Pioneering saxophonist, 50, still hitting the right note

By Christine Laskowski (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-29 09:56
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Pioneering saxophonist, 50, still hitting the right note
Liu Yuan plays with his band at East Shore Jazz Cafe.
Zhang Xin / For China Daily

After a manic introduction, Liu Yuan said he would be happy to respond to questions about turning 50 and his leading role in the Beijing jazz scene. That is, once he finished praying.

Beijing's premiere jazz virtuoso then lit incense before a Buddha statue and prayed for a few minutes before he nestled into an armchair with a steaming cup of tea.

Notably calmer, Liu with his round, wire-rimmed spectacles, disheveled hair and muted wool sweater and khakis looked very professorial, and still youthful, despite age. Although, in Liu's opinion, a 50-year-old "can no longer make trouble."

When asked how he felt about turning 50, Liu responded: "I feel no big differences," he said.

"But in China we have a saying that when you turn 50, you will know more about what you want. I need to follow my heart more in the future."

Jazz may have been his destiny, but Liu's birthright was the suona, a traditional Chinese wind instrument similar to an oboe. His father, Liu Fentong, was a suona master, and so Liu and his siblings grew up in an artist's dayuan in Beijing, a commune-like space for musicians and dancers who worked for the Central Song and Dance Troupe. His childhood was a vibrant and exciting time, full of music and surrounded by attentive teachers.

In 1975, Liu began his studies at the Beijing Art School at the age of 15, and after graduation joined the Beijing Song and Dance Troupe, working as a professional suona soloist for 12 years. It was while performing with the Song and Dance Troupe that Liu Yuan befriended and collaborated with Cui Jian, who was to become China's very first rock'n'roll icon.

Locked in the study and performance of a Chinese folk tradition, the pivotal point for Liu occurred when the troupe went on a tour of Europe in 1977.

"I was 17 years old, and I was given the chance to look at society, culture, and of course, the music," he said. "We found that the art forms were totally different from China."

Making stops in Romania, Switzerland, France, and Britain, Liu caught his first live jazz and performances in bars and soaked up the various kinds of music being aired on the hotel TVs.

"During that period the young people had such a strong appetite to know the outside world and to communicate with it," he said.

"At that moment there were discussions among young people in the newspapers to rethink their life choices, to follow their hearts and explore who they were. "

In 1984, Liu borrowed 465 yuan from his sister and brother in order to purchase his first saxophone - an alto saxophone - at a shop in Wangfujing.

"People asked me why I gave up playing the suona. My answer was that loved it (the saxophone) so much, I didn't care. My parents were worried at first, but what my father cared most about was my attitude," he said. "Once he found out how serious I was about the saxophone, he accepted my decision."

"Back then the price was equivalent to 40,000 yuan for an saxophone," he explained. "But that was my starting point for jazz, owning that instrument."

When asked why he chose the saxophone over other jazz instruments, Liu responded: "The tone of saxophone was very attractive to me, but when I was 20, I didn't have a clear sense of what jazz was. I just knew I liked the saxophone."

With no teachers and scant materials, Liu began to teach himself how to play saxophone in his spare time. He acquired jazz tapes from people coming back from abroad, or working for embassies, and professional foreign artists, anyone willing to help him out.

"At the very beginning, I just listened to what my friends gave me. I didn't know there were different styles of jazz. And every tape I had been given, that I owned, they were all so precious at that time," Liu said. "But even then, I never meant to be a performer."

In 1983, Liu and The Joint Venture Jazz Band began performing at Maxim's, which he referred to as "a window to the world." Liu soon began to find that his job playing the suona and his hobby studying the saxophone were in conflict, and soon the troupe began to notice, so a year later, Liu decided to leave the troupe to form one of the mainland's first, if not one of the most seminal, rock'n'roll bands with Cui Jian, Seven Ply Wood.

According to Liu, he left the band because he wanted to play more jazz-oriented music. After a brief trip to the US in 1991, Liu found that the time was ripe to start promoting jazz in Beijing. From 1994-95, Liu performed on the saxophone with his jazz band, called Liu Yuan's Jazz Band, in the Hilton Hotel for two years.

"But even at the time I thought it wasn't the right place for jazz," he said. "I thought it would be better in a bar. Jazz is meant for a bar."

When Liu was introduced to CD Caf's owner, Hu Xiaoyun, the two soon became co-partners and Liu was put in charge of bar's musical direction. He turned it into a jazz caf.

"Those were hard times. In the beginning there was one month where there were hardly any guests," he said. "The hardest performance was performing for just one table of guests, but I told Xiaoyun, 'Listen, if we don't give up and carry on we can make it.' This was in '95."

During its first ten years CD Cafe relocated several times until finally settling in its current position along the northeast Third Ring Road.

"Back then I was pissed off because I was not respected. I don't want to offend Kenny G, but there were times when I would be interrupted by the audience asking me to play Kenny G. A lot of people at that time had misconception about jazz. They thought Kenny G was jazz."

Wanting a more central locale for jazz, however, Liu and a close childhood friend, Li Yongxian, decided to open a new bar. After scouting out locations for a while, they opened East Shore Jazz Caf in 2006.

"This spot was very beautiful, but when we decided to buy this place, no one wanted it," he said. "We hoped that the space and the cafe could offer a free space for the artists and bar goers."

"In the beginning, more young people came to listen to jazz music," he said. "Jazz is about music, playing your instrument. That's why jazz is special," he continued. "In China, more and more rock stars don't play music. Music's not about superstars, pop stars."

When asked when there was time for love during all of this, Liu laughed and shook his head. "It's complicated," he paused, "but also simple. I was married once to an American girl, but I wanted to stay in Beijing and she wanted to go to America. I was 30 years old."

"But this year I've made some female friends," he adds, rocking back and forth in his chair, laughing.

These days Liu and his band perform at East Shore Jazz Caf Saturday evenings and he plays at the 9th Gate Jazz Festival every year. He also continues to play with his old friend Cui Jian.

Liu remains modest about his own pivotal contribution to Beijing's jazz scene, and China's as a whole, "I don't think too much about my contribution. I just did the right thing. I look at it this way, if I can be drawn to jazz music, then anybody can, so I tried to create an environment for everyone."