Fans aflame for hot sounds of jazz
Benson Chao finds himself moving to a new beat in clubs - the sounds of jazz
It is eclectic music. It is upmarket chic that the average man may avoid. It is jazz. Or rather, that was jazz as many people - even so-called music lovers - viewed the age-old genre.
However, the equation of 'Jazz = exclusive chic fun' may be a thing of the past, as more bars and restaurants swing toward the newer forms of jazz.
This year, a spate of international jazz artists - including Annie Ross and Georgie Fame - and increasing performances by jazz diehards such as Allen Youngblood and Eugene Pao, have seen the birth of a new rhythm on Hong Kong's live music scene.
With the advent of new 'types' of jazz, such as acid jazz and jazz fusion which appeal to a younger audience, and easier access to jazz recordings, the snowball just keeps getting bigger.
As a long-time provider of jazz in Hong Kong, the Jazz Club was probably the first to feel the change. 'Several years ago, people would find it hard to find live jazz music, but now it is not [difficult],' said club manager Joe Henderson, who has brought in seven sell-out international acts in the past six months.
'Wan Chai seems to be the place to go on Sunday. The Rickshaw Club has some jazz gigs. Swing, BB's, Dali's and even hotels have regular jazz.
'I have hotel managers calling me looking for their own jazz musicians. They know the trend is moving towards jazz and they want to be part of it.
'Local musicians are getting very busy now. Some even play in three different bands. I even get calls from China. They want musicians for a jazz festival!' It is not that hard to comprehend the recent surge in jazzmania. Lan Kwai Fong, the heart of Hong Kong's live music nights, has been thirsting for new entertainment since the Chinese population found this beer retreat frequented by Westerners a fun place to hang out.
In addition, the explosion of house parties a few years ago has exposed local Chinese to the excitement awaiting them in that narrow, but steep and trendy enclave. The live music it offered, however, was still limited.
'The live scene in Hong Kong has not changed much since I came to Hong Kong [from Singapore] two years ago. It's either too expensive or too commercial,' said Jason Ho Wen-peng who turned a Vietnamese restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong into Swing, a live jazz get-together on Friday and Saturday nights.
'We don't have big budget like Rick's Cafe or the Jazz Club and making money is not our priority anyway.
'I started this gathering [which charges only for drinks] because I wanted to set up a place where my musician friends could have a cosy place to jam and jazz-or blues-lovers could listen to local talent,' Mr Ho said.
Since opening in June, Swing's performers have included jazz acoustic guitarist David Tong, Jojo Monroy, Akai and the like, who only receive a nominal 'allowance' for their gigs.
Even though the restaurant-by-day and live-venue-by-night is hard to locate for the uninitiated, aficionados find its cosy atmosphere hard to resist.
It can hold only 60 people but Mr Ho is planning to put jazz on the boards six nights a week.
'The difference in listening to jazz in a place like this is similar to inviting your friends to your place to play music,' he said.
Even restaurant Quo quo, in Central's Entertainment Building, has its fingers in the jazz pie. Since its inception in December 1993, the upmarket eatery (and conference room venue) has been making use of sophisticated jazz blends to soothe its clientele - and demand has risen steadily.
'We have been more aggressive in the past few months with the launch of an evening jazz series because now there is much more market development . . . we feel that jazz has become more an important part of people's lives,' said Rogier Verhoeven, manager of Quo quo.
'Originally there was only the Jazz Club but now lots of bars are trying to do it.
'We definitely feel that there is a market, it's a slow-growing market but there's definitely a market for it.' He admitted that even though Canto-pop was in no danger of losing its crown to the jazz pretender, it had nevertheless established itself as a candidate for a larger market share and the high demand is now having an effect on jazz musicians.
'There is a very limited supply of local jazz musicians at the moment because there had not been enough demand and facilities for them. But it's changing now,' said Mr Verhoeven, who has worked at Quo quo for three years.
'In the past, a lot of the musicians could not play jazz because they were forced to play more commercial tunes to survive.
'Hopefully, when the jazz scene grows more, more musicians, including local ones, will play jazz music,' he said.
Where jazz concerts such as Select Live Under the Sky normally drew a largely expatriate crowd, locals fan are beginning to make their presence strongly felt.
The Jazz Club and Quo quo are seeing more locals dipping into their pockets and choosing jazz as their source of entertainment. And hotel venues, such as Cyrano's at the Island Shangri-la, have been eager to win some of the clientele.
'I honestly don't know why Hong Kong people have suddenly picked up the jazz trend but I think that more artists are getting involved in jazz or becoming musicians and more locals like to come by and see how good they are,' Mr Henderson said.
'About 70 per cent local young Chinese around the age of 20 to 30 come in on weekdays [at the Jazz Club].
'When the new management took over in January, we changed the place to be less of a club and more open to the public, before it was more the British club clientele,' he said.
As the market's potential becomes more evident to owners and managers, it may be likely that Hong Kong's changing populace will be experiencing more jazz performances.
With clubs and live venues putting in more money, music lovers agree that this can only do good for the live scene. Already the jazz influence can be seen in the Canto-pop music scene as local singers choose to rejuvenate their songs with more jazzy or R&B arrangements.
And, as Mr Henderson sees it, 1997 will only bring in bigger audiences.
'It  will not affect jazz negatively. It will only increase the percentage of local Chinese,' he said.