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Survivors of Shanghai's Jazz Age Play Anew

Louisa Lim, NPR
Trumpet player Chen Yulin, 79, says that in the past, jazz music was demonized in China as "reactionary," and used in films as background music whenever the enemy appeared.
Louisa Lim, NPR
Zheng Deren, 84, holds a photo of himself as a young man when he was the double bass player in Jimmy King's band, the first all-Chinese band to play in Shanghai's top dance hall, the Paramount.
Louisa Lim, NPR
When the Paramount Dance Hall (shown today) was built in 1930, it was the most expensive and elaborate ballroom of its age.

The Paramount Dance Hall is the grand old lady of Shanghai's past. But in 1930, it was the most expensive and elaborate ballroom of its age, with a specially designed wooden dance floor with cantilevered springs.


Now, the old songs still play, and the elderly dancers twirl stiffly — but the Paramount is a tired reminder of what once was.

Recalling Shanghai's Splendor

Zheng Deren, 84, used to play the double bass at the Paramount in the 1940s, and still remembers the thrill of entering the circular, art-deco lobby.

"The Paramount was the best dance hall in Shanghai, very high class. There were dancing girls, and all the businessmen and big bosses went there," Zheng recalls. "Ordinarily, we weren't allowed in, but then we became band members. The boss and customers liked us, and our wages were very high. We played three hours a night. We were very happy."

Shanghai was once the whore of the Orient, its hedonistic nightlife renowned throughout Asia. It was a world of mobsters and jazz music. That ended when the Communist Party took power and punished jazz music as a crime.


Today, a small group of jazz musicians — led by Zheng Deren — are re-creating the sounds of the old days for a series of concerts in Shanghai.

Jazz Band Rekindles Pride

Eight of them practice in a tiny room: There's not even space for Zheng's double bass, so he conducts. The unfortunate pianist is in an adjoining room, with the door open.

But these privations aren't important for 79-year-old percussionist Bao Zhengzheng. These sessions rekindle his pride at being a member of Jimmy King's — the first all-Chinese jazz band to play the Paramount.

"When we play this music, we're nostalgic about the past," Bao says. "We remember how, as young men, we used to go to dance halls and bars to listen to foreigners playing music. Then we learned how to do it ourselves."

Zheng, the bassist-turned-conductor, originally became a jazz musician through necessity, when he was 18 years old and fresh out of school. At the time, the Japanese occupied Shanghai.

"My father was overseas and couldn't get back. I had a younger brother and sister, and needed to support them. I'd played the trumpet in a band at school, so I started a band and went to play in nightclubs," Zheng says.

Communist Party Outlaws Jazz

These elderly veterans of the jazz scene play with the same verve as they did in the 1940s. But the roaring nightlife of Shanghai came to an end after the Communist revolution in 1949.

At first, things continued as normal. But a political campaign in 1952 stopped foreign music from being played. Bao Zhengzheng was one of its victims.

"They broke into my house, and took my saxophone, and said it was forbidden, a pornographic instrument. They took my piano, too. Afterwards, they rehabilitated me, and gave them back," Bao says.

But rehabilitation took decades. The percussionist later spent two years in the countryside. Bandleader Zheng Deren was part of a troupe playing revolutionary operas; he said he stopped playing Western music for almost 30 years.

Trumpeter Chen Yulin, 79, was interrogated and watched as his beloved jazz was demonized as forbidden, "reactionary" music.

"When we watched Chinese films, whenever the enemy appeared, there'd be jazz music in the background," Chen says.

Interest in Once-Forbidden Genre Is Reborn

Finally in 1980, as Shanghai opened up once more, the management of the Peace Hotel decided to start a jazz band, the first in China. They asked Zheng Deren to organize it.

"We didn't have any music. It had all been burned. So we had to rely on our memory. Just a couple of piano manuscripts were left, so I used those, and wrote out all the other parts for sax, trumpet, piano and bass," Zheng says.

To this day, the band uses these handwritten parts for music. Only three of the band members date back to that era. They are, as Chen Yulin says, the last relics of a bygone age.

"There are only a couple of us left. After us, there won't be any more Shanghai jazz. Because for so many years, there was no jazz, and the young people who came afterwards don't do classical jazz," Chen says.

But back at the Paramount, the band still plays on. The faces may be younger, but one seems familiar. It's the son of percussionist Bao Zhengzheng, whose sax was confiscated for being pornographic. The younger Bao is a second-generation jazz musician, a saxophonist himself who now continues the family's jazz legacy at the Paramount Dance Hall.

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