijing, explains, "It's difficult for many jazz musicians to make a living from just playing jazz, so many have to play in other bands in different genres as well." According to David Mitchell, guitarist with Panjir and Enfant Terrible, exposure to other musical influences is beneficial. "If you find the right way to introduce people to jazz, they’ll almost always enjoy it. Elements of electro, world music, funk and drum make it possible to get the listeners attention.”
Jazz is a genre defined by its past, and the contradictory elements of jazz, where improvisation meets uniformity will always make for some friction. The canon of “standards” played by jazz musicians across the globe can be looked at as a measuring stick of players’ talent, as well as an obstacle to creativity and innovative composition. “Original composition is the lifeblood of jazz,” says Mitchell. Liu Yue points out that “Jazz musicians start from the standards. Studying the classics builds understanding of the music’s history and reveals the level of the musicians playing them.”
Saxophonist Nathaniel Gao, the organizing force behind the Red Hand Jazz Band, asserts that, “It’s important to grasp the traditions behind jazz, but our band has been having a great time focusing on original material.”
Putting the standards vs. composition debate to the side, Gao maintains, “What Beijing really needs is more resources and venues to see live jazz. It’s encouraging that most people in Beijing jazz are Chinese, with a lot of younger musicians with talent.”