Apr 19, 2007|
Local IT consultant Tom Nunan has a confession to make: “When I go out dancing at night, I don’t want to hear jazz. I want to hear something easier to listen to, something repetitive and recognizable.” Sounds like you won’t be seeing him on April 21, when jazz regulars Allen Youngblood & Jazzbalaya, newcomer Ginger Kwan and others perform at Grappa’s Cellar for Jazz Series Part 12.
Nunan’s confession may raise your hackles if you knew he is actually a respected jazz musician in Hong Kong, and the musical director of the Stray Katz, the band notorious for getting well-heeled audiences dancing drunkenly away into the wee hours of the morning at Grappa’s Cellar. But he explains: “Personally, when I listen to even half-decent jazz, I need to listen hard. It actually takes focus; it takes effort,” he says.
The word “effort” here will no doubt be the sticking point for some potential listeners, as Nunan is well aware. In fact, it might turn many away from the local jazz scene before it gets a fair try, depriving it of the audience it fully deserves.
Pianist Jason Cheng believes the lack of appreciation for Hong Kong jazz is not a question of work, it’s a question of taste. “In Hong Kong, it’s always about what’s ‘in’ or ‘what’s hip,’” he says. And as many a local performer and venue owner here can tell you, hipness can be a fickle mistress. Hence, he aims to draw people in by focusing on the music first and foremost, to “provide the essential gel for having a good time.”
But to a casual listener, it is actually not that hard to enjoy jazz. “Jazz didn’t start off as some sort of concert hall art form,” says pianist Jason Cheng. “It started off as a dance thing where you had the music and people would dance and have a good time.” His conviction jives with the overall atmosphere one finds at Gecko on a Wednesday night, where he performs regularly with drummer DC and an unpredictable cast of whoever else might have stopped by that night.
Yet, there’s clearly work to be done to improve the jazz scene. For one thing, it’s very fragmented when it comes to gigs – there’s hardly a club that is dedicated to featuring jazz music every night, since the Jazz Club, a mecca for local fans in Lan Kwai Fong, was closed in 2000. Its closure left a definite void. “There are more smaller venues in Hong Kong nowadays that are willing to give live jazz a go once in a while,” jazz veteran Eugene Pao observes. Now there are places like Blue Door, Gecko, Le Rideau, Grappa’s Cellar, Innonation, Philia’s, Dinamoe Hum and the Fringe Club where musicians can play on weekends, but these are hardly full-time jazz clubs.
“The problem is it’s all so spotty,” says Youngblood. “You've got this thing here on Monday and Tuesday, that thing there on Friday and Saturday. But none of these places are really jazz venues; they’re just venues that happen to have jazz for those two days.” Youngblood's schedule is proof enough: he performs three times a week at the FCC, twice a week at the Novotel Citygate, while his Jazz Series Part 12 show will be at Grappa's Cellar.
Meanwhile, instead of drawing the crowd in, Pao does it the other way round – he steps into the crowd. Despite being a world-renowned guitarist with a long history of playing with international superstars, Pao nonetheless remains in Hong Kong and has become a frequent collaborator with Cantopop musicians. “That’s the beauty of jazz music – you can easily blend genres and cross over with other non-jazz musicians,” he says. In fact, he thinks this might be where the future of jazz lies, as far as Hong Kong is concerned: “[We] cross and blend musical and cultural boundaries, but still keep with the spirit of jazz improvisation.”
We don’t have the right venues and we haven’t really got a big crowd yet, but Hong Kong has a unique advantage that sets it apart from just about every other scene in the world. “Seriously, this is the only jazz scene in the world where everybody knows everybody, and where they’re not constantly itching to get at each other’s throats,” says Cheng. “Back in London, for instance, when I’d walk into a jazz bar, you could just feel the tension in the air. Musicians were sizing each other up all the time.”
This seems all the more striking when one considers the diversity of the scene, where members hail from backgrounds ranging from Canada and Sweden to Sri Lanka and Australia. “That’s why this place really has the potential,” says Youngblood. “It’s got such an international mix of players who’ve all performed in different places across the world.” The circumstances certainly carry something of the character of jazz music itself: a fusing of disparate elements into a harmonious whole, something greater than the sum of its parts. Together, they make up the perfect ensemble. And one hopes it’ll get the gig it deserves some day.