Remaking All That Jazz From Shanghai's Lost Era

Jan 28, 2014
Originally published on January 28, 2014 5:55 pm

You may not hear it when you're listening to Shanghai jazz standards from the 1930s and '40s, but dig deeper into their history and you'll find a generational skip in the record.

Jazz thrived in Shanghai beginning in the 1920s as an American import — a legacy of the international city's colonial history.

"I think there's this somewhat dark side to [this history], but there was a beautiful fusion that came about as the result of combining Chinese lyricism and Chinese singers with this American jazz," says electronic music producer Dave Liang of The Shanghai Restoration Project.

That "beautiful fusion" eventually spread to other Chinese-speaking parts of the world like Hong Kong and Taiwan. But in mainland China, songs about romantic love and living lush that once filled the dance halls of Shanghai's jazz age had virtually disappeared after the government deemed them "yellow music" ("Sort of a term for pornographic music," Liang says).

That label stuck through the early decades of communist rule. But the tunes eventually reemerged in China through pop-y cover versions after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, when the Chinese government began loosening its control of popular culture.

And now, they're back again in The Classics, a new cover album of Shanghai jazz standards produced by Liang and featuring Zhang Le, a jazz singer from Shanghai.

A tinkling piano introduction on one of the album's last tracks – a remake of "When Will You Return," perhaps best known through a 1978 cover version by Teresa Teng, a pop singer from Taiwan — harkens back to the song's history in 1940s Shanghai dance halls, before a heavy electronic beat transports the dance-hall sound into a modern-day club.

It may sound like a party, but Zhang says listen closely and you'll hear a singer mourning that flowers don't blossom forever.

"You analyze the lyrics and then you realize, 'Oh! People must be really desperate! That's why they sing a tune like that!' " she says. "[It's] like telling the other person, 'Just don't think about the future. Just don't talk about that. Let's just enjoy now.' "

Those signs of unstable times, Zhang adds, still resonate in today's China, where many feel the stress of living in a rapidly growing economy.

"Mentally, you're very pressured in a way. So I think these songs are quite popular [in China today]," she says.

Liang, whose career has focused on blending traditional Chinese music with hip-hop and electronica, says the feelings captured in these songs are bound to cross cultures.

"Somebody doesn't need to be able to understand Chinese to be able to understand what the singer is conveying in these tunes," he says. "[That's] why I believe these songs ultimately are for everyone."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The American art form known as jazz was embraced around the world right after its birth almost a century ago. In China, specifically Shanghai, jazz musicians began writing their own music in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. It was suppressed later under Communism, but many of those early jazz standards were reborn decades later in Chinese pop arrangement.

Now, they're back again in this country in yet a new form, as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: You may not hear it when you're listening to Shanghai jazz standards from the 1930s and '40s, but producer Dave Liang says dig deeper into their history and you'll find a generational skip in the record.

DAVE LIANG: In the U.S., usually when you hear a jazz song you say, well, there's probably an original version back then. But in China, it's interesting with these pieces because some folks will say, that's an old '30s classic or '40s classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIANG: And other folks would be like, no, that's a pop song from the '80s.

WANG: Liang, a Chinese American who started the electronic music group, The Shanghai Restoration Project, says it depends on when and where you first heard a song.

JAMES TIO: My high school education was in Malaysia.

WANG: You were in Malaysia when you heard this song.

TIO: It's very popular there, very popular.

WANG: James Tio who is Chinese and now lives in Edmonton, Canada, grew up listening to the original, (unintelligible) sometimes translated as "The Evening Primrose" on vinyl in the 1950s.

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WANG: We met recently at a Shanghai-ese restaurant in New York city where Tio may have forgotten the exact lyrics, but could still remember the tune with a little help.

TIO: (Singing foreign language)

WANG: In 1950s mainland China, many of Jame's Tio's contemporaries would not have heard this song in their youth. The probably first encountered it nearly three decades later in this 1978 cover version by pop singer (unintelligible) or Teresa (unintelligible)

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ZHANG LE: That's the way, how we heard the new song at the beginning. Later, we heard the first version. So, for me, like, (unintelligible) always seems to be the original singer for this tune.

WANG: Zhang Le, a jazz singer from Shanghai, grew up with (unintelligible) as a poppy love serenade in the 1980s. The original, that once filled the dance halls of Shanghai's jazz age, had virtually disappeared from mainland China's music scene during the early decades of communist rule.

LIANG: At that time, these songs were considered...

LE: Yellow music.

LIANG: Yellow music, yeah. It's sort of a term for pornographic music.

WANG: Music that's part of an often forgotten history that Dave Liang and Zhang Le hope to revive in their new cover album of Shanghai jazz standards.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: It features yet another take on that serenade to an evening primrose with lyrics that may be not just about a flower, but about the people and the places where this music once blossomed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIANG: There's a lyric (foreign language spoken) and it's sort of about I'm concerned for your future, I guess, which is weird if you're talking about a flower. But you're talking about a singer in a nightclub, especially at that time when a lot of people likened nightclubs almost like two steps away from brothels.

You can understand where that sentiment comes in.

WANG: Jazz was an American import that once thrived in Shanghai beginning in the 1920s, a legacy of the international city's colonial history.

LIANG: I think there is this somewhat dark side to it, but there was a beautiful fusion that came about as the result of combining Chinese lyricism and Chinese singers with this American Jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: There was one thing the music lacked.

LIANG: In the old versions, I always felt the singers didn't swing as much. And I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday and so I think we wanted to really feature some scatting because that was just sort of unheard of, scatting in a Chinese song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: One of the album's last tracks hearkens back to the song's history in 1940 Shanghai dance halls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: Before a heavy beat transports the dance hall sound into a modern day club. It may sound like a party, but Zhang Le says listen closely to the lyrics and you'll hear a singer warning that flowers don't blossom forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LE: You analyze the lyrics and then you realize, Oh, a tune like telling just don't think about the future. Just don't talk about that. Let's just enjoy now.

WANG: Signs of unstable times, that Zhang says still resonate in today's China.

LE: There's nothing guaranteed, you know. Mentally, you're very pressured in a way.

WANG: And that feeling is bound to cross cultures, says Dave Liang, of the Shanghai Restoration Project.

LIANG: Somebody doesn't need to be able to understand Chinese to be able to understand what the singer is conveying in these tunes. That, to me, is why I believe these songs ultimately are for everyone.

WANG: And perhaps why these songs, generations later, are still played again and again. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.