BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Old Jazz Band from Old Shanghai

This is a story of a legendary jazz band and how its music mesmerized us.  Photo by Jes Aznar. 

SHANGHAI, China - The thermometer, I suspect, reads four or five degrees Celsius. It is around 9 in the evening, on this cold winter night in Shanghai and my step counter says I’ve walked 11,000 steps already, a thousand more than required.

Twelve hours ago I was in the middle of Manila’s worsening traffic, navigating my way to the airport, to board a plane to this Paris of the Orient.

Landing in Shanghai around 4 p.m., I am brought straight to a posh nightspot, the tree-lined French Quarter, Xintiandi, which literally means the New Heaven and Earth, for a sumptuous Chinese dinner.

After dinner, we walk in the crisp cold winter evening, through the district’s quaint corners and curio shops.  At Nanjing Road, we revel under the dancing city lights glowing under a bright winter moon. 
Finally, we reach the famed Bund and we stand by the Huangpu River to savor the view of the city at night.

But by now, I am tired and cold and could really use a good night’s rest.

Oh, but our gracious host, Ambassador Carlos Chan, the Philippines’ special envoy to China, insists we should have some drinks to cap the night.

I can’t very well say no to a 75-year-old man who doesn’t look tired at all.
And I’m glad I didn’t because he was saving the best for last, right here inside the Peace Hotel, an iconic early 20th century gothic-style structure along the Bund.

It is known around the world as an art deco masterpiece while its amenities and interior were said to rival if not surpass European and Manhattan’s best.

The hotel, which originally opened on Aug. 1, 1929, is known as Asia’s center of glamor and glitterati for the rich, famous and nameless from around the world.

It is also a fitting home to a legendary group.

Indeed, it is here at the Peace Hotel’s Jazz Bar, a cozy bar with gothic chandeliers, where I find myself face to face with Shanghai’s legendary Old Jazz Band, playing live jazz music to a huge crowd.

Until tonight, I have never been up close with a world famous jazz group or rock band, one whose music could make one’s heart melt, feel warm all over and fall in love like a little girl.
They all look elegant in their suits and bow ties, as in the heyday of Shanghai jazz in the 1930s and 40s.

Stepping inside the bar is a trip to a different era, to Shanghai’s bygone days. The soulful music transports you. You hear the variety of rhythms, improvisation and the blues. The band makes you forget where you are; you get lost in the moment. It was a rabbit hole of sorts.

Indeed, nostalgia rules. And why not? The Old Jazz Band plays classic jazz, harking back to the 30s and 40s when most of World War II took place and had a profound effect on Europe and Asia. They play Beatles songs, too.

The Guinness World Records has acknowledged the band as the oldest in the world.
The band was official formed in 1980 but its members have been playing jazz decades earlier. Today, it is composed of six veteran musicians whose average age is 80.
Zhou Wanrong, the leader of the band, is 94 years old.

According to an article in the Shanghai Daily, Zhou was born in 1920 in Wuhan, the capital city of China’s Hubei province. He studied music at an institute named Juyuan in Wuhan’s former French concession.

It was in this school where jazz in China originated.

“I started when I was 14 and studied for three years,” he says.

However, in the 1930s, Wuhan banned dancing and jazz, so Zhou moved to Shanghai to form an all-Chinese band in what became the center of jazz in Asia.

In 2013, German documentary filmmakers Uli Gaulke and Helge Albers produced a documentary about the group: As Time Goes By, which followed the band from 2011 to 2012, including its gig at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam.

The band plays here every night. “We’ve been playing everyday since 1980,“ Zhou says.
The group has attracted a loyal following through the decades. US presidents Jimmy Carter and 

Ronald Reagan have traveled to Shanghai to listen to them.

We stay for more than an hour. I forget the time and the biting cold. I am just enjoying the music and getting lost in the moment. 

But soon it is time to go. It is almost 11 in the evening and I am sipping the last of my tea.

The musicians have packed their instruments and off they walked to a waiting private bus outside the hotel.

I don’t want to leave. But there’s no one on the stage now; the seats are empty, the spotlights have been dimmed. 

Then I realize that hearing them play even once is enough to make the music linger, to reverberate in the deepest recesses of my soul, echoing as we walk out into the cold on the Bund.