My name is Ren Yuqing. I’m a bass player. I started playing music in 1989. In 2003, I founded the original JZ jazz club
on Fuxing Lu.
Before JZ, I played rock and roll. As a young man, I wanted to show the world who I was and what I thought about society. While I was exploring the world, I had a realization. A Japanese musician told me people who play music should have a social responsibility. I agree with him. A lot of musicians nowadays lack that sense of responsibility. To them, it’s about commercialism, not about music anymore.
Once I was asked what I wanted to do the most. I thought about it for a really long time and told him that I wanted to create my own music industry. That was in early 2000. The guy was startled and asked me if I even knew what “industry” meant.
Then I started a club, a place where musicians could perform the way they liked. I also wanted to change my lifestyle. Before it was just getting up, practicing music, cooking, practicing music again, teaching, recording, rehearsing and performing.
My identity has never changed. I am not a businessman. I am a musician. I am not promoting the sale of music. I am promoting music. I am a music promoter. It has never changed.
I started my own club because others would not give me the stage to play jazz. I had to build my own stage for my own jazz. I used my own savings and some of my friends’ money to build the club.
When I was young, we did not have many options for music genres. Most young people were just starting to listen to mainstream pop music in the late 80s. I got into U2, Def Leppard, Metallica, and Red Hot Chili Peppers by chance. I was in a teacher-training art school and I studied painting. The class next to mine was a music class. Those naughty boys with long hair exposed me to rock and roll.
I am from Beijing but my dad is from here. When I stayed in Shanghai, our house was near the U.S. consulate. One July 4, I heard Bruce Springsteen playing from the speaker: “Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.” Super loud — they played it right next to my balcony. It sounded amazing!
There was a radio show called “Marlboro’s Music World” that played so many types of western music. After I went back to Beijing, I started to find this kind of music by myself. I studied for a year in university and I dropped out. My parents forced me to go to university. By then, I was already quite connected in rock circles.
I am a musician and I needed to practice. I loved playing my guitar and I wanted to step up my game. That’s when jazz came into my life. I came across fusion jazz around 1993. John McLaughlin left a huge impression on me. His music was on a cassette that was copied a million times. We named it: “King of Technique”. That’s how jazz planted a seed in me. At the end of 1996, I finally joined a jazz band. I left Cui Jian’s band to join Liu Yuan. Cui once asked me if I had to choose one between rock and jazz, which one would I choose? I said jazz.
Before I came back to Shanghai, there were people playing jazz already, but their skills were average and they were limited to playing music in small bars for foreigners or people from Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan. I played in small bars in Beijing, too. But my audience was Cui Jian, Chen Daoming, and Jiang Wen – the icons of the arts and culture scene.
When I came to Shanghai for a job in 2000, the city was a blank slate. Nineteen years later, Shanghai has become the best city for culture. People in Guangzhou won't listen to hardcore music, people in Chengdu who eat chuanchuan and play poker games don’t care about hip hop, but the ordinary people living in Shanghai listen to jazz. This open-minded attitude comes from the bottom up.
Things were different in the early 2000s. There was a shortage of artists, a shortage of platforms and venues, and society was not familiar with the concept. So we broke ground by creating more venues for artists to perform.
There were only a handful of venues in Shanghai at that time: the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, House of Blues and Jazz
, Cotton Club
… Then more and more foreigners came to the city, but the concept of JZ Club isn’t just about entertaining the foreign crowd. Unlike the older jazz venues in Shanghai, running shows similar to hotel gigs – they changed the band every three months or so – JZ Club is like a concert hall: there's a new show every day, and every month there's a band touring from overseas. I wanted it to be like a real jazz bar, rather than an open bar with a jazz band inside.
There's never a right time to launch a music festival. The first JZ Festival was in 2003 when we opened our first club. I remember there were only two jazz bands in Shanghai and four in Beijing. That’s it. Even now, I still don't care if our festival will attract an audience or not. The point of organizing a festival is to educate the crowd.
Our original goal for the JZ Festival has never changed. In fact, it's becoming more authentic. That's why our music festival is getting smaller. I only want to do what I really want to do. I don't want to book really big names for our festival. Many artists that debuted at JZ Festival are now big names in the music world: Cheer Chen, Li Jian, Tia Ray... As the market becomes more chaotic, you must truly understand what you want to do in order to make progress.
My plan for the next five years is just making more good music. We will try very hard to make good albums, promote good musicians, and cultivate young talent. The JZ School is a full-time school. Kids are training from 10am to 8pm every day, Monday to Friday. We have a forty-year-old who quit his job and studied here as well. He's a musician based in Beijing now. Aside from us, there's no top-notch, systematic contemporary music education in China. There are too many people picking the fruits, but not enough people planting trees and tending flowers. And these are the most crucial things. Social responsibility can bring true happiness.
JZ Spring happens from April 27 to May 1, across Jing'an.