The Peace Hotel Jazzband, Shanghai. Tea for a Couple.

John Robert Brown

I'm in Shanghai, and I'm lost. A shopper stops to help interpret my street plan. She reacts with puzzlement. Then we both realize that I'm using a map of Beijing, not Shanghai. Although we laugh, I go on my way wondering darkly whether my gaffe is due to jet lag, or - more distressing - an early sign of senility.

What I'm going to hear should be reassuring for any oldster concerned about age or decrepitude. Shanghai's Peace Hotel is my destination, if I can find it. Sited on the Bund (which means embankment), Shanghai's famous Huangpu river waterfront, the hotel's green roof is a riverside landmark. It should be easy to find.

Peace Hotel has a place in history. Noel Coward wrote Private Lives during a stay in 1930. Steven Spielberg filmed scenes for Empire of the Sun (1987) inside the hotel. But tonight I'm not here for the building, even though the hotel is reckoned to be China's best Art Deco museum, the bar recommended as the world's best in a 1996 Newsweek magazine poll. I'm here for the music. The Peace Hotel is home to Shanghai's legendary Old Jazz Band.

Famously, the musicians are ancient. The Peace Hotel Band has existed since before the declaration of the People's Republic in 1949. In the current band, playing nightly, the senior member is drummer Cheng YueQiang, who was born in 1918. Trumpeter Zhou WanRong was born in 1920. The average age of the six musicians is 76.

Half an hour before the music begins, I'm in my seat. Already the room is filling. I order food and beer, buy a CD of the band, and watch a saxophone player raiding the barman's tools in an effort to find an implement to remove something lodged in the crook of his alto. A feeling of helplessness takes over. I know that I could help, but lack sufficient Mandarin to be able to assure him that I know about saxophones, and am not merely a meddlesome Western tourist. I decide that it would be wiser to sit quietly, minding my own business. If I'm capable of wandering round Shanghai looking at a map of Beijing, there's no telling what I could do to the neck of an alto.

The room is nicely full by the time the band appears and, thank goodness, the altoist now seems to have a functioning instrument. He is joined by a tenor doubling clarinet, a trumpeter and three rhythm.

What I hear is a surprise. The band is best described as a thirties dance band, the sort of thing one might have heard in a rural village hall in Britain seventy years ago, rather than in Shanghai, the 'Paris of the Orient'. Their repertoire includes As Time Goes By, Begin the Beguine, Bill Bailey, New York, New York, Slow Boat to China (!), and the charmingly mis-translated Tea for a Couple. Some tunes I don't recognise. The arrangements - the band plays entirely from parts - remind me of the ubiquitous Jimmy Lally scores that were in widespread use in function bands in the UK in the forties and fifties. Yes, it's a charming, fascinating performance, despite the out of tune piano - and the clarinet player who substitutes a chromatic run for the traditional, and tricky, embouchure glissando at the end of Begin the Beguine.

The musicians don't need to have any concession made for their advanced years, but in truth what we are hearing is on the edge of jazz as a JR reader would define it. The label 'Peace Hotel Jazz Band' is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to describe it as vintage dance music that is jazz-influenced.

I had expected a sort of oriental Preservation Hall. This is nothing of the sort.

One of the great things about the band is its effortless authenticity. No amplification is used, the saxophonists use soft reeds on rubber mouthpieces, the pianist plays a sophisticated um-cha rather than comping, the four string double bass employs two-in-a-bar as much as four. How often do you hear that these days?

The Old Jazz Band does have something in common with the band at Preservation Hall in New Orleans, and Woody Allen's band in Manhattan. All belong in the same category. They work on the fringe of jazz. They draw an audience comprised mostly of people who otherwise wouldn't go near jazz all year. They have charm and gentility. They are great ambassadors, and all add to the richness of live jazz. Tourist jazz, maybe?

At mid-evening the bar is crowded. I pay up, leave, and walk back to my own hotel. But there must be something about me that makes the folk of downtown Shanghai think I'm lost again. Several people (curiously, all young, alone and female) seem to want to stop me to talk.

I don't understand. Do I look that helpless?

This article first appeared in Jazz Review magazine. Used by permission.
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