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July 21, 2011

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30 years and the beat's still going

WHEN it gets down to it, it's all about the music: sounds strung together artistically to evoke. There isn't a clearer example of that than the Peace Hotel Old Jazz Band. The band plays daily from 7:30pm until about 10pm at the Fairmont Peace Hotel (20 Nanjing Road E, near Zhongshan Road E1). They have been on this steady-as-a-backbeat schedule since 1980, with few breaks.

In the 2008 bestselling book "Outliers: The Story of Success," Malcolm Gladwell posits that working about 10,000 hours in a specific field is the key to great success in that field, whether it be astrophysics, chess or skateboarding.

By rough estimation, asserting that they play music for two hours a night, the Peace Hotel Old Jazz Band has logged more than 22,000 hours of music over the past three decades. That's success times 2.2.

And don't forget, this is during what some would consider the twilight of the band members' careers: The average age of the performers is well into the 70s, with two members in the second half of their 80s.

As reported in a story in October 2010, some members can trace their career back to the 1930s, back when the "S" in Shanghai stood for swinging. Jazz music was all the rage. Members had to put away their instruments during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), but the music came calling back.

The music in this case is under the catch-all dance band style of the 1920s and 1930s. Ensembles of this sort were expected to be proficient in a variety of styles under the general heading of jazz.

This includes everything from Latin numbers, New Orleans-style jazz stompers, swing songs and pop songs. An ensemble like exemplifier Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra was expected to have mastered hours of material to appeal to a broad audience. Mind you, this is in the days before jukeboxes were widely available, never mind live DJs and MP3 players. Before there was the newly minted "cloud storage," there was dance band storage, albeit with the guidance of sheet music.

While the band may not have the pressure of having to keep up with the latest trends, their catalog is still impressive just by its scope. On my visit last Wednesday, the group's general theme was light Latin music, with members frequently picking up percussion to shake or tap out rhythms away from the standard European 4/4.

They also played a pop classic made popular by Nat King Cole ("Mona Lisa"), a waltz, a Broadway march ("The Yankee Doodle Boy") and "As Time Goes By," a song popularized by its use in the classic American film "Casablanca."

In a way familiar to seeing any similarly veteran musicians, there's just an easiness to the band's performance that is so charming. Sure, the arrangements are standardized, but after a while people who have been around go with what works.

The songs settle in comfortably deep like the lines on an old man's face. They do that because the musicians have worked them constantly, and in turn, the music has worked on them.


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