Jazz in China conjures up lustrous images of smoky bars in decadent 1930s Shanghai, back before the revolution. But today Beijing has its own budding scene, and the capital's most promising jazz venue is saxophonist Liu Yuan's East Shore.
Located on the banks of Houhai, a huge lake dug out during China's 13th century Mongol rule, East Shore is a welcome refuge from the trinket sellers and gaudy bars along the crowded lakeside. The bar's large windows give clear views out onto the water, and its black leather armchairs and dark wooden floorboards provide the necessary sultry ambience.
Thursday through Sunday a constellation of house bands, including the owner's Liu Yuan Quartet, play from 10 p.m. until late, usually packing out the 60-seat bar. Guest players also get on stage, including, occasionally, stars like trombonist Roswell Rudd.
Much of East Shore's success lies with Liu himself, a key player in Beijing's music business. Raised in a family of folk musicians, he performed with Cui Jian, the father of Chinese rock, through the '80s before dedicating himself under the post-bop influences of John Coltrane and Miles Davis to jazz. When he started, jazz was still officially seen as bourgeois, and chord charts were hard to come by. But attitudes have changed, he explains: "These days you can like revolutionary opera or you can listen to jazz."
Despite a gathering interest, Beijing's scene is still small, and musicians can't support themselves through jazz alone. "It's not like pop music, where you can make money. If you play jazz, you do it for the passion," says Liu. And at the East Shore, there's plenty of that.
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