January 21, 2016
When the development of jazz revolutionised America’s music industry, China was, unusually, a step behind. Around the time that Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were selling out gigs across the states, Shanghai was only just getting introduced to the genre. But once jazz arrived, it spread like wildfire. In the colourful cabarets and sepia-lit dance halls of Old Shanghai, jazz music set a background score to a seedy world of sing-song girls and mobsters – one of whom was responsible for the formation of the country’s first all-Chinese Shanghai jazz band, the Clear Wind Dance Band.
By the 1940s, Shanghai had become the indisputable jazz capital of Asia. However, disaster struck when the People’s Republic of China took over in the 1950s. The leaders considered jazz to be vulgar and indecent and banned it countrywide. As the genre continued to blossom across the globe, the Shanghai jazz clubs closed and the musicians went underground for many years, until 1978 when the ban was finally lifted. After a slow start, the jazz scene has once again picked up and now the city is home to myriad jazz bars and clubs, attracting many of the world’s greatest musicians. Take a journey through Shanghai’s modern jazz scene with this essential guide to the city’s top jazz venues.
One of Shanghai’s most celebrated jazz venues, The Jazz Bar, can be found at historically relevant Fairmont Peace Hotel – formerly Cathay Hotel, one of the Old Shanghai’s most notorious jazz venues. The bar’s house group, Old Jazz Band, is made up of six elderly veterans with an average age of 90. The illustrious troupe is world-famous and over the years they have performed for esteemed guests such as US presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Following the legalisation of jazz in Shanghai, the first venue to open was Cotton Club. After launching in 1995 as a live music venue, it quickly began specialising in blues as well as classic jazz. Reminiscent of the Old Shanghai jazz scene, the club has a dark and mysterious ambience, with wooden panelling on the walls, red lounge furnishings and low lighting. While the club hasn’t changed much since its opening, it continues to draw crowds and features regular sets from today’s top jazz musicians.
Another successful early opening from the mid-1990s is House of Blues and Jazz. Located in the city’s trendy Bund neighbourhood lining the Huangpu River, the club provides an all-encompassing night out, with a music lounge and a brasserie serving Italian cuisine and steak. As the name suggests, guests can experience a whole range of music, from upbeat to mellow blues and jazz solos interspersed with sets by the lively house band. If you’re a budding musician, don’t miss the weekly open mic nights.
CJW, standing for Cigar’s, Jazz, and Wine, is one of the longest-running jazz clubs in Shanghai and attracts a regular clientele of well-heeled music lovers looking to wind down with a drink, a smoke and some good music. Jazz is the lounge’s speciality, but it also puts on soul, funk and blues nights, too. CJW has two venues in Shanghai – one at Xintiandim, which opened in 2002, and a second at the Bund Center, which launched two years later.
Since its opening in 2004, JZ Club has become one of Shanghai’s premier live jazz venues. Every night, local and international musicians take to the stage and perform a range of jazz sub-genres from classical standards to swing to modern jazz rock. As well as organising concerts by top musicians from around the world, the club hosts sessions where players can join in on a jam. The club also has a music school and puts on an annual festival, JZ Festival. A perfect example of the staying power of jazz in modern day Shanghai, the festival is gearing up to celebrate its 12th anniversary in October 2016.
Open since January 2015, Heyday is one of newest jazz bars in the city. A vintage-style jazz lounge that pays homage to the classic Old Shanghai scene, the venue welcomes performances by some of the top musicians in China, as well as guests from around the world. With an intimate atmosphere where guests sit on the same level as the bands, it seems to have hit the right note with Shanghai’s discerning jazz fans.
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Shanghai, bringing these jazz clubs within easy reach.
Written by Rachel Ingram