Beijing Beat blog with Mark Godfrey

Beijing Beat

Bringing Jazz to China's Masses

Oct 4

Written by:
10/4/2008 12:30 AM  RssIcon

Hong Kong-based jazz musician and impresario Peter Scherr has been bringing “improvisational” music into cities across mainland China

A hint at how badly the Olympics crushed the local live music scene, Peter Scherr and his group Headache hasn’t played Beijing since last December. The jazz musician and concert planner call off three shows set for the Chinese capital summer. The Games “really interfered with the projects he’d planned for summer. Now, “pleased to see that things are getting back to normal again,” he’s got “a lot of plans to do more performing in China.”
 
Shut out of Beijing, Scherr and crew however found good gigs in China’s southerly cities, a sign that there’s plenty more space to play China, even for left-of-field jazz. In Guangzhou, two hours by train from Hong Kong, the Scherr-guided Joe Rosenberg Quartet played two nights at Loft345 for two nights – the music was extremely well received by both the drinking crowd and the more earnest young student crowd which “seemed to really groove on our strange, strategic improvisations. Scherr praises for that a “wonderful Parisian drummer Edward Perraud, who truly puts on an amazing show.”
 
In nearby Shenzhen the band played at "the beautiful huge new version" of local club C-Union, owned by artist Teng Fei who told Scherr "repeatedly that he is very serious about turning it into a top music venue.” In Shanghai, Scherr's charges played at Yu Yin Tang, “really a rock club” – since he felt his music was a “bit too left-of-center” for the audience at local jazz club JZ. A nice crowd, “really good technical staff” and “very nice people” means he’s going to bring his projects back to Yu Yin Tang again soon.
 
It’s taken him a few years of footwork to build up a network of venues and promoters. His strategy for the future is find more cities that are within a short drive of each other. “That will be a big help in keeping expenses down.” Some cities yielded sponsorship, elsewhere he’s relied on ticket sales. ”Of course I would like to have more sponsors." Scherr has hired a local assistant, David Wang, to help him drum up more contacts and sponsorship on the mainland. But he keeps his goals modest. “My goal is to break even on my shows. Until I get more well-known, I don't think I will be able to make a profit. I try to keep my losses to a minimum. It's a challenge.”
 
Scheduling can be tricky. “With a typical project, the first step is to fix a time period when all the artists are available. Then I contact venues and try to set a schedule that makes for efficient traveling. It's a bit of a complicated dance, because some places prefer to have shows during the week, so as not to disturb the weekend drinking crowd, and others prefer shows on the weekends.”
 
Crowds are mainly locals with several expats. “But as we get to cities other than the major eastern cities, the audiences are almost all local.” Are local fans very knowledgeable of jazz? “Well, I'm not playing jazz per-se, it's 'Creative Music' so we are free to play far outside the expectations of the mainstream jazz fans. Local audiences approach the music as a new experience. "They are perhaps not versed in the language of jazz or the avant garde or whatever, but they are very interested in music, and are thrilled to hear something new. In many cases I get reactions like 'this is the first time I've heard improvisational music, and I find it really exciting, fascinating, colorful etc.' This is the great joy of bringing Creative Music to the mainland audiences.”
 
Similarly, artists have been amazed at the audience reactions. “Once we do a concert, they understand my interest in bringing creative music to China. Organizational challenges and financial remain big issues in mainland China. “Also just maintaining energy and good humor on what can be some pretty intense traveling schedules.” Logistics can be tricky too: Trying to balance the ideal of carrying as little gear as possible with the need to have the right instruments for the performance. Scherr has tried to pare down the instrument loads. “I feel strongly that the musicians, if they are comfortable with their instruments, will play better.” Hence a set of band instruments is kept in storage in Guangzhou for mainland gigs.  
See www.peterscherr.com and join his mailing list.
 

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