It does seem a long way from the UK. Three flights and twenty four hours travel time from Leeds. That's quite enough air miles for one week, thank you, even in business class. All worthwhile, though, because today has been one of those days I won't forget. It's my first visit to mainland China, and I've flown to Beijing (Peking) via Hong Kong. And, as with most of my foreign travel, the dream pictures I've built up in my mind are completely wrong.
A car is waiting for me in the multi-storey car park at the airport. The car park is full of expensive vehicles. Cars by Mercedes, BMW, Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Volkswagen, Audi and Cadillac. Hundreds of them. The colleague who meets me calls up our Volvo and driver on his mobile phone. Driving on the right, we edge out into Beijing traffic, eventually into the massive city (12 million people), with five ring roads and a grid street pattern of eight-lane highways in both directions in the city centre. In Beijing centre some of the roads are as wide as aircraft runways. Nothing is as I'd imagined. The People's Republic is providing surprise after surprise, and one - I'll tell you later - I could never have imagined.
My Chinese colleague Kitty Xu has kindly travelled up from Singapore to set up a couple of visits here in the capital city, and to put her native Mandarin and fluent Cantonese at my disposal by acting as my interpreter. At this she is truly excellent. Being a good interpreter is not simply a matter of being bilingual. Another acquaintance, in another country, one of the most gifted linguists I know, is a most annoying interpreter, unwittingly unhelpful - but that's another story. Kitty is great.
One call is to a small but excellent private school in the centre of Beijing. The other is to the famous Chinese State Conservatory, to meet Professor LiQuifang, who teaches piano at this important institution. Here there are eight hundred students. It's the largest Conservatory in China. Interestingly, the Conservatory has a violin-making department, a combination of art and craft rarely found in any music college.
We sit in Professor LiQuifang's large teaching studio, equipped with two grand pianos, a Steinway and a Bö#246;sendorfer, to hear a succession of piano recitals given by her talented pupils. Some are here chaperoned by a parent, for they are barely in their teens. Others are at postgraduate stage. Each is able to sit down and perform several substantial pieces from memory. The Professor suggests works or movements, picked seemingly at random, and the student at the piano launches into an instant note-perfect virtuosic performance, rattling through a movement from the Appassionata, say, or a Chopin É#201;tude, as easily as you can tie your shoelaces.
Professor Li tells me - in English - that during the 1980s she travelled from China to Germany to select and purchase twenty-five Steinway grand pianos for the Conservatory. Now, one of her postgraduate students (who is already winning major international piano competitions) has returned from a similar mission to buy eight more pianos. Someone in Beijing is taking music education very seriously, I'm pleased to tell you.
Beijing appears to be undergoing rapid change. Smoking is now banned on public transport. There is now critical comment on the amount of spitting in public places. To western eyes it's quite a shock to see a pretty woman, dressed up for the evening, hawking and spitting as she sashays along the pavement.
Thousands, probably millions, of sturdy young trees have been planted along the road from the airport. The newspapers report that this is a massive programme to hold back the dessert and its dust, to prevent it from blowing into town. An impressive gigantic new sports residence complex is opened while I'm in Beijing, part of the preparations for the anticipated Beijing Olympics in 2008. The holding of the world's biggest sports gathering in the capital of the country with the largest population (1.4 billion) is creating huge business opportunities, including the building of new subways, a light railway, various hi-tech projects, roads, sewers, and an 80,000 seat stadium to the north of the city. Maybe there's a concert hall amongst these plans? I hope so.
Chinese people are now beginning to travel abroad. In Britain, travellers to China can now obtain Chinese currency at home, a new and welcome development. Here in the capital the younger people are eager to talk to Europeans. I attempt to walk round Tiananman Square, famous for the 1989 pro-democracy protests, and the Forbidden City. The squares are enormous; I take a cab for part of the way! I am stopped many times by students eager to try their English on me, or ply for a gig as a guide for an hour or two. That would have been fun, but unfortunately this is a tightly scheduled stay.
Street music is intriguing, particularly a busker playing Red River Valley on his Erhu, a traditional two string violin. I've no idea why this particular tune is chosen, but suspect that the explanation is the same as the explanation for the Japanese fondness for Dvorak's Eighth Symphony as background music. It's because it's fundamentally pentatonic, as is so much music from the Pacific Rim. But there's little time to enjoy the street music or take part in informal English conversations, enjoyable as they are. I have formal appointments to keep, at the Shengmana Music School, also in Beijing.
The school is run by a former student of Professor LiQuifang, a dynamic and attractive lady, Madame Liu. She is obviously an outstanding teacher, and a firecracker of an entrepreneur. The music college is all her own creation. With its stylish shop front facia, double glass doors and windows etched with a treble clef and music staff, from the street this looks more like a restaurant than a music college - because in the front of the building, food is served. An important part of the business is an 'English Restaurant'. Here guests can hear live Western music played by the students. For my visit, a red and white welcome banner has been specially written in Chinese and English. Then chairs are pushed back, and several performances organised.
I hear some magical performances from extremely young pianists - six and seven years old - playing confidently form memory. A flock of flutes (about two dozen) plays as a choir, dressed uniformly, and well-drilled in their stage deportment. Although the instrumentation includes a fluent piccolo player, they are short of an alto flute today. The alto part, important in this essentially treble-register ensemble, is taken by an alto saxophone. There's an unusual transposition for you. Playing alto flute parts in G on an Eb instrument. Think about it. It's tricky for a young saxophonist to play so delicately and blend with flutes, but this is done well. Then comes the saxophone quartet.
Four musicians, the B.Y. Boy quartet, whom I later discover to be aged between fourteen and sixteen, stand and play a swinging Blue Monk. They play entirely from memory, choreograph their movements to match the music, and each takes a jazz solo. I made a note of their names. They are Xue Yue, Guo Yan, Su Chang and Li Lian Fu.Their second piece is a familiar quartet which my interpreter whispers to me as The Pink Leopard. But Henry Mancini would forgive Kitty for confusing her cats, and would have been delighted to hear his Panther in Peking treated so well.
Next comes American Patrol. If you play in a saxophone quartet, and know this arrangement, you can probably guess what I'm going to tell you. To my shame, I have never heard this version, and I'm overcome by an instant foreboding, generated by years of playing stock dance-band arrangements of the Glen Miller piece. My fears are instantly banished, for this is a playful, deft and witty arrangement, with stylish use of chromatic harmony, and several tongue-in-cheek twists on the familiar original.
"That's good," I say. "I wonder who wrote the arrangement."
I walk over to the music desks to discover something I should have known already. This arrangement is by Bill Charleson.
I've known Bill for nearly thirty years, since I succeeded him as saxophone lecturer at Leeds College of Music. He's a terrific saxophonist, whom I've heard playing alongside many great American musicians, from Bud Freeman to Thad Jones. He's also a talented arranger. You've probably heard his work played by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, or the BBC Big Band, or many of the older bands, from Jack Hawkins to Ken Macintosh. Working with him every day for decades you'd think I'd know his work. Yet I have to go to Beijing to hear Bill's arrangement of American Patrol.
While the four saxophonists are enjoying a well-earned chocolate milk shake, we chat as best we can, and I investigate what instruments and mouthpieces today's aspiring young Chinese jazz players are using. Yamaha and Selmer are the favourites, with mouthpieces by Otto Link, Selmer, and Geoff Lawton.
Back at the hotel I write a letter to Bill to tell him that his music is proving popular with the young Beijing saxophonists. It's not every day I write to fellow saxophonists from Beijing.
After another three-hour flight I'm back in the bedless bedlam of Hong Kong for more music. Here we drive on the left. Where the change to the other side of the road takes place, I never discover. This is my third visit to the 'Fragrant Harbour', with Kowloon ('Nine Dragons') across the harbour. It's said that there are 68,000 people (nearly the population of Harrogate or Nuneaton) per ten square kilometres. Almost seven million people in such a tiny space. So prosperous that it has more Rolls Royces per capita than anywhere, and probably more musicians per square kilometre than most cities of the world. All of the large hotels have bands. The one I'm at has three different combos, all excellent.
I'm here to undertake 'A' level clearing. Yesterday the exam results came out. Today I'm here to chat to those who didn't achieve the music grade they needed for their first choice of university. I talk to parents, to see what can be done to help, and conduct auditions and interviews. Apart from that there's time to observe the city and its music, have a couple of suits made (the first fitting is offered next day, the finished garment beautiful), sample some of the food, hear the Asian Youth Orchestra with Leila Josefowicz and take the helicopter to Macau.
Back in the glitzy Pacific Place Mall I hear distant piano playing, with obvious influence of Bill Evans, and stop to chat to the pianist. He's English, Peter Lally (no relation to the arranger Jimmy Lally), and in a few minutes' conversation we discover that we've both played alongside some of the same people, including saxophonists Harry Bence and Gary Branch. However, most of the many working musicians in Hong Kong seem to come from the Philippines. An exception is the clarinettist Susan Edwards, who meets me for lunch one day. Susan, originally from Liverpool came out here in the early nineties after graduating from Trinity College, and is now an established woodwind teacher in the city.
In Kowloon I catch a terrific jazz set from Danish tenor saxophonist Lars Moller, with a western rhythm section, playing an uncompromising set of original material. Moller is a strong-toned post-Coltrane player. The band has that assured touch that comes from spending a lot time playing time together. One to listen out for.
On the plane back I tune into the in-flight entertainment to catch a cornucopia of reed players. We waft over the Himalayas hearing Phil Woods, Scott Hamilton, Benny Carter, and even Richard Stolzman playing Leonard Bernstein's Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in an orchestrated version. So nice. Vocalist Michael Franks, singing Underneath the Apple Tree, catches my ear.
This music business never stops, does it?