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August 8, 2009

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Musicians take jazzscene to whole new level

JZ School principal Lawrence Ku says Shanghai's jazzscene is catching the attention of players around the worldwith its mix of local and expatriate talent. Sam Riley reports.

While Shanghai's jazz heritage stretches back to the 1920s, a new and exciting future is unfolding in the art form that has become synonymous with the city, according to one of its leading jazz exponents.

JZ School principal and accomplished jazz guitarist Lawrence Ku has been around the Chinese jazz scene first in Beijing and then in Shanghai since 1997.

In the last four years in Shanghai he has seen a rapidly growing group of both expatriate and local jazz musicians moving beyond the well-known standards to begin writing and performing their own material.

As regulars in the city's jazz establishments can attest the growth in composing talent is gaining the attention of jazz players around the world, with some of the best jazz musicians putting Shanghai on their list of places to visit.

"Jazz in Shanghai has been developing quite a bit and when I used to come to Shanghai five or so years ago there were the same musicians," Ku says.

"They were great musicians but they were playing in pick-up bands and standard jazz but now there are more and more musicians coming here, staying here and writing original music."

Ku points to expat musicians such as Alec Haavik, JQ Whitcomb and Willow Neilson, Toby Mak and Theo Crocker as among a growing community of jazz musicians writing and performing their own music.

Along with Shanghai's strong expat players there is also a growing list of exceptional local musicians including Huan Jianyi, Coco Zhao and Mark Bai who are also composing.

Originally from Los Angeles, Ku first came to Beijing when still a student in 1997 to play jazz. He was a regular visitor to Shanghai in the coming years before making it his home in late 2005.

Ku's jazz home is JZ Club where he plays in a number of groups including Alec Haavik's Friction Seven on Thursday nights and the club's All Star Big Band on Saturday nights.

He is also part of JQ Whitcomb's Five Below group on Tuesday nights and plays a gig at the Jazz Super Session with his trio at The Factory on Saturday nights.

While Ku is busy performing at night he is also teaching Shanghai's jazz stars of the future during the day.

Musicianship class

Established in 2006, the JZ School, of which he is the principal, has grown to more than 300 students and is attracting talented young musicians from around the world.

The school starts teaching students as young as three in its "Baby Ballet" classes and offers beginners musicianship classes to more advanced classes that hone the most demanding technical aspects of becoming an accomplished jazz musician.

Students range from young children, through to teenagers and adults.

Its current summer camps, which aim to provide young musicians of high school age a short intensive training course, will culminate in a live ensemble performance.

This current crop of players has students who have traveled from France and the United States to learn at the school and they will perform at JZ tonight.

A broad range of instruments are taught at the school, with voice and piano the most popular.

As a music educator, Ku can draw on his own diverse music background.

He began playing the guitar at the age of 12 and in high school he played in rock and blues bands before he discovered jazz.

"At sometime you hit a wall playing just blues, it's great but I felt there was more I could do," he says.

"A turning point for me was a drummer friend of mine gave me 'Friday Night Live' with John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia. They were incredible guitarists playing together. It blew me away and showed me what you could do with the guitar."

In an example of his broad ranging music interests, Ku studied classical composition at university.

He brings his own broad range of experiences to his teaching and usually focuses on schooling more advanced students.

Ku says teaching, while not leaving as much time to pursue his own jazz interests, still enriches his work as a musician.

"Teaching usually cuts a lot into practice time, so there is a trade off in terms of finding time for the school but also keeping my chops together (sic) with my playing," he says.

"But teaching is a great way to consolidate all this knowledge in my own mind. It clarifies things in free style that maybe you do intuitively, so to be able to verbalize it to students also makes it clear in my mind."

JZ School has a range of courses at its Wukang Road facility in Xuhui District.

Anyone interested in courses can contact the school at 5403-6475 or e-mail For more information visit its Website at


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