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Gregory Smith, Musician and Leader of Cotton Club

Feb 19, 2021

My name is Gregory Smith. These days I'm kind of a freelance musician, but I suppose I'm defined as "the Cotton Club guy." That's what I came here for in the first place. I ran Cotton Club for nearly 20 years before the government did all their blessed shutting down of Fuxing Lu and Yongfu Lu.

Yeah, we're still looking to reopen.

I'm from the US. Grew up in Utah, went to school, university and all that. Before I came to Shanghai, I spent four years in Moscow with this great classical guitar professor who'd never had a foreign student, let alone an American. He was determined to make me good, you know, would hit me on the head with the ruler. It worked. After that first year, I played for a few of my friends in the US and they were like "what happened to you? Did you sell your soul?"



I had some odd straight jobs, but I was playing three, four nights a week in clubs. On one of my hops back home, I met my friend Matt Harding, who was just about to open the Cotton Club in Shanghai. He said "come help me get the club off the ground. Where you got to be?"

"Nowhere," I said. I had just been planning to go back to Moscow. Oddly enough, I was hanging out with some people from the Soros Foundation, so who knows what that might've turned into. Missed my chance to join the Illuminati, I guess.

I landed in Shanghai in January '98 at Hongqiao airport, which was a bit of a shithole back then – still kind of is – and I remember it was just dark. Matt was late and I stood there with my bags and I'm like "what have I done?" He finally showed up and we went straight to the club and played and ended up staying out all night, going to Deedee's, and YY's and the old Manhattan, back when it wasn't as notorious.

Didn't see sunlight for most of a week, except for the graying of the day through the curtains.

There wasn't a lot of live music going on back then. A couple of hotels had Filipino bands, Full House did a couple of jazz nights a week, and obviously, there was the House of Blues and Jazz. Ling Dongfu, the owner, he's been a big supporter of live music forever. But that was really it back in those early, early years. There wasn't the base of musicians that are here now or even 10 years ago.

At first, I said I'd stick around for a couple of months. Two months became four, four became six. One day my buddy Matt puts up his hands and says "I'm out." I said, "Okay, well, should I stick around and help, or bail?"

I was enjoying it. It was exciting to be one of the first freestanding live music clubs. So I thought I'd stick around for another couple of months, to help with the transition. So it became another six months. And then a year. Then a few more years. The classic Shanghai story.



In the earliest years, Cotton Club was the first stop for musicians passing through. Some would stick around. Alec Haavik came in the mid-2000s. Andy Hunter, a great trombone player, stuck around for a while. JQ Witcombe, another trumpeter, Theo Croaker, a real wizard trumpeter, Willow Nelson, another sax player, Jonathan... I don't remember his last name. Fu Hua, another trumpeter. People started seeing that it could work, and places like JZ and a few others popped up after we had made a go of it for a few years.

I think after we'd been running for about three years, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra came to town. Feng Yuchen, our trumpeter at the time, corralled him after the show, corralled him to the point where Wynton is looking at us like "you fucking guys, all right, where is this club?" So I gave him our card. That night around midnight, he comes in with his trumpet under his arm and plays a full hour set with us. His second in command, Marcus Printup, stayed the whole night. That was certainly a defining moment. After that happened, we started to really feel like we were making a go of it.



One night Dennis Hopper dropped in, one of my favorite actors. It was a Saturday night and a couple of guys were talking excitedly about an actor. I thought it was some Hong Kong celebrity, but they're like "no, it's Dennis Hopper!" I'm like "Are you shitting me?" He split when people started recognizing him, but he came back the next day and brought his son. They sat at one of the tables by the stage the whole night.

Jimmy Buffett showed up one night and played an hour set with us. I remember we were up there on stage and he goes, "I see you, man. You're a pirate!"

Ian McKellen came in one night in 2015, and stuck around the whole night, sitting in one of the booths with some folks.



Derek Trucks and Doyle Bromhall, the guitarists who toured with Eric Clapton, came in one time. Derek Trucks is a wizard, probably the best contemporary guitarist, and I've been a huge fan of Doyle Bromhall. I got to play with him, which was amazing. Horn players are great to play with, but to have another guitarist... you know, you get to measure yourself a little. You get to say "okay, I can hold my own, I can do that, you can't lose me, man. I'm with you."



Another time, Doug Monito, this big Italian godfather type who owned The Big Easy in Beijing, came in and told me he wanted me to play a blues night at his club. So every week for a year I'd go to Beijing just to play their blues night. There was a four-month period where I was playing seven nights straight; six at Cotton Club, one in Beijing. I was younger then, and I loved it. But I don't think I'll ever do that again.

But that's where I first met Jackie 'Suga Mama' Staton, one of the original Ikettes with Ike and Tina Turner in the late 60s. We remained in touch and eventually, she came to Shanghai to be our house voice for about six years. She was an incredible, soulful singer. She'd walk on stage and everybody would hush. Then she'd start pitching shit to everybody in the crowd. She'd be like "is that your girlfriend? I think I saw her with somebody else last night!"



Unfortunately, in 2010 she got stricken with cancer and passed away. And, you know, two years later, the same thing happened to another singer, Arlene Estrella. I don't mean to be morbid, but there've been a few musicians who have left us in my time here. I think part of it is a lifestyle thing. Musicians tend to live a little more precariously. But they're living full lives.

I told myself I'd stay until it didn't feel right anymore, and that's essentially how's it been until now. There have been ups and downs, but we've had a great run. I think we came close to 6,000 shows, and the core band was essentially together for the whole time; Jorland the bass player, Francesco the drummer and I have been together for 17 years.

The club had a 19-year run, but it got shut down in 2017. There were rumors ever since JZ shut down the year before, but our big boss was connected so I thought it'd get worked out. In the end, we only got a month's warning. We couldn't control it. It was just a tidal shift.

We sent it off in style. Everyone who was in town who'd ever played came in and we carried on until the milky coming of the day. I couldn't walk past there for a year. Literally. It was that tough. The place stands empty to this day.

There were people that wanted to back us, but we just kind of put it on the backburner because the city was getting a little weird about musicians, and our big boss had left to open a temple. We picked up some shows here and there, played the Manderley Club at the McKinnon Hotel (where they do Sleep No More) for about a year and a half, but we were missing our home. We started looking at things seriously until late-2019, and then the virus hit.



So everything went off the table. Nobody in the city was working for four months and certainly, no music was happening. All we did was a couple of TikTok shows. That had its own problem. I remember I raised a glass and then 10 seconds later, the stream was shut down; they said you can't drink on stage. We did seven or eight shows, but it seemed like every other time we'd get shut down. The last time we did it, we again got shut down. Someone told Yiku Gu, our singer, that it was because she had foreigners playing with her. Who knows what the real reason was.

I don't want to be anywhere else. The US is a mess, Europe is a mess. You know, when the virus eventually passes, if I were to leave Shanghai, maybe I'd hop further south. Cambodia, Vietnam, you know, somewhere. Look for something new. But I still enjoy living in this town. I'm not ready to leave.

It is an addicting city. It's been an original experience, I can say that. Those early years especially, pre-Expo, there was no roadmap. We just said "we're gonna do this, we're gonna try this and this kind of music." I love how the city has developed, especially how safe it has become, but back then we could just kind of take it as it came. And if you put in the time and effort and drive and desire, you could have some good outcomes. As long as you weren't being an asshole, you know, you could carry on quite madly.



If the stars and the Gods align and it makes sense, we'll reopen Cotton Club. I don't want to stress about it, but certainly, our core band would love to have our own home back again. Meanwhile, I'm playing JZ Club, Wooden Box, primarily a bit of Shake. I don't go out as much as I used to, but Specters is a place I'll go late at night, I'll sometimes go to Wooden Box, I was at House of Blues and Jazz the other night. JZ's still putting on some good shows, Alec Haavik is still killing it. Toby Mac is another, and Lawrence Ku. Jazz at Lincoln, there some good music going on. Chair Club can have a good vibe, especially when Sheree is singing. I'm still a live music hound in the end.

My lament for the scene today is that there seems to be an abundance of tribute shows. For younger musicians, if they're forced to play, I don't know, Michael Jackson tributes, they learn that part and that's what they do. That'll zap the creativity right out of people. I understand that shows have to sell, but we never did that at Cotton Club. I won't sit here and say that everything we played was all original, but the music that we chose reflected our mindset. Music was our lifestyle. Even if it wasn't us playing, anybody who was taking the stage got to play their own shows. So I guess my advice to younger musicians is to develop your own voice, and don't let anybody else dictate to you what that is.

And it works! It works. I mean, Cotton Club had a 19 year run. It can make money. There are enough people in town that want to see a person bare their soul on stage.

TELL EVERYONE

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[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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