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February 23, 2012

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Strolling through nightlife history

HISTORY can be both humbling and inspiring - sometimes simultaneously. The issues we struggle with today have been grappled with by countless others in the past and future generations will also confront them.

These issues accompanied me as I paced around Shanghai on the "Shanghai Jazz Scene Past and Present" history walk presented by local walking tour organizers Shanghai Flaneur (

Our tour leader Andrew Field is an adjunct professor at New York University and an expert on the history of nightlife in Shanghai. His presentation is professorial, but his mind must be jumping with jive talk, dances steps and sax solos.

Field described how musicians from America and elsewhere came to Shanghai in the early 20th century to play for a new audience hungry for a taste of US and other Western nightlife.

Musicians who might struggle to find gigs back home came to Shanghai and find abundant opportunities. They had to innovate in presenting their art so it was more accessible and pleasing to a local audience of Chinese and expats.

In other words, he highlighted the very same topics buzzed about today. Considering that Western music has been played in Shanghai for almost 90 years, you got to wonder what gives.

As Field guided 15 or so people to landmarks such as a statue of Pushkin and the live jazz and blues mecca The Cotton Club (1416 Huaihai Rd M.), he explained the music history of Shanghai streets.

The first crescendo in Western music in Shanghai came from Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. They took with them Western classical music and found Chinese students in the local population. These young people were encouraged to learn the arts by people like education official Cai Yuanpei, who hoped that with the sense of identity artistic expression, Chinese nationalism would rise.

In a few years the Jazz Age blossomed in the West and Shanghai scenesters soon followed.

And while current expat dance instigators like DJ Drunk Monk and DJ Heat Wolves were a long way in the future, jazz band leaders Whitey Smith and Buck Clayton cued up the music in places like the Majestic Hotel Ballroom, aka the Dada (115 Xingfu Rd) in the 1920s and 30s.

Fast forward to 2012, and our walk ends, appropriately, with a live jazz performance at the JZ Club (46 Fuxing Rd).

And while I'm sure I'll still go back and forth on my views about the problems of the Shanghai music scene, it's now easier for me to see them in the brick and mortar that surrounds me, moving them from my head to the streets.


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