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October 21, 2009

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Playing a horn of plenty

HORN player JQ Whitcomb is cofounder of the JZ Jazz School, the band 5below, and the music director for a fast-growing independent radio station Soulfire. The American talks to Nancy Zhang about the music scene and things that make you go "Wow." Ever since he could remember, American John Whitcomb had wanted to be different. In Shanghai the jazz trumpet player has found plenty of room to develop his creativity. In the process the city has also yielded opportunities he hadn't imagined.

"Musicians tend to be people who like to explore the boundaries of things," says the Santa Fe, New Mexico, native. "I learned Chinese in school because it was the furthest from English. I've always wanted to be as different as possible from the mainstream."

In Shanghai Whitcomb has explored the boundaries of what is possible for a musician. Now known widely by his initials, JQ, Whitcomb arrived in Shanghai in 2003. During the past six years he has not only played music but started music businesses, become a teacher and even found a regular day job that is interesting and fulfilling.

Whitcomb is cofounder of the JZ Jazz School, the band 5below, and the music director for a fast-growing independent radio station Soulfire.

He says the draw of Shanghai is in the unique mix of these different experiences, connected by music.

"Most day jobs are something I'm not interested in, but now I'm working at a radio station and being responsible for all the music that's played - I decide their musical personality.

"I can't imagine being approached anywhere else in the world with this opportunity. It has been so good for me to experience the building up of a team and a business from scratch, and to learn about the corporate and financial world through music."

Change of scene

Eschewing corporate America for the flexible, expressive life of a musician, Whitcomb arrived in China on the recommendation of friends who were already part of the Shanghai jazz scene. Though Shanghai has the biggest jazz scene in the Chinese mainland, Whitcomb says when he first arrived in 2003 it was a far cry from what it is now.

"There are constant changes in every aspect of the jazz scene here - and the changes are pretty big and pretty fast."

Playing first at the House of Blues and Jazz, Whitcomb soon became a regular on the scene. While playing at a now-defunct jazz club in the basement of Five on the Bund, he came up with the idea to forming a five-pieceband, 5below.

They now play regularly at JZ Club, one of the most popular and long-lasting jazz clubs in Shanghai.

The past five years have seen the rise and fall of many jazz clubs. But as with all entertainment venues, longevity comes down to a question of management. According to Whitcomb, there needs to be a balance of business sense and investment in good music.

JZ's popularity can be partly attributed to the way it has tapped into the old, 1930s Shanghai style.

"Jazz has roots in Shanghai which goes back to the 1920s when it was the popular music of the day," says Whitcomb. "In those days jazz was the hippest thing to listen to, and since then it has been associated with sophistication, style and taste. This very much represents Shanghai's aspirations."

During those early days of carving out a name for himself in the jazz scene, Whitcomb lived the typical life of a musician. Getting up late in the morning and having flexible hours, he had plenty of time to explore the city and just "experience China."

"There are an infinite number of things that make you go 'wow' here, even normal life, such as people walking around in pajamas and sleeping on the streets."

Laid-back days were followed by music gigs at night. The most fun times were jamming sessions late into the night. When the right mix of people get together the magic can be infectious.

"Musicians are a pretty wild bunch, they like to party and tend to be fun-loving as it's such a sociable job. Also jamming sessions are how we hang out with friends," says Whitcomb.


When he first came to Shanghai, jamming sessions were the only way for new acts to enter the scene. Lacking an institution for education, musicians had to resort to the age-old method of simply listening to others and learning by ear.

But since jazz is a pervasive cultural element in his home country, Whitcomb recognized that three key elements are needed in the development of a healthy jazz scene in Shanghai: venues to provide platforms for diverse performers, attracting young players from around the world to live and play in the city, and education - which was missing at the time.

In 2006 he cofounded JZ School - it both filled a gap in the community and made good business sense.

Initially the school gave private lessons to adults who wanted to pick up an instrument again. It quickly grew to include all ages, including kids as young as five, attracting both foreigners and Chinese. With now up to 150 students at any given time, the school has created a more structured entry path into professional jazz.JQ Whitcomb

Nationality: US

Age: 30

Profession: Music performer, teacher, radio director



Happy, serious, random.

Worst experience:

A few years ago I came back to Shanghai after a Christmas break in the United States during the worst snow storms in recent history. After getting out at the subway I waited nearly four hours for a taxi home.

Strangest sight:

There's no one thing but what still amazes me is the speed of change - the way buildings just shoot up.

Perfect weekend:

Sleep late and eat brunch on a sunny day, and then explore the city by bike.

Motto for life:

Always give thanks, because no matter what happens there's something to be thankful about.

Advice to newcomers:

Don't follow the touts on Nanjing Road or People's Square into tea houses. It's always a rip off and this still happens. In fact don't follow touts anywhere at all.


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