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Musician Alec Haavik

Jan 18, 2019

I’m a musician from the US. I studied the Chinese language when I was in college and spent a semester in Taipei studying Chinese, which was a mind opening experience. Living in a foreign country was a very intense experience at that time, but the amazing rewards of being in a different country and a different culture stayed with me. Years later, after struggling as a jazz musician in New York City, I found that this was still calling me, this experience of being an expat.

When you live overseas, there’s an endless amount of opportunities for new perspectives, and questioning and comparing my own upbringing, my own culture and especially in music. I’m a musician, and I play primarily jazz, and that being an American art form, to see how jazz has been growing and developing in China has been endlessly fascinating.

I was in Taiwan in 1989-90. After that I got a graduate degree in jazz performance and lived in New York, playing jazz there, recorded my first album, and I worked as a web designer. Hey — you gotta do something.


When I came to Shanghai in 2005, the jazz scene here was pretty wild. There was this explosive energy, from the economic boom that was happening at that time in Shanghai, but also in the music scene, this collection of foreigners from all around the world, intermingling with the Chinese musicians, finding all kinds of new combinations. Pretty quickly I met JQ Whitcomb and Andy Hunter and EJ Parker, the first pioneers in the new wave of Americans who came over here to play. I say “pioneers” because it definitely felt like we were on the edge of the frontier back in those days. JZ Club was wild, there were jam sessions every night and we played music all night long, sometimes until the sun came up. Wild energy.


Photo: Voision Xi

The general trend in music here has been towards more purposeful artistic intent. I do credit myself as being a push in this direction. When I got here, it was wild, we had a great time, but the bands were much less organized and had much less direction. Pretty soon after I got here, I started a weekly gig at JZ Club — my band, my music — every Thursday night, and I used this opportunity to put forward a strong artistic agenda of my own, which was my original music. I started with my own style of jazz and rock fusion, but from the beginning had influences from other styles, from classical and 12 tone serialism and then pretty soon got interested in incorporating traditional Chinese music as well; I’ve worked with a guzheng player and er hu and pipa. (And I wore a lot of crazy clothes too.)


So I’ve had the privilege of how this influence of mine has played out on the scene, and my commitment to doing my own thing and making it work. I was very fortunate to have the support of JZ Club to run wild on Thursday nights and always do my best to stay true to playing the craziest and weirdest music that I could get away with.

I’ve always been dedicated to Chinese language, so that’s been a valuable and entertaining thing for me, to try to talk about my music from the stage in Chinese, and talk about my songs. I introduce bilingually. It’s very important to connect with the audience. They need something to hang on.

Chinese audiences are pretty open and it is a blessing that they are not as familiar with the jazz tradition, as say, New York City, where people have heard it all before. It’s very hard to impress or surprise anybody in New York, and even if they are surprised, it’s the culture of New York to pretend that you are not surprised. In China, there is not this kind of sophistication and depth of the jazz tradition, which for my goals has worked very well, because I can do something that was surprising and funny and interesting and strange and weird and I wasn’t judged against some kind of prior expectations.


Photo: Trina Lion

You can definitely call me a jazz subversive. Coming from New York, wow, there’s such a huge breadth and depth of jazz tradition there. My time there gave me so much to aspire to and admire and absorb but at the same time, so much to try to throw away and try to do something new.

As a musician, though, I and JZ Club increasingly feel the economic pressure. Shanghai has gotten more expensive. At JZ for example, in its first phase, there was no cover charge. People maybe bought a drink, maybe they didn’t buy a drink. There was not much pressure to pay to spend time there. That also removed a burden from the performers. But when JZ was forced to change locations, they had to make a decision — do we go for something more upscale? That’s what they did, and it was the right choice, but that came with the economic pressure that we have to keep selling drinks and keep selling tickets.

Has it tamed me? Absolutely. But I still hold on to the spirit. And I get to benefit from 10 years of weekly experiments with my own original music, and now, with being the director of the JZ Big Band, I have a vehicle with which I can orchestrate these musical experiences and concepts into something spectacular and big. That’s been a huge challenge.


Photo: Voision Xi

I’m slowly playing my own original music, giving the audience something friendly and then slipping my own stuff in there as well. In October, I achieved one of my dreams, which was to do an entire night of my original music. I got a new suit made for the night, all-white, three piece suit modeled on Cab Calloway. We played my experimental fusion crazy music on the big scale: a 17-piece jazz orchestra, three singers, singing in three-part harmony on some pieces, and individual singers on all my music. I made a live recording and did a 4+-camera shoot, so I hope to release it as an audio album this year. The energy was insane – insane! It’s called the Alec Haavik Friction Big Band starring the JZ Big Band. That’s going to be released through JZ.


Photo: Voision Xi

The language was the first thing that got me interested in China. I always loved the tones. For me, it’s like music. When I read pinyin marked with tones, it feels like reading a musical score and I love getting to know the changes in pitch when you speak a sentence, and finding funny patterns, like, hey look, this sentence is all fourth tones.

Albums, albums, albums. That’s what I have planned for the rest of the year. The next one is for my swing band, The Shindiggers. We play once a month at JZ Club. It’s a swing dance party, live music for dancing, in the jazz style — we are planning a studio recording session.




[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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