Swinging Asia

1 Nov 2004 by BusinessTraveller

Robin Lynam tracks down the best of Asia-Pacific's jazz scene.

Jazz has enjoyed a following in Asia for many years, and most of the region's major cities have at least one jazz club or bar where you can hear the music being played at a respectable, and sometimes exceptional, level.
According to Hong Kong-based guitarist Eugene Pao, the popularity of jazz in Shanghai dates back as far as the 1920s, but most of Asia really woke up to the music at the end of World War II when the US armed forces brought it over with them.
Asia's longest-standing jazz bar opened at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok in 1946, and still hosts the music today.
In Japan, jazz became an obsession for many young people, and the country now boasts one of the world's liveliest jazz scenes.
Recent years have seen a number of exciting developments in the Asian music scene, with stars emerging to make their mark on the international stage. Japan has produced a number of talented artists including, among many others, the great trumpeters Teramasu Hino and Tiger Okoshi, saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and pianist Junko Onishi.
Singaporean pianist Jeremy Monteiro, who organised a memorable jazz festival in his home city in 2001, is also much in demand as a performer in Europe and America, and Eugene Pao has recorded albums for international release in the company of jazz greats such as Jack de Johnette and Michael Brecker.
Hong Kong-born pianist Ted Lo divides his time between his hometown and New York and is regarded as a key player in both cities. Other international stars include Filipino saxophonists Eddie Katindig and Tots Tolentino and Malaysian drummer Lewis Pragasam.
Jazz with a distinctly Asian identity has also begun to emerge, as musicians experiment with traditional instruments from the region, using Asian folk melodies as a basis for improvisation. Former Hong Kong-based composer and arranger Dave Packer has written jazz scores featuring Chinese instruments such as the erhu and pipa, while Pragasam and his group Asiabeat ? featuring Japanese resident, American John Kaizan Neptune, who plays jazz on the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) ? have combined a fusion jazz line-up with a gamelan ensemble.
Asia can be very rewarding for jazz fans, and most major cities have listings magazines with gig guides. As a starting point for your voyage of jazz discovery, here are six of the best clubs and bars from some of the region's most musically interesting cities.


Blue Note

This bar is a member of the New York-based Blue Note Group of international jazz clubs, which also operates venues in Milan, Seoul, Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya. The Blue Note is the most important jazz joint in Japan, which effectively makes it the most important in Asia.
Major international stars perform here on an almost weekly basis to appreciative audiences (made up mostly of jazz connoisseurs), while local players, many of whom have made their names on the international circuit, also settle in for extended gigs. Artists who have appeared here in recent months include blues great James Cotton and the New Orleans ensemble, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The club is also a home from home for artists as varied as Oscar Peterson, Dr John and BB King, whenever they're in town.
Firmly committed to the art form, the venue also sponsors jazz festivals, and keeps the theme consistent right down to the menu and the cocktails. Dishes and drinks have names that recall the jazz heroes as well as the greatest moments in the life of jazz. It's slick, sophisticated, and both the sound and the music are superb ? albeit awfully expensive. This is Tokyo, remember?

Blue Note Tokyo, 6-3-16, Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107 0062 tel 813 5485 0088


The Bamboo Bar

The Bamboo Bar at Bangkok's Oriental Hotel is probably the oldest jazz bar in Asia, having opened its doors in 1946. Jazz is popular in the kingdom, and its leading fan is no other than His Majesty King Bhumibol, who is himself a musician and composer and was once described by Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong as "a real swinging cat".
The pianists in the Bamboo Bar generally know a few of His Majesty's tunes, and you can expect to hear them amid the more familiar standards.
American guest vocalists settle in for extended residencies and get to know the regular clientele and their tastes. Alice Day, Cheryl Hayes, Barbara Raimondi and Mandy Gaines have all been singers in residence. Famous musicians visiting town drop by and sometimes sit in with the resident band, and local players like to hang out here. The drinks are at the prices you would expect in a top luxury hotel, but the music is free.
Jazz is only one aspect of the bar's appeal however. Other attractions include well-trained bartenders, a fine selection of single-malt whiskey and a distinctly romantic atmosphere.
The Bamboo Bar regularly appears on lists of the world's best bars, and rightly so. If you're in Bangkok, around midnight, this is certainly the place to be.

Bamboo Bar, The Oriental Bangkok, 48 Oriental Avenue, Bangkok 10500 tel 66 2 659 9000

Hong kong

Bohemian Lounge

The Bohemian Lounge in Hong Kong's Soho restaurant district started life under another name as a Middle Eastern mezze joint, but from an early stage, live music was an important part of its appeal. It still serves reliably good food, and the decor remains distinctly kasbah-style, but more and more people just drop in for a drink and to catch the jazz action from some of Hong Kong's best resident players. The lounge is open to the street and the music wafts out enticingly into the evening air.
Swedish bass player Rickard Malmsteen is the musical director, and other hip musicians you might see here include one of Australia's hottest saxophonists, Blaine Whittaker, who commutes between Hong Kong and his homeland, and the American keyboard virtuoso, Allen Youngblood. Well-known jazz enthusiasts from around the world sit in, and the best local talent is also showcased.
The lounge is located in the heart of Hong Kong's modern jazz territory and the music can also be found at other venues within a few minutes walk such as Gecko, the Blue Door, Pizza Express and the Fringe Club. The more traditionally minded jazz buffs go for Dixieland jazz in Kowloon at Ned Kelly's Last Stand, or Swing every Wednesday at Grappa's Country in Central.

Bohemian Lounge, 3-5 Old Bailey Street, Central, Hong Kongtel 852 2526 6099


The Big Easy

As the name suggests, The Big Easy is an attempt to bring a little of New Orleans to the heart of Beijing, and so far as interior design and the menu go, it's fairly authentic.
The decor places heavy emphasis on dark polished wood and brass, while photographs of jazz luminaries and a mural of a band pay tribute to the birthplace of jazz and a unique strain of the blues.
The food is as authentically New Orleans as you could reasonably expect given the constraints of the city, but the jazz and blues are played mostly by mixed-race bands of Chinese and expatriate musicians, who come from all over the world.
It's ironic that a New Orleans-style bar and restaurant should be the home venue of China's hottest Chicago blues band, but it is. The Big Easy Blues Band is fronted by harmonica virtuoso Mike Hall, also known as Humble Mike, and features some of China's finest blues players. Mainstream and fusion jazz are also performed
by locally based and visiting American musicians, and there's usually something or someone worth hearing. This is a great chill-out place.

The Big Easy, 8 Chaoyang Park Road, Beijing 100026tel 86 10 6508 6776


Harry's Bar

Harry's Bar has been presenting the best of Singapore jazz for years, and while other contenders have come and gone, this bar remains the place to catch the
best musicians in town.
Despite its strait-laced image in some quarters, Singapore has a long tradition of showing hospitality to jazz musicians, and the great saxophonist James Moody, former Ramsey Lewis Trio bassist and vocalist Eldee Young, and long-time Singapore resident guitarist O'Donel Levy have all graced the stage at Harry's.
The doyen of Singapore jazzmen, pianist Jeremy Monteiro, works a lot in the US now, but pops up here occasionally when in town.
The bar itself has attained a certain international notoriety, thanks to the book, and later film,Rogue Trader, as Nick Leeson's favourite spot to unwind after a hard day's work on the trades that ultimately broke the Barings Bank. But it's as a haven for jazz lovers and a reliable supplier of cold beer on balmy Singaporean nights that it's best known and loved.

Harry's Bar, 28 Boat Quay, Singapore 049818tel 65 538 3029


Cotton Club

Jazz was the background music to Shanghai's decadent heyday in the 1920s, and when the city began to rediscover its free and easy ways in the 1980s, it made a comeback. The Shanghai scene has been more volatile than most, but Cotton Club, named after the famous regular gig of the original Duke Ellington Orchestra, was the first ? other than the famous Peace Hotel bar with its band of slightly doddery old-timers ? and it has stayed the course.
A mixture of local and expatriate musicians play jazz and blues nightly in the bar, and this is the place to hear the players who made last year's Shanghai Jazz CD. That album puts a modern spin on the music heard in the city's dance halls and cinemas during the 30s and 40s, but at Cotton Club you're just as likely to hear straight-ahead modern jazz or Chicago blues.
The bar is dark, convivial and popular at weekends, but drinks are reasonably priced and the music is often excellent. Worth checking out.

Cotton Club, 1428 Huai Hai Middle Road, Puxi, Shanghai 200031, tel 86 21 6437 7110

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