World’s oldest jazz band in Shanghai a rare constant amid China’s breakneck modernisation

A fixture at Shanghai’s Fairmont Peace Hotel since the 1980s, the Old Jazz Band has played to dignitaries including former US presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, and its six current members have no plans to call time yet

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 September, 2017, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 September, 2017, 6:01pm

Li Minsheng is one of the junior members of the Old Jazz Band at Shanghai’s ornate Fairmont Peace Hotel. He is 76.

Frequently described as the oldest jazz band on the planet and once recognised as such by Guinness World Records, its six wizened members range from a relatively youthful 63 to a scarcely believable 97-year-old trumpeter.

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They are an institution in Shanghai and a rare constant in a city and country that are modernising at breakneck speed.

“I have been performing jazz for at least 40 years,” says Li, an alto saxophonist with a soft face and gentle air, moments before going on stage once more in a red bow tie, crisp white shirt, pristine white blazer and black trousers. “I got this saxophone in the 1960s and have played it ever since.”

Born during the tumult and war following Japan’s late-1930s invasion, Li – like other Chinese his age – has witnessed remarkable change.

“I started playing jazz and performing after the opening-up,” says Li, referring to the economic reforms launched in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping that propelled China from a basket case to the world’s second-largest economy today. “We were not able to play before the opening-up due to the political situation then.”

That meant practising at home in secret. “Back then I would play at home a little bit and enjoy it by myself. I didn’t play outside.”

Jazz is more readily associated with New Orleans or New York than Shanghai, but the Chinese city has its own proud jazz heritage that flickers on. The Peace Hotel, completed in 1929 and a prime example of art deco architecture on Shanghai’s historic riverside Bund area, is in many ways central to it.

The bar where the Old Jazz Band now plays 365 nights a year was originally an English-style pub and it retains that flavour with its bar stools, dark wooden fittings and slightly musty feel.

Interacting with the audience is the greatest thing for me
Li Minsheng

During Shanghai’s hard-partying 1930s heyday the bar became so well known for its jazz that it became simply known as “The Jazz Bar”. The music style had arrived in the city around that time, with American musicians hired to play at nightclubs.

Then came war, the 1949 communist takeover, and the political turmoil of the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution, when virulent campaigns against anything foreign made playing or even listening to jazz a dangerous hobby.

Emerging from all that, the Old Jazz Band, which attempts to revive the bar’s 1930s air, has been a fixture at the hotel since 1980.

Former US presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan are among the dignitaries who have dropped in for an evening of jazz – Clinton, who plays the sax, even joined in.

The band, which has an average age of 82, plays what it calls “soft jazz” with a Shanghainese flavour.

“Jazz has come to China bit by bit,” says Li, who has been in the band for more than 30 years and was put forward by his fellow members to speak for them.

“After China’s opening-up, the influx of Western jazz had a huge impact on the jazz scene here. By watching their performances, we were able to learn from them and improve our music. But of course, compared to the top jazz scenes in the world, we still have a long way to go.”

And the million-dollar question: when does Li plan to close the lid on his saxophone case for the last time? “Generally speaking, playing the sax has an age limit,” he says, smiling.

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But as long as he remains enthusiastic and people keep filling the bar to listen, he plans to carry on.

“Interacting with the audience is the greatest thing for me. Without anyone to listen, we’d have no reason to perform.”