My name is Xiao Xueqiang. I am the saxophonist and manager of the ‘Old Jazz Band’ at Shanghai’s Fairmont Peace Hotel
just off the Bund. We are known and recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest, aka most elderly, jazz band, with an average age of 82.
The most senior member of our band is the former trumpeter Zhou Wanrong who is 99 this year. He still comes around to perform with us once in a while, but now he shakes the maracas instead. I’m 65, the youngest member of the band, and have been part of it for more than 20 years. I’m also responsible for the management of the band on a day-to-day basis.
The Fairmont Peace Hotel opened in 1920. Our band was founded here in December 1979 and this year marks its 40th anniversary. But the history of the band actually dates back to the 1940s, when the famous jazz composer Li Jingguang wrote the classic song ‘Ye Lai Xiang’ (Evening Primrose) and asked Zhou Wanrong to help with the music production. That’s how our jazz band, the first in China, got started.
We play a six-hour gig at the hotel bar
every night, all year round, starting from 6:30pm, and it’s been a few decades since we first started. Over the years, we have attracted a lot of media attention, but 2010 marked a turning point for our band. That’s when German filmmaker Uli Gaulke made a documentary about us named ‘As Time Goes By’. It mostly recorded our journey to the Netherlands where we were invited to perform at the North Sea Jazz Festival. The documentary later premiered at the Shanghai International Film Festival
Our audience comes from all over the world, spanning two to three generations and has included royals like Princess Sirindhorn of Thailand, world leaders like Barack Obama and movie stars.
We perform a wide range of classics and jazz adaptations of well-known Chinese folk songs. What’s special about us is that we use Western jazz techniques to play the golden oldies, and that our live show is audience-oriented. That is, we don’t have a set music sheet prior to each performance; instead, what we play on the night depends primarily on the kind of audience we have.
If we get a lot of foreign guests, we intentionally play more popular Western pieces to give them a taste of our kind of jazz interpreting music that they are more familiar with. If the audience has a lot of people from a region of China like Inner Mongolia or Northwest China, we play things they’d know to get them going.
We want them to feel at home since they have come such a long way to see us. This is important for us too as a band – it wouldn’t work if we always play the same thing every night; we need to add variety to our daily performance, and make sure that we are stepping up our game and keeping up with the times.
Once, for example, there was a group of elderly tourists from Nagasaki who came to see us perform, so we decided to play a jazz version of a famous Japanese folk song that we knew. You could tell from their faces that they were deeply touched, probably because it brought back the memories of their old days and reminded them of their youth and home.
Another time I remember, we played traditional Shanghai melodies for an elderly man at the bar who was in a wheelchair, along with his family. He teared up during the performance and lingered for a long time. You could tell that it meant a lot to him hearing us play, and he went to great lengths to come here.
The truth is it meant as much for him as it did for us.
Jazz was new and exciting to our old members when it thrived in Shanghai during the 1930s and 1940s, and they were taken by it as soon as they were exposed to it. Most of them were learning jazz the old-fashioned way: by going from one dance hall or ballroom to another, transcribing what they heard, remembering what they learnt by heart and practicing. When they first got offers to play at clubs and bars, they used the money to make ends meet.
From 1965 to the late 1970s, the members had to give up playing; the environment wasn’t right for jazz. But after the beginnings of Reform and Opening, jazz was revived and the band resumed playing to a packed room at the Peace Hotel bar. They wanted to make noise in the buzzing jazz scene in Shanghai and show the world the kind of Western jazz they played with a Chinese twist.
Now we’re all retired without financial burdens. We are not doing it for the same reason the senior members initially did decades ago – to make a living. For us old musicians, jazz playing has become a way of life. We are proud to play for those who have made the journey to see us – it’s a real affirmation for us as musicians.
Besides, musicians or any music lovers would know this: once you pick up the instrument or listen to the piece of music you love, you get into that flow state and forget about everything else. It doesn’t really feel long or tiring even when you’re playing for hours late into the night, day after day.
We are eager to come on stage because this is where we belong and feel most valued for our passions and talents. And more importantly, we put our own feelings and individual styles into the jazz we play. I think for us to get that across through the language of music is a meaningful experience for both ourselves and the audience. It has always been a joy to play for them and we do our best to make it a joy to listen.
Some people worry that this kind of jazz, popular in Shanghai’s jazz heyday, might slip into oblivion, now that the first-generation jazz players and listeners are getting older. When they see us actively playing and getting more and more younger visitors involved, they feel reassured knowing that this music legacy isn’t lost.
When westerners come to see us perform, they usually come with certain expectations of or preconceptions about what jazz is and how it sounds. For them, jazz is all about freedom, passion, motion and spontaneity. When they listen to us, they find something novel in the kind of jazz we play with a local flavor, and they are intrigued by the musical fusion of traditional Chinese and Western styles.
We are often asked to define the kind of music we play because it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the existing categories. It is distinctly jazz, but it is also something else characteristic of Chinese culture in general and old Shanghai in particular. Eventually I came up with the idea of calling it ‘warm jazz’.
There is a story inside each jazz piece we play following the narrative progression from the beginning to the climax, from the climax to the end. Our way of telling the story is romantic, dynamic and filled with heartfelt feelings, all conveyed in the old tunes of past times.