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Jazz Music Popularization in Chinese Culture Thesis


After briefly introducing the background of Jazz development in the United States, this thesis focuses on the characteristics of Jazz music, including its rhythm, mode, harmony, improvisation, arrangement, and performance. The thesis will also study how these particular techniques are absorbed and developed in China not only based on historical facts of how they were incorporated in this country but also on Jazz academic development and musical works.

Despite being created in the United States, Jazz music is preferred in many regions of the world where it has captured the attention of creative musicians. This class of music developed rapidly in the late 20th century when Chinese musicians tried to combine Jazz and folk songs to make their listeners happy when they listened to the unique rhythms and harmonies. This thesis introduces the enormous impact that Jazz music had when it was introduced in Shanghai, China. It also presents its development in Hong Kong and Taiwan, including its ultimate change after China’s reformation and modernization. The above-mentioned historical facts have proven that Jazz elements have been incorporated into the development process of Chinese modern music.

Because of the impact that Jazz music has brought to Chinese modern music, many students and music institutions have contributed to making jazz a more organized course for the Chinese people to study. This process undoubtedly raises the academic status and value of jazz. This article will introduce great musicians and musical works that can reflect the efforts of popularizing Jazz in China.


One of the most notable aspects of today’s living acknowledges the role that the process of globalization has played in bringing together cultures that were initially estranged. This situation has resulted in the metaphorical ‘flattening of the earth’. In this respect, the common assumption is that such a state of affairs has been economically predetermined. After all, it now represents a well-established fact that the continual integration of different countries in the global economic system is followed by the process of this world becoming ever more homogeneous, in the cultural sense of this word.

The globalization-induced division of labor makes it possible to increase the effectiveness of the world economy on both global and regional levels – hence, prompting people to believe that they will be more likely to attain social prominence in the globalized world by becoming ‘culturally unified’. However, there is so much more to the process in question than it may occur to one’s rational mind. One of the schools of thought is concerned with the well-observed phenomenon that a person’s culturally predetermined aesthetic conditions reflect the innate workings of his or her mentality.

This claim partially explains the sheer ease with which such leanings, which are shared by the representatives of a particular culture, intermingle with the aesthetic predispositions of those who belong to an entirely different culture to the extent that both peoples’ approaches are incorporated in the process of composing music. It is indeed possible for the procedures that define ‘musical unconsciousness’ between two seemingly unrelated cultures/nations to be mutually corresponding.

The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated by comparing the African-Americans’ musical genre of Jazz with Chinese traditional music. This study will show that indeed evidence is available to believe that Jazz and Chinese traditional/modern elements of music correlate with each other on the most fundamental (archetypal) level. This finding will justify why the elements of the former category of music (traditional) began to be seamlessly incorporated into the conceptual paradigm of the latter as early as the 1920s.

This advancement brought about the emergence of the musical style/genre, namely, Shidaiqu, in mainland China. It was commonly defined as “a hybrid genre of American jazz, Hollywood film music, and Chinese folk song” (Jones 6). The installment of the Communist rule in China prevented the continual popularization of the genre in question from the late 1940s until comparatively recent times. China’s Communist leaders considered the genre ‘decadent’.

However, there can be little doubt that Jazz, in general, and the musical genre Shidaiqu, in particular, never ceased to have a great appeal to the overwhelming majority of people in China. Two things serve as an indirect proof of this statement’s validity: the fact that Shidaiqu remained one of the most popular musical genres in Hong-Kong and Taiwan in the 1960s and the fact that the late 1960s marked the “relegitimization” of pop-music in the mainland China.

Thus, by researching what accounts for the qualitative aspects of the interrelationship between modern Chinese music and Jazz, we will not only be able to obtain some insights into the investigated subject matter but also enlighten ourselves on what should be considered the main preconditions that make the intercultural exchanges between different nations possible in the first place. In turn, this should contribute to increasing the objective value of the would-be undertaken research.

The reason for this is apparent – the above-articulated considerations presuppose that in the aftermath of having completed the research’s empirical phases, we should be able to gain a better understanding of music, as the medium of people’s existential self-actualization. This, in turn, will enable us to elaborate on what should be deemed the foremost discursive implications of the process of Jazz music continuing to become incorporated as an integral part of Chinese musical culture. Moreover, we should also be able to identify the main obstacles on the way of this process.

American-born Jazz Music

Jazz- The origins of modern music

A music genre that was created by African-Americans

As of today, there can be no credible doubt as to the fact that it is mainly African-Americans who should be credited with the creation of Jazz. After all, it is not only that there are plenty of historical records that confirm the validity of this idea, but also the very compositional/melodic subtleties of the music genre in question suggest its African origins. To illustrate the soundness of this suggestion even further, we will need to refer to what continues to account for one of the most characteristic peculiarities of Black Africans’ psyche – these people’s strongly defined communal/collective mindedness.

That is, these people tend to regard their agenda in life as such that is being inseparably interconnected with that of the community to which they happen to belong. In plain words, they are naturally predisposed to remain in close touch with friends and relatives (usually numerous), throughout their lives.

The mentioned psychological predisposition, on the part of Black Africans (and in many cases African-Americans), causes them to address life-challenges in the high traditionalist manner. For example, the lifestyle of a typical Black person in Africa has always been reflective of his or her commitment to adhere to the provisions of different communal rituals. Alongside such rituals, there is another instrument that helps Blacks to experience the sensation of oneness with the community – music. Partially, this explains why Black people have always been known for their love of music.

There are, however, some notable differences between the role of music in the West and Africa. The main of them is related to the fact that in the West the primary function of music is to provide people with entertainment, whereas in Africa music is commonly looked upon as the tool for maintaining the society’s structural integrity (Floyd 7). Hence, one of the most striking characteristics of African-born music – the prominently societal sounding of its discursive overtones. That is, this music most commonly serves the utilitarian purpose of helping people to address life-challenges in a socially integrated manner.

This music’s other prominent feature has to do with the fact that it is mostly used within the ritual contexts. The latter characteristic presupposes that the performers’ physical movements (jumping, hand-clapping, etc.) are integral elements of such music, just as it happened to be the case with singing. African music is mainly vocal. Along with the scarcity and the apparent rudimentary nature of musical instruments in Africa, this created the objective prerequisite for the most notable qualitative feature of such music to be its strongly defined polyphonic rhythm. Therefore, nothing is surprising about the fact that it is mainly the overlapping rhythmical patterns in African music, which account for the associated melody’s basis, and not the other way around (as it is usually the case in European classical music).

These patterns are most commonly referred to as ‘cross-rhythms’. In its turn, this explains why the scale of African music is usually constructed out of halftones (the so-called ‘blue notes’) – something that endows this music with technically imprecise sounding and makes it possible for musicians/singers to improvise while performing.

aspects of African music, as a whole, will invariably lead one to realize that they are essentially the same as the most distinctive features of Jazz as a musical genre. Partially, this explains why when it comes to defining Jazz; many theorists of music make a deliberate point in specifying what this genre is not, rather than mentioning what accounts for the genre’s spatially stable subtleties. For example, according to Brown: “Jazz music is not defined by any special relationship to tonality, by its use of special metrical devices, by a connection with ‘architecture’… or by any fundamental connection with ‘sound’” (115). The provided definition helps to explain why most of the world-famous Jazz-musicians have been known for their fondness of the brass/woodwind musical instruments, such as horns, trumpets, trombones, flutes, and saxophones – the sound-pitch of these instruments is not fixed, which naturally prompts performers to improvise while on stage.

It is understood, of course, that the above-mentioned establishes the dialectical relationship between Jazz and Africa’s musical traditions while proving that the musical genre in question has been indeed created by African-Americans. At the same time, however, it would be quite inappropriate to refer to Jazz in terms of being exclusively ‘Black music’. The reason for this is that once assessed from the harmonic and compositional perspectives, this genre will appear strongly interconnected with the European musical tradition. Moreover, most of the initial pioneers of Jazz were creoles – something that points out to the fact that Jazz is best referred to as a ‘hybrid’ musical genre, in the discursive sense of this word.

According to the popular legend, Jazz was born through the first decade of the 20th century in New Orleans and then made its way up North reaching the cities of Memphis, Saint-Luis, and Chicago. Even though this legend is not considered very credible by those who believe that there are at least three more American cities (the earlier mentioned ones) that can claim to be the ‘birthplace’ of Jazz, it does appear to represent a certain truth. The validity of this suggestion is illustrated, in the eyewitness accounts of early jazz-musicians, which confirm New Orleans as the actual ‘birthplace’ of the music. The gramophone records with Jazz music that were produced from 1917 until 1925 feature music/songs of either New-Orleans-born artists or of those who strove to mimic their style.

However, the city of New Orleans itself can be seen as proof of the mentioned legend’s validity. After all, it is not only that New Orleans has been traditionally considered the most multicultural U.S. city, but also that it never ceased positioning itself as the country’s most ‘musical’ town, as well. Through the first decade of the 20th century, New Orleans became strongly associated with the musical styles/genres of blues, ragtime, work song, potpourri, and opera – something that had a strong effect on the sub-sequential creation of Jazz, as we know it. Therefore, there is nothing incidental about the fact that at the turn of the 20th century, many musically gifted Americans used to contemplate relocating to New Orleans. They genuinely believed that this would help them to take full advantage of their creative potential.

The year 1917 marks the time when the growth of Jazz’s popularity attained an exponential momentum – on February 26 of this year, the members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded their first album with the New-York-based company ‘Victor’. The significance of this event cannot be underestimated.

Whereas, before the development in question, Jazz used to be deemed merely a branch of the Southern ‘Negro’ folklore, the release of the first record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band resulted in the legitimization of Jazz as the distinctive music genre of its own. Moreover, it served as a powerful motivation for many Americans to assume that Jazz is indeed an integral part of their national identity, which in turn contributed rather substantially towards the promotion of the newly born musical style across the planet. By the year 1940, Jazz became firmly established in just about every part of the world (including the USSR). As of the 1960s, it ended up being perceived so much more than merely a music genre – by then, people began referring to it in terms of an art form. This continues to be the case even today.

Defining Jazz

As implied by Brown’s take on what Jazz is all about, the task of identifying the varying degree of a particular musical piece’s affiliation with the genre is rather challenging. This simply could not be otherwise – the fact that there are no fixed criteria for ascertaining the presence of Jazz in music beyond any reasonable doubt, presupposes such a state of affairs more than anything else does. The absence of such criteria, in turn, is predetermined by the fact that Jazz comes in many different forms and variations, with at least a few of them appearing to be mutually incompatible. As Ake, Garrett and Goldmark pointed out: “Jazz possesses no essential characteristics. Some jazz performances swing; others feature a different groove or no groove at all.

Some jazz highlights improvisation; some of it is meticulously planned… Some jazz adopts an unflinchingly ‘important’ and anticommercial stance; much of it openly courts the marketplace or invites us simply to have a good time” (5).

Therefore, it represents a commonplace practice among musical critics to refrain from offering the definitions of Jazz, as a distinctive genre of music. The same, however, does not apply when it comes to defining and categorizing Jazz’s numerous sub-genres, such as Classic, Ragtime, Classic Fusion, Swing, Bebop, Soul Jazz, etc. – just about each of them has been thoroughly described, concerning what accounts for its distinctiveness. Therefore, it makes much more sense to approach the task of defining Jazz within the sub-gendered context, with direct references made to what can be deemed the exemplifying musical compositions.

Another common method for defining Jazz is reflective of the suggestion that it is not so much of a music genre per se, as it is the musically constructed extrapolation of one’s deep-seated aesthetic anxieties that derive from of his or her tendency to perceive the surrounding reality in the ‘holistic’ (all-encompassing) manner.

What it means is that, when it comes to elaborating on what makes Jazz what it is, one must take into consideration the provisions of the currently predominant socio-cultural discourse – something that presupposes that even the mutually contradicting definitions of Jazz can be simultaneously valid. In this respect, it would prove quite impossible to disagree with Ake, Garrett and Goldmark’s suggestion that: “Jazz is an open-ended, multifaceted, ever-changing idea or set of discourses rather than a prescribed and proscribed set of specific musical devices, names, places, or styles… if anything and anyone can be seen, heard, or described as jazz, then the category becomes meaningless” (6).

A proof of the sound of this suggestion is the fact that it correlates perfectly with how many famous jazz-musicians themselves elaborated on the discursive significance of the music, and with how they would go about popularizing it.

For example, according to Duke Ellington, he never bothered with paying attention to what some critics consider the main compositional conventions of Jazz while playing music. Instead, he strove to remain thoroughly attuned with the audience’s ‘vibes’: “I am not playing jazz,” he (Ellington) said in 1930. “I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people” (Porter 14). Therefore, throughout the subsequent parts of this study, we will make a deliberate point in referring to Jazz as both: the idea of improvisational spontaneity in music and a music genre that stands in a striking contradiction to the assumption that music can be ‘genericized’, in the first place.

Development of Jazz/Socio-cultural effects

Sub-genres of Jazz

As it was implied earlier, the very musical philosophy of Jazz as the ‘fusion of fusions’ presupposes the genre’s expressional versatility, which causes it is to remain in the state of a continual transformation – something that in turn predetermined the emergence of several sub-genres (styles) of Jazz. The influential genres turned out to be the following:

Big-band Jazz/Swing is a sub-genre of Jazz dominated America’s musical landscape since the early 1920s until the late 1940s. The number of performers in a typical big-band used to account for 15-25, with the concerned individuals slowly working their way up the hierarchical ladder within the band from ‘apprentices’ to the fully established ‘jazzmen’. Big-bands used to be referred to as ‘jazz-orchestras’ in which all musical contents are notated just like classical orchestras.

Probably the principal feature of this sub-genre in Jazz is that the members of big-bands were expected to play their parties as prescribed by musical notation, which in turn provided them with very little liberty to improvise – even though to an untrained ear big-band music does sound highly spontaneous/improvised. Among the most distinguished big-band directors can be named Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Jimmie Lunceford. Although in the aftermath of WW2 the popularity of big-bands began to decline, the affiliated musicians continued to produce records well into the late 1950s. The most important reason for its popularity is that swing jazz is so enjoyable to dance to.

Bebop is a sub-genre of Jazz characterized by fast-paced tempo and complex improvisations, reflective of the associated musical pieces’ harmonic rather than melodic subtleties. This, in turn, predetermined the apparent chromaticism of Bebop, as well as the sub-genres clearly defined polyrhythm. According to Owens: “Bebop rhythm sections, using varied on- and off-beat chordal punctuations (known as comping) supplied by pianists and guitarists, and additional punctuations supplied by the drummer on drums and cymbals, were essentially polyrhythmic” (4). Nowadays, it is commonly suggested that Bebop did revolutionize Jazz to a considerable degree, in the sense that it provides musicians with the opportunity to explore their individuality while performing on stage – hence, the frequent references to Bebop as ‘music for musicians’. The founders of Bebop were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Max Roach.

Cool Jazz is a style of Jazz-music emerged as a response to Bebop, which some musicians used to consider much too expressionist – something that many fans of Jazz did not appreciate very much. Hence, the sub-genres main characteristic – a somewhat ‘smoothed out’ sounding, due to the absence of excessive improvisations, and the overall ‘coolness’, emanated by music, which in turn came about as a result of the affiliated musicians’ tendency to perform in the “cool” or emotionally unengaged manner. The most well-known enthusiasts of this particular school of Jazz were Chet Baker, George Shearing, John Lewis, and Dave Brubeck.

Hard bop’s origins can be traced to Bebop. Hard bop is often described as the extension of the former. The main distinctive particularities of Hard bop is that it derives out of the vocal (singing) format and that it is rich with the elements of blues, gospel music, and rhythmic drive. The sound of Hardbop compositions has been commonly referred to as ‘funky’, which can be explained by the sub-genre’s heavy borrowings from gospel music and by its reliance on drums, as the mean of preserving the rhythmic integrity of the music. Hard bop reached the peak of its popularity during the early sixties, but it continues to be considered a thoroughly legitimate approach to composing Jazz music even today. Among the famous jazz-figures that played Hard bop are Sonny Clark, Kenny Drew, Donald Byrd, Benny Golson, and Lou Donaldson.

Soul Jazz is closely related to Hard bop, Soul Jazz features some distinctive traits, associated with the former. Out of them, the most notable is undeniably the sub-genres strongly established link with the discursive format of gospel singing. This is the reason why Soul Jazz is often perceived as music that provides a musical framework for the expressions of African-American spirituality – even though the vocalized themes of Soul Jazz are very rarely concerned with the matters of religion.

The sub-genre in question is also known for the tendency of its affiliates to rely on tenor saxophone and Hammond organ, as the instruments that enable smooth transitions between the song’s melodic elements. Music written by the stylistic provisions of Soul Jazz features continually recurring rhythmic motifs, which allows listeners to memorize it with ease – something that helped this sub-genre to be held in high regard by working-class Americans. Soul Jazz is strongly associated with the names of such performers as Charles Earland, Les McCann, Bill Doggett, and Richard Holmes.

Free Jazz as a specific sub-genre of Jazz is probably the most controversial of all. Conceived by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor by the late fifties, it aimed for nothing less than ridding Jazz of its spatially fixed tempos and chord changes, which in turn was supposed to make it easier for musicians to take full advantage of their creativity. Hence, yet another distinctive trait of Free Jazz – a music genre that features atonality. As observed by Gioia: “Free Jazz… broke all the (compositional) rules. It took on overtones of a spectacle, serving as a jazz equivalent of those ‘battle royales’ favored by television wrestling aficionados” (344). This partially explains the fact that the free jazz was referred to, as a sound that resembles the sound of a barking dog. The style of Free Jazz has been traditionally considered one of the most innovative and unconventional of all. As of today, however, this effectively cased to be the case.

Jazz Fusion(1960’s to 1970’s). As the name of this sub-genre implies, it is concerned with intermixing the compositional elements of at least a few different music genres (such as soul, rock, funk, and blues) within the discursive framework of Jazz. The sub-genres emergence in the late sixties was predetermined by both: the growing popularity of rock music and by the fact that during the concerned historical period, it was considered utterly fashionable, to experiment with electric instruments. According to Lopes: “Jazz Fusion electrified jazz instrumentation and introduced the rock beat and the use of rock scales to improvisational jazz performance” (247).

Jazz-musicians, associated with this particular style, stressed the importance of ensuring that one’s willingness to improvise while playing Jazz must serve the purpose of emphasizing the overall melodic integrity of the music. Among the initial enthusiasts of Jazz Fusion were Gary Burton and Larry Coryell, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter.

This description of some of Jazz’s most well-known sub-genres is far from exhaustive. Nevertheless, it does show that there is nothing incidental about the fact that it is in the very nature of Jazz to continue spawning even more unique styles as time goes on- The sheer discursive flexibility of this form of music predetermines such a situation.

Jazz’s influence on world music

There are few doubts that Jazz affected the development of music theory rather substantially in the world. Probably the genre’s main contribution, in this respect, has to do with the fact that the emergence and subsequent proliferation of Jazz helped to legitimize improvisation as a thoroughly viable paradigm of music expression. As Gama Gilbert (quoted in Lopes’ book) pointed out: “The answer (to Jazz’s popularity) is improvisation – free, inspired improvisation. This is the foremost salient element of Jazz, whose lure is in the unexpected, the unpremeditated. Independent of printed notes, each variation is an adventure, unique and ephemeral” (146).

Therefore, it will be fully appropriate to suggest that the invention of Jazz had a strong effect on the very morphogenesis of music in West, in the sense of placing musicians in the position of discovering many of the previously unknown ways to express music. At the same time, it also resulted in making it more difficult to predict the success of music with the audience, reducing the influence of commerce on music. It is rather ironic that Jazz has been referred to be the most popular music of all time while numerous jazz musicians were poor.

Yet another effect of Jazz on Western-based music is that in the aftermath of the genre’s discursive institutionalization, the so-called ‘jazz aesthetics’ of performing music, concerned with the functional scheme ‘improvising creator – audience’, began to undermine the traditional pattern of receiving a musical experience ‘creator-performers-passive listeners’. Throughout the entirety of a Jazz concert, the audience members can affect the ‘here and now’ creative process by the mean of applauding the most aesthetically pleasing improvisations on the part of a performer. This alone predetermined that there would be several sub-genres to the genre of Jazz.

And, as we are well aware of, the mentioned qualitative feature of the onstage performances of Jazz is no longer considered revolutionary – it became incorporated as an integral part of Western (as well as Oriental) music tradition. As the consequence, the role of a musician has been effectively redefined from that of a mere performer to the creator of entirely new musical reality, which stems out of his or her ability to improvise in the way attuned to the audience’s unconscious desires. It is understood, of course, that this resulted in the reassessment of the actual criteria for musicians to be considered fully qualified.

Another important aspect of ‘jazz aesthetics’, adopted by the representatives of other music genres that emerged during the 20th century’s second half, can generally be described as ‘informality’. The reason for this is that the process of performing Jazz presupposes the establishment of a strong emotional link between the musician and the audience – hence, the well-known tendency of jazzmen to exchange informal remarks with listeners while on stage. The development’s main effect is concerned with triggering the ‘democratization’ of music – something that proved utterly beneficial within the context of people trying to expand their intellectual horizons.

Jazz is now being regarded as the ‘medium of democracy’ – the globally scaled proliferation of this music genre naturally results in increasing the appeal of democratic values to a great many people across the world. Just like what President Obama said recently on International Jazz Day performance on the lawn of the White House: “Jazz. It’s always been where people come together, across seemingly unbridgeable divides. And here at home, before schools and sports, it was jazz that desegregated, because, for so many players, the only thing that mattered was the music.”(Obama)

However, it would be quite inappropriate to assume that the genre’s discursive influence is merely concerned with the Jazz-induced effects on the very approach to creating/performing music, mentioned earlier. The reason for this that along with being a distinctive music genre and the art-form of its own, Jazz can be described in terms of yet another radical step, taken by humanity on the way of evolving to the progressively heightened levels of cognitive excellence. The logic behind this suggestion is that due to its close affiliation with the notion of ‘improvisation’, Jazz naturally endorses what can be referred to as the ‘perceptual spontaneity’ in people.

In its turn, this increases the likelihood for the affected individuals to react adequately to the externally induced stimuli. As noted by Sarath: “Heightened experience of the moment (induced by Jazz) represents an expansive stage of consciousness in which we have optimal access to acquired resources – our inner repository of skills, information, influences, and intuitions – as well as receptivity to the infinite possibilities that might be perceived in our surroundings” (399).

Therefore, it is rather explainable why, as practice indicates, most of the world-famous Jazz musicians have also been known for their socially progressive attitudes, reflected in these people’s views on racial discrimination, women’s emancipation, environmental pollution, etc. Thus, it will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that by listening to Jazz one becomes a better person – even if this occurs despite his or her conscious will.

Jazz in China

Origins/Development/Current status of Jazz in China

Nowadays, it is commonly assumed that the initial introduction of Jazz in China took place during the 1930s when the Chinese composer Li Jinhui invented a new music genre Shidaiqu by fusing Chinese popular songs of the time (featuring pentatonic scale) with the compositional elements of Jazz. This development made it possible for China to be exposed to the sound of many Western musical instruments (such as saxophones, xylophones, and violins) for the first time in the country’s history.

Shidaiqu fueled the propagation of what is now referred to as ‘Shanghai popular songs’ in mainland China through the 1930s and 1940s. According to Chen: “Shanghai popular songs mainly use the pentatonic scale with variations based on Western compositional techniques, are mostly sung by female singers in nasal, high-pitched voices, and accompanied by bands featuring Western instruments and arrangements in European-American style” (117).

The compositional techniques in question consisted of “recurring motifs, augmentations and modulations from the tonic key of a song to its relative minor or major” (Chen 114). Jinhui’s initiative proved a complete success – throughout the mentioned historical period; Shidaiqu became one of the most popular music genres in China. His professional career itself illustrates the validity of this suggestion: “Li pioneered a new and hugely influential brand of Sinified jazz music; recorded hundreds of modem songs… composed screen songs for fifteen popular entertainment films… (He) was single-handedly responsible for launching the careers of almost every notable singer, popular musician, and movie star of the era” (Jones 73).

One of the reasons for the popularity of Shidaiqu had to do with the fact that during the 1930s, it was becoming increasingly clear to the Chinese that adapting to the ways of the West represented the key to restoring their country’s former glory. Another contributing factor, in this respect, was the decision of many European gramophone-record companies to take advantage of the emerging market in China. Finally, one can consider the innate morphogenetic compatibility between Chinese traditional music and Jazz – something that will be discussed in the following chapters.

Nevertheless, the popularization of Shidaiqu in China never ceased being ostracized by those Chinese politicians who considered it degenerative – hence, yet another classifying term for Shidaiqu-styled songs – yellow music. The common allegations, in this respect, had to do with the assumption that, due to the lyrical/light-hearted contents of such songs, they were diverting people’s attention from the pressing socio-political issues.

The promoters of Shidaiqu have also been accused of helping the cause of Western cultural imperialism. This, however, proved rather ineffective as the method of convincing the ordinary Chinese to stop being fascinated with Shidaiqu. Quite to the contrary – the fact that this music genre used to be disfavored by both: Nationalists and Communists, appears to have been one of the main reasons why, as time went on, more and more Chinese citizens were finding it increasingly appealing. The Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 resulted in bringing this tendency to an abrupt end. Almost immediately after having seized the political power in China, Communists moved on to declare nightclubs illegal, as well as to ban pop music nationwide – a development that has left Shidaiqu with no chance of survival.

During the second half of the Republican era (1930–1949), Jazz began finding its way to China (specifically, to the city of Shanghai) in its original form. This concerning turn of events was set in motion by the fact that during this specified period of China’s history, Shanghai was the most multicultural city in the whole of South-East Asia (with at least 15% of its population having consisted of Westerners) while serving as the continent’s largest trade-hub.

Despite their minority-status, Westerners nevertheless were in control of the city’s public domain – including its cultural life. As Wilson noted: “The Shanghai of the 1920s and 30s was a thriving, multiply colonized treaty port carved from land in abject poverty. It was a place where many of China’s urban elite and bourgeoisie enjoyed quotidian lifestyles of Western opulence” (526). This, of course, made it only a matter of time before Jazz music would be brought to this city. After all, during this time Jazz was considered the most innovative music genre of all, which made it naturally appealing to Shanghai’s cosmopolitans.

They experienced the original taste of Jazz in 1935 – the year when Buck Clayton (an African-American jazz-trumpeter) came to Shanghai to perform in the city’s nightclubs and ballrooms. Even though the initial audiences consisted of Westerners (mostly Russians and Americans), it did not take Clayton long to realize that his music was becoming very popular amongst the Chinese, as well. In fact, by the end of his stay in China Clayton became nothing short of a local celebrity, which in turn caused the musician to hold his ‘Chinese memories’ in very high regard: “I still say today that the two years I spent in China were the happiest two years of my life.

My life seemed to begin in Shanghai. We were recognized for a change and treated with so much respect” (Clayton 70). The year 1935 also marks the formation of the first all-Chinese jazz-band Qingfeng Wuyue Dui (The Clear Wind Dance Band) led by Li Jinhui, which “had a repertoire consisting of jazzy versions of Chinese folk songs combined with the latest dance tunes and screen songs from the United States” (Jones 102). Nevertheless, even though the very formation of this band did show that there were some bright prospects for the development of Jazz in China, it also demonstrated that there were many obstacles. Foremost among them proved to be China’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966 -1976). During this period playing Jazz/Shidaiqu was considered a criminal offense – all because of the presumably ‘bourgeois’ sound of music that was associated with both genres.

By the early 1980s, however, the official ban on Jazz and Shidaiqu was lifted – a development made possible by the implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s economic and ideological reforms. Nevertheless, it was not up until 1988 that Jazz-music began reclaiming its ‘lost ground’ in the People’s Republic of China – the year that marked the release of the first Chinese-made Jazz-album ‘Jazz in China’ by Gao Ping. During the 1990s Jazz-music continued to experience a rapid revival in this country, which can be partially explained by the fact that throughout this period China’s economic ties with the West were strengthened rather considerably.

This, in turn, created even more criteria for the Chinese to be willing to familiarize themselves with the ways of the West. The net inflow of Western music into the country was particularly convenient, in this respect. It is quite emblematic that through the 1980s to 1990s, the city of Shanghai once again became the capital of Chinese-born Jazz – just as was the case before the Communist revolution of 1949. Another notable thing about this particular development is that the 1990’s mark the time when Jazz ceased to be referred to by China’s governmental officials as the ‘undesirable’ type of music. Among the musicians that contributed towards revitalizing the genre of Jazz at the time are Shanghai-based guitarist Fu Tian Yi and vocalist Coco Zhao – the individuals who were in charge of organizing the Shanghai’s International Jazz-festival of 1998.

As of today, Jazz continues to expand the sphere of its discursive influence in China, although not quite as rapidly as it was the case through the 1930s and 1940s. The city of Shanghai remains on the cutting edge of the process – it now features several fully functioning establishments, dedicated to the promotion of Jazz, such as the House of Blues and Jazz, JZ Club and JZ Club, JZ Latino, On Stage, and Wooden Box. Even though Jazz is again considered fully integrated into the country’s cultural domain, the genre Shidaiqu continues to experience some difficulties as its practitioners struggle to gain a larger share in China’s music-audiences.

In part, this can be explained by the genre’s presumed ‘outdatedness’ – as least, as seen by the representatives of the country’s youngest generations. Nevertheless, there have recently been some positive dynamics in this respect. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, regarding the fact that, after having been reinstrumented to sound ‘jazzy’ and performed at the 1998 Jazz-festival in Shanghai by Coco Zhao, the Chinese folk-songs ‘Jasmine Flowers’ and ‘The Dancing Golden Snake’ enjoyed much success with the audience. We can speculate that it is indeed likely for Shidaiqu to end up fully ‘resurrected’ in the future, even though there is little doubt that the genre’s representational format will be altered.

The reason for this is that, as opposed to what was once the case in Republican China, this genre is no longer discussed in terms of yellow music, designed to undermine the existential integrity of Chinese people from within. Quite to the contrary – Shidaiqu songs are now considered an important part of China’s musical culture. It is understood, of course, that this provides yet additional stimulus for Jazz to continue taking root in China.

Jazz’s position in modern Chinese music

What facilitates the continual integration of Jazz in Chinese Music

The main force that facilitates the continual integration of Jazz in Chinese music has to do with the fact that, despite the outward incompatibility between these two paradigmatic approaches to composing music, they nevertheless appear to be strongly interrelated, in the discursive sense of this word. That is, both: Jazz and Chinese traditional music reflect the workings of people’s ‘holistic’ mentality, concerned with the affiliated individuals’ unconscious strive to ‘blend’ with the surrounding social/natural environment, rather than to take ‘will-powered’ control of the latter (something that Westerners tend to do). Let us explore the validity of this suggestion at length.

According to Bower: “In a variety of reasoning tasks, East Asians (Chinese) take a ‘holistic’ approach. They make little use of categories and formal logic and instead focus on relations among objects and the context in which they interact” (57). This, in turn, predetermined the utilitarian purpose of Chinese traditional music, which was conceived to serve the essentially ritualistic function, while helping citizens to remain on the path of moral advancement – the main precondition for people to lead a ‘harmonious’ lifestyle.

In its turn, such a lifestyle presupposes the affiliated individuals’ endowment with the communal mindedness – in China it represents a commonplace practice to assess the worth of every particular person as such that positively correlates with his or her ability to prioritize serving the community/society above everything else. Therefore, it is in the very nature of Chinese music to induce the sensation of ‘holistic wholesomeness’ in listeners, which in turn explains this music’s pentatonic scale. The compositional characteristic in question implies that from the Chinese point of view, music is not so much about enabling musicians/listeners to attain ‘individuation’ (Jungian term), as it is about prompting people to remain emotionally attuned with the surrounding reality’s pulsating ‘vibes’.

Therefore, there is nothing mysterious about the fact that it proved thoroughly possible to mix Chinese folk music with Jazz – such an eventual development was predetermined dialectically. After all, as was mentioned earlier, the principle of improvisation even today accounts for the conceptual basis of just about any sub-genre of Jazz. And, as jazz-musicians are well aware of, one’s ability to improvise while playing Jazz, implies the performer’s endowment with the sharpened sense of intuition. In its turn, the presence of such a sense in a person is reflective of his or her willingness to refrain from trying to rationalize their approach to playing music.

As it appears from the public statements of many famous jazz-performers, such as Duke Ellington, these individuals were never concerned with creating music per se, but rather with channeling what they sensed to be already ‘prewritten’ music (dissolved in the air) to the audiences. This explains why it has often been reported that while performing on stage, such musicians used to appear ‘transfigured’, in the quasi-religious sense of this word. It has also been suggested that this phenomenon may be indicative of the fact that, when delivering improvisation-based music to the audience, jazz-musicians remain beyond the boundaries of our time-space continuum.

As Sarath observed: “Improvisation is driven by a moment-to-moment, inner-directed conception, compatible with what is sometimes referred to as nonlinear temporality, where the localized present is intensi­fied and relationships to past and future events are cognitively subordinate” (170).

Therefore, there is indeed a good reason to refer to Jazz and Chinese music as the mutually interrelated artistic extrapolations of people’s holistic ‘closeness to earth’ – something that allows us to confirm that there was nothing incidental about the rise of Chinese Jazz. This line of argumentation, which accounts for the main similarity between Jazz and Chinese original music, helps to explain yet another seeming ‘unexplainable’ paradox: African-American jazzmen expressed amazement, after having realized that they were able to play Chinese traditional tunes with apparent ease, even if doing it for the first time in their life. As Clayton pointed out: “We found that on this new job we were obliged to play Chinese music so we began to learn how.

I sketched out some of the most popular Chinese songs at the time and after a few rehearsals, we were playing it like we had been doing it a long time” (77). Thus, it can be safely concluded that Jazz and Chinese music are mutually complementary on as deep a level, like that of ‘collective unconsciousness – just as it was hypothesized in the Introduction.

Obstacles in the way of the continual integration of Jazz in Chinese music

Even though Jazz and Chinese music do seem to have originated out of the same ‘archetypal’ ground, it would be wrong to suggest that the former will continue integrating into the latter in a particularly easy-going manner. There are several reasons for this to be the case. The main of them can be outlined as follows:

Jazz can no longer be considered a revolutionary music genre. One of the foremost motivations for people to consider affiliating themselves with a particular music style has always been the idea that by acting in this way, they will be more likely to attain self-actualization and to become socially prominent individuals.

Because one’s chances to achieve social prominence positively relate to the measure of the concerned person’s intellectual advancement, it is thoroughly natural for young people positioning themselves as the affiliates of whatever happened to be the most ‘progressive’ music genre at the time. It is understood, of course, that this puts Chinese Jazz in a rather disadvantaged position, because of its strong association with the ways of the past. As Greenwood aptly observed: “What is the new jazz of today’s Shanghai? Since the rise of rock and hip-hop music, younger generations have new kinds of rebellious music and are listening to jazz less and less” (par. 13). Besides, the fact that it is no longer against the law in China to play Jazz deprives this music genre of its former ‘forbidden fruit’ appeal, which has a strongly detrimental effect on the genre’s popularity.

Jazz is perceived to have been the tool of America’s cultural imperialism. As of today, the role of the Communist Party of China in defining the essence of the country’s socio-political discourses has been effectively diminished. Nevertheless, the Chinese government did proclaim that it would oppose the American-born concepts of the ‘new world order’ and ‘global governance’, with both of them presupposing the continuation of America’s geopolitical hegemony.

After all, how the U.S. has positioned itself in the arena of international politics since the 20th century’s nineties leaves little doubts as to its intention to continue violating the provisions of the international law in the most blatant manner (under the excuse of protecting ‘democracy’). Consequently, more and more Chinese citizens grow increasingly resentful of the U.S., in general, and of the ‘values of democracy’, in particular – without being prompted to do so by the government.

This, of course, could not result in anything other than producing a strong blow against the popular appeal of Jazz in China. The reason for this is apparent – even though the world-famous jazzmen (especially African-American) could not care less about helping to advance America’s geopolitical agenda, most people in China cannot help perceiving the concerned music genre as being interwoven with the concept of Pax Americana, which is nothing but yet another euphemism for the notion of Western imperialism. Hence, an even greater danger to the development of Jazz in China than that posed by the hypothetical prospect for this type of music to be banned again is that there is a thoroughly realistic scenario in which the country’s ordinary citizens begin ignoring/boycotting Jazz music as the mean of expressing their attitude towards America. This scenario will become even more likely if the U.S. continues to meddle in China’s internal affairs while officially referring to this country (along with Russia) in terms of a ‘geopolitical threat’.

Jazz is innately inconsistent with the Chinese outlook on the purpose of music. As it was implied earlier, since the establishment of the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd century B.C. until the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese music was essentially concerned with serving the cause of the society’s betterment – at least, as perceived by the representatives of the country’s ruling elites. In particular, this music was used to strengthen the popular appeal of the governmentally endorsed public ceremonies and rituals. Therefore, it is in the very nature of Chinese people to assess the objective value of a particular musical piece, concerning what can be deemed its utilitarian ‘usefulness’.

Jazz, on the other hand, is best described as ‘music for the sake of music’. This, in turn, naturally presupposes that Jazz music must especially appeal to individuals who prefer to lead an anti-social lifestyle. Even a brief inquiry into the history of Jazz will reveal that this indeed has been the case. After all, it does not represent much of a secret that it was namely through the so-called ‘Prohibition Era’ in the U.S. (1920-1933) that Jazz has received its greatest developmental boost. The reason for this is simple – the Prohibition laws made possible the quick enrichment of gangsters, and gangsters used to love jazz with passion. Thus, there is nothing too extraordinary about the fact that the development of Shidaiqu in China was closely supervised by the country’s crime-syndicates, with

Li Jinhui having been a protégé of Shanghai’s mafia-boss Du Yuesheng. As Niinimaa noted: “The poor reputation of Sino jazz can be explained by the fact that this music was mainly played in cabarets and night-clubs – places associated with prostitution, drugs, and alcohol” (par. 7). This, of course, suggests that even under the most favorable circumstances, Jazz in China is most likely to enjoy the status of a marginalized music genre, at best. Due to being highly individualistic, Jazz music is bound to sound ‘alien’ to the Chinese – at least for as long as the functioning of these people’s psyche continues to reflect their adherence to the values of a collectivist/communal living.

Jazz is considered a ‘peripheral’ music genre in China. Unlike what it is the case with the genres of Chinese traditional and patriotic music, Jazz is not well incorporated into the country’s public domain. Partially, this can be explained by the fact that, even though the Chinese government no longer applies any active effort in keeping Jazz socially suppressed, it nevertheless continues to regard the concerned musical genre ‘alien’ to an extent. As a result, the cause of promoting Jazz in China continues to suffer from the lack of funds and the virtual absence of educational infrastructure. As Hershorn pointed out: “Jazz has very little institutional support in China, especially outside Beijing and Shanghai. Outside of those cities, the things the music needs to thrive – education, record labels, outreach organizations, nonprofits – are in short supply” (par. 19).

At the same time, however, it is also possible to hypothesize that the mentioned state of affairs is not quite as reflective of the government’s subtle resistance to Jazz, as it is being predetermined by the fact that the ongoing industrialization of China is far from being over. However, as we are well aware of, Jazz thrives the best in the fully industrialized Capitalist societies, even though the economic recessions. In other words, the very socio-economic fabric of Chinese society makes it very challenging for the music genre of Jazz to attain the mainstream status. Consequently, many Chinese musicians find it impossible to make living playing jazz: “It’s difficult for many jazz musicians (in China) to make a living from just playing jazz, so many have to play in other bands in different genres as well” (“Is Beijing jazz” par. 3). Because of this, Jazz does not appeal to most of the career-minded musicians in China – specifically those who cannot afford to perfect their jazz-playing skills in the US.

The same can be said about the representatives of the country’s music industry. The reason for this is that due to the mentioned marginal status of Jazz in China, the Chinese governmental authorities tend to think of this music genre as being closely concerned with illegal moneymaking activities on the part of its promoters. The resulting consequence is that the jazz clubs in Shanghai, Beijing, and Changsha (China’s ‘entertainment city’) are being commonly raided by the police in search of any illegal activities taking place. As one of the club owners in Changsha pointed out: “Venues are under really strict scrutiny from the culture department as well as the police…

They (authorities) just think about the crowds and how you’re trying to sell them drinks to make money” (Jonze par. 3). Thus, there appear to be very few incentives for the proliferation of Jazz in China, apart from the genre enthusiasts’ sheer love of music. This situation is likely to persist into the future, as there have been no indications that the government may consider providing the country’s jazz-musicians with much-needed institutional support. Thus, there are more than enough reasons to expect that the continual ‘jazzification’ of China will prove rather confounding. However, this does not mean that the discussed music genre has no future amongst the Chinese. After all, one of the most distinctive features of Jazz has been traditionally considered the genre’s ability to adapt to external circumstances.


What has been revealed in the study’s earlier sub-chapters, regarding the innate subtleties of the interrelationship between Jazz and Chinese traditional/modern music, suggests that there is an undeniable phenomenological quality to the issue at stake? The logic behind this statement is apparent. On one hand, despite having originated in different parts of the world in different historical eras, these two music formats do appear to share essentially the same discursive foundation.

That is, both: Jazz and Chinese music are fundamentally aesthetic sublimation of people’s deep-seated desire to live in harmony with the surrounding environment, which in turn suggests that the Chinese and African-Americans (the original creators of Jazz) have much more in common than they may think. On the other, however, both music genres exhibit the signs of being mutually antagonized to a considerable extent. Whereas Chinese music resonates with the values of a socially integrated/communal living, Jazz encourages people to indulge in the egoistic behavior and to prioritize experiencing sensual pleasures, as the actual purpose of their lives.

This observation appears to be consistent with what accounted for the main distinctive aspect of Jazz’s incorporation in the music culture of China – Even though Jazz did prove easily fusible with Chinese folk music, the resulting by-products of this fusion (such as Shidaiqu) were never able to take strong roots in the country. One of the explanations for this phenomenon may have to do with the possibility that by the time Jazz has found its way to China, it was already heavily commercialized – this alone resulted in undermining the measure of its compatibility with ‘collective unconsciousness’ of the majority of people in China.

The subsequent emergence of different variations of Sino-jazz, which were even more commercialized than the original ‘product’, was taken by the Chinese as the indication that the true purpose of introducing Jazz to their country was to maintain the semi-colonial status of China (by the mean of spiritual subversion of people) so that the West could continue exploiting it, just as it was the case throughout the entirety of the 19th century.

Given the fact that today’s China is one of the most powerful countries in the world, it is rather unlikely for the modern Chinese-born variations of Jazz music to succeed in affecting the country’s cultural domain in a manner that they did through the thirties and forties. Allegorically speaking, modern Chinese Jazz has been turned ‘stingless’ – the development that naturally deprived it of its former appeal. This is the reason why, despite continuing to proclaim its strong adherence to the Communist ideology, the Chinese government does not take any measures to prevent Jazz from expanding its foothold in the country – the Chinese leaders are fully aware of the sheer impossibility of such a hypothetical scenario.

This conclusion is fully consistent with the study’s initial hypothesis, articulated in the Introduction. Because of the obtained insights into the spatial evolution of Jazz in China, we can also confirm that the application of the interdisciplinary approach to researching the subject matter, on our part, proved thoroughly justified.


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"Jazz Music Popularization in Chinese Culture." IvyPanda, 24 July 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/jazz-music-popularization-in-chinese-culture/.

1. IvyPanda. "Jazz Music Popularization in Chinese Culture." July 24, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/jazz-music-popularization-in-chinese-culture/.


IvyPanda. "Jazz Music Popularization in Chinese Culture." July 24, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/jazz-music-popularization-in-chinese-culture/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Jazz Music Popularization in Chinese Culture." July 24, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/jazz-music-popularization-in-chinese-culture/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Jazz Music Popularization in Chinese Culture'. 24 July.

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