May 24, 2012|
My dad is from Shanghai, and he used to play classical violin when he was a young man. My earliest memory of listening to music was waking up to him playing violin along with classical records. I must have been a little baby.
But I was never quite interested in classical music. When I grew a bit older, my mom started buying The Beatles records. I was instantly drawn to the sound of the band, which inspired me to take up the guitar.
I listened to and played a lot of rock as a teenager—The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, all of them. In June I’m doing this gig at Dada Lounge, [where] I’ll be playing with a classic rock band. Having gone into jazz as a musician, I appreciate this opportunity to revisit my roots.
I wasn’t a very good student at school. Before the end of Form Two, my mom saw my grades were kind of bad so decided to ship me to the States because she thought the high school system there was a little easier and I could learn English better.
After high school, I wanted to study music in college, but my conservative Chinese parents were against the idea. Dad had a trading company at the time, so naturally he wanted me to study business. Therefore I ended up getting a degree in business and administration.
Despite majoring in something I wasn’t enthusiastic about, I had a great college experience. It opened up the world of jazz to me. I took a lot of selective music courses like jazz history and theory, and made a lot of friends who were equally passionate about music.
For rock, you know three chords and you can make a record, but jazz is so much more. It involves so many different kinds of scales, modes and disciplines, and you’ve gotta know the theories and techniques. But after you learn all that, you have to put the knowledge in the back of your mind and create your own music. When you improvise, you can be totally free to draw from what you’re feeling at the moment. No other forms of music gives you that kind of freedom, and that fascinates me.
When did I realize I was really good at guitar? I still don’t—haha! It’s such a deep form of art that it takes more than one lifetime to really excel. I know I play pretty well, but I also know there are a lot of people better than me. The level of greatness one can reach has no limits. For me, that’s what’s great about it—it gets me going.
I worked for my dad’s company for a while after graduation. In the meantime, I was itching to play music so I joined the resident band at a jazz club. For a while I was working day and night at these two jobs and it was exhausting. Then, as my playing got better, I got more gigs and recording opportunities, so I quit my day job at dad’s and became a full-time musician.
I’ve been pretty lucky with my career in that I never had to go through a “struggling artist” phase. Also I think back in the 80s, it was easier for musicians to make a living than now.
In 1994, I felt like I was good enough to make my own solo album. Rather than begging record labels to sign me, I went up to New York, got two friends together to finance the project and [we] recorded it ourselves. The album was eventually picked up by a label.
I have around 25 to 30 guitars, 10 of which I use all the time. It’s actually not that many; some guitarist friends of mine own hundreds. Do I want many more guitars? Well, if I don’t have to pay for them, yes! But I’m very happy with the ones I’m using right now, and I like to just try to make music with what I have.
The jazz scene in Hong Kong kind of changes in waves. It was good for a while, then it died down, and some other places would open up. The Jazz Club and Blue Door were two primary jazz venues in Hong Kong, but they both closed down. Now there’s no dedicated jazz club in the city, only live venues that feature jazz music once in a while, such as Peel Fresco and Backstage.
The problem is that not a lot of people in Hong Kong are into jazz. In the States, there are jazz classes in schools because it is an important part of [their] culture. Here, because people haven’t been exposed to it that much, they sometimes get turned off by the sound of it. It’s a hard music genre to market.
That said, I think the scene is somewhat healthy right now. Actually, in the past few years, the government has been trying to promote jazz by bringing famous international jazz musicians to perform here under the Arts Festival and LCSD’s “Jazz Up” series.
I genuinely can’t imagine what I’d be doing if I weren’t a musician. I don’t really know how to do anything else—haha! As long as I’m physically capable and not too old to move my fingers, I’m sure I’ll be playing the guitar.
Eugene Pao will be playing at Dada Lounge on June 2. To learn more about him, visit his website at www.eugenepao.com.