The jazz scene in China is booming as more young musicians discover the genre
One of the highlights of this year's Cotai Jazz & Blues Festival at The Venetian Macao, which runs from October 9 to 12, will be a battle of the bands. Twelve international groups will compete for cash prizes of HK$250,000, HK$150,000 and HK$100,000. Will the winners come from Hong Kong, Macau or the mainland? The last two winners were from the US and the Philippines respectively, so anything is possible.
Last year, Chekov — an international ensemble based in Shanghai which combines electronic jazz improvisation, brass, rap and the erhu — took third place. The previous year another mainland band, Red Groove, were runners-up.
The festival organisers are now soliciting entries — details at cotaistrip.com — and many young musicians in Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland will likely be entering.
That said, in Hong Kong the jazz and blues scene is not exactly dominated by youth. The best known musicians are for the most part in their 40s, or older. Even harmonica man Henry Chung is in his 30s, and the blues doesn't seem to speak much to a younger demographic.
But younger musicians are gravitating towards jazz, as well as playing pop and rock. Bassist Tsang Tak-hong, who as well as leading his own bands plays regularly with veterans Ted Lo and Eugene Pao, switched to jazz from rock in 1999.
In the 1990s, while The Jazz Club in Lan Kwai Fong was still open, Tsang recalls there being more opportunities for local players to interact with foreign musicians, both resident and visiting. Now he believes that is less true here than on the mainland.
"In Beijing and Shanghai they have a lot more things going on, and foreign musicians try to find ways to work with the locals. It was also like that when I started here, but now the situation has changed," says Tsang.
"There are people who come here to make a living, but they aren't interested in communicating with the locals and sharing their knowledge. When I was learning people were really helpful," he says.
Tsang also regrets the lack of public sponsorship of jazz as an art: "There are not many people playing jazz in Macau, but there the government supports them. Here in Hong Kong, they do nothing."
Talent will out, though. Musicians he thinks are worth watching at venues like The Fringe Club, Backstage Live, and Peel Fresco, include bassists Wong Tak-chung and Chan Kam-ming, guitarists Han Hau and Vincent Lau, drummer Almond Yeung, and keyboard player Rod Chui.
Two other notable young players who have also worked with Pao and Lo are drummer Nate Wong and guitarist Teriver Cheung — although both had the exceptional advantage of receiving scholarships to leading music colleges in the US, Cheung to the University of North Texas and Wong to Berklee College of Music, from which Lo also graduated.
Wong and Cheung have recently been working together in a trio with organist Bob Mocarsky, performing at The Fringe Club.
Hong Kong also has the advantage of a thriving big band scene, which opens up opportunities for young players to learn their craft. Highlights of the recent Summer Jazz Festival at City Hall included performances by the Hong Kong University Big Band, and by the 5422 Collective, which includes veterans and more youthful players.
The jazz scene in Macau has always been smaller than that in Hong Kong, but according to Jose Isaac Duarte, vice-president of the Macau Jazz Club, it is now growing. "We have an increasing number of young players who are interested in jazz music, and in some cases considering a jazz career. That provides the basis to attract new players and fans and, most importantly, to renew the stock of players," he says.
"The casino boom brought in both a number of new potential venues, a rising number of professional players — some with training or an interest in jazz — and more visitors."
Musicians have been receiving some help of late. A re-energised Macau Jazz Club has presented concerts at Casa Garden, and relaunched the Macau Jazz Festival with a view to making it an annual event. There's also a newly established organisation, the Macau Jazz Promotion Association, which is mostly comprised of young players.
In addition to organising a number of jazz education programmes, some calling on the expertise of well known figures on the Hong Kong and mainland jazz scenes, the association has also formed a series of jazz groups, ranging from small ensembles to full-scale big bands, several of which have videos posted on YouTube. There are links at the association's website macau-jazz.org
The association is also helping to send two talented young saxophonists, Chakseng Lam and Alex Cheng, overseas for studies later this year.
On the mainland, young jazz talent seems to be mostly concentrated in Shanghai and Beijing, but there is growing interest in southern China.
Li Gaoyang, a leading young saxophone player, comes from Beijing but often plays in the south, sometimes with Nate Wong and Swedish bassist and former Hong Kong resident Rickard Malmsten. The self-taught musician has been praised by a number of US jazz musicians, including his role model, Sonny Rollins, with whom he studied.
The annual OCT-LOFT jazz festival in Shenzhen is now one of the biggest in the country, and the youthful WeDo Jazz Big Band from Guangzhou has been a top attraction there. If the growth of the scenes in Beijing and Shanghai in recent years is anything to go by, jazz in southern China could also have a promising future.
Entrants for this year's Cotai Jazz & Blues Festival from around the Pearl River Delta should be worth a listen.