Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stratification of Jazz Listeners in China

After playing jazz here in Chengdu for nearly a year I've noticed that there are three general groups when it comes to the appreciation of jazz music. The first, and admittedly most fun group to play for, is the Lao Wai, or foreigner. Although meeting an actual jazz fan is rare amongst this group, I imagine the music induces a feeling of nostalgia or at least an escape from the nauseating Chinese pop music that can be found in most establishments. The second group is the educated, middle to upper class Chinese. This group is the most confusing to me. They usually still love their Chinese pop, yet are willing to tolerate jazz, although they don't necessarily understand or even like it. Some however will say that the music makes them "comfortable." The final group is the middle to lower class Chinese. Some of the "Lao Wai" gigs we play are targeted towards this group, and it's amazing how quickly jazz can take a smile off a person's face. I have a picture I will try to upload of the audience at one of these particular shows. Every single person has either a digusted or perplexed look- and that's the few people who remained after the music began. Why are we continually hired to perform this type of gig? I'm not so sure. Of course there are outliers and exceptions, such as the jazz-loving music student, or the nescient foreigner, but for the most part interest in jazz is pretty stratified along these lines. I've heard that different personality traits will lead a person to be more inclined to like particular types of music, but I find the reaction to jazz interesting. The divide along social lines, and the wide spectrum concerning level of interest seems pretty unique. I guess I could see this applying to classical music as well. I haven't put too much thought into the implications- anyone have any ideas?


G. E. Anderson --- said...

Fascinating post!

When I lived in Chengdu in the mid-90s, I noted similar reactions. Our Chinese audiences loved our pop/rock, but they weren't sure what to make of our jazz.

As for the foreigners in your audience, I would guess that the kind of person who willingly leaves the comfort of his home to travel to Chengdu has pretty eclectic taste in music.

Your laowai audience members aren't at all typical of average Americans whose reactions to jazz would probably parallel those of the two Chinese groups you've noted.

People who have never heard jazz only hear noise. Once they figure out that jazz tunes have a recognizeable head and tail, with improvisation in the middle, they start to figure it out. At least that's how my own approach to jazz happened.

Have you tried throwing in snippets of recognizeable Chinese pop or folk songs into your improv?

Have you ever considered actually explaining the basics of jazz to your audience? Not sure how well that would go over, but it's just a thought.

I enjoy your posts. Keep up the interesting work!

Josh Katz said...

Hey G.E., I appreciate the insight. I definitely agree that the foreigners here are usually not a reflection of their home country's population. Eclectic is right!

I have done both things you mentioned- we occasionally play jazz arrangements of Chinese pop and folk. Unfortunately the audience audience doesn't get too excited, especially when we get to the improvisation section. It's too bad considering we are sacrificing part of our musical integrity!

I also sometimes explain what jazz is, how the form works, what we are doing, but the crowd seems more interested in the mere fact that I can speak Chinese than what I am actually talking about.

Anyway what were you up to here in the mid-90's? Any words of wisdom to a fellow musician in China?


G. E. Anderson --- said...

Hey Josh. I emailed you through the address in your blogger profile.