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Survivors of Shanghai's Jazz Age Play Anew

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Survivors of Shanghai's Jazz Age Play Anew

Survivors of Shanghai's Jazz Age Play Anew

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Long before it was the seed of Chinese capitalism, Shanghai was known as the whore of the orient: a hymnistic world of mobsters, taxi dancers and jazz. The Communist Party changed all that and punished jazz music as a crime.

NPR's Louisa Lim recently went in search of the survivors of Shanghai's jazz age.

(Soundbite of music)

LOUISA LIM: This is the grand old lady of Shanghai's past. The Paramount Dance Hall was built in 1930 - the most expensive and elaborate ballroom of its age with especially designed wooden dance floor with cantilevered springs.

Nowadays, the old songs still play, a singer with the golden dress sings as the elderly dancers twirl stiffly — but it's a tired reminder of what once was.

84-year-old Zheng Deren used to play the double bass at the Paramount in the 1940s, and he still remembers the thrill of entering the circular, art-deco lobby.

Mr. ZHENG DEREN (Double Bass Player; Conductor): (Through translator) The Paramount was the best dance hall in Shanghai, very high class. There were dancing girls, and all the businessmen and big bosses went there. Boss and customers liked us, and our wages were very high. We played three hours a night. We were very happy.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Nowadays, he leads a small group of jazz musicians who are recreating the sound of the old days for a series of concerts in Shanghai. Eight of them practice in a tiny room, no space even for Zheng's double bass, so he conducts. The unfortunate pianist is in an adjoining room, with the door open.

But these privations aren't important for 79-year-old percussionist Bao Zhengzheng. These sessions rekindle his pride at being a member of Jimmy King's — the first all-Chinese jazz band to play the Paramount.

Mr. BAO ZHENGZHENG (Percussionist): (Through translator) When we play this music, we're nostalgic about the past. We remember how, as young men, we used to go to dance halls and bars to listen to foreigners playing music. Then we learned how to do it ourselves.

LIM: As the rehearsal begins, the 84-year-old bassist Zheng is in charge, marshalling the players, handing out pencils so changes can be made to the manuscripts, singing the parts. He had originally become a jazz musician through necessity.

Mr. ZHENG: (Through translator) I was 18 years old and I just left middle school. The Japanese had occupied Shanghai. My father was overseas and couldn't get back. I had a younger brother and sister, and needed to support them. I'd play the trumpet in a band at school, so I started a band and went to play in nightclubs.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Today, these elderly veterans of the jazz scene play with the same verve as they did in the '40s. But the roaring nightlife of Shanghai came to an end after the Communist Revolution in 1949. At first, things continued as normal. But a political campaign in 1952 stopped foreign music from being played. Bao Zhengzheng was one of its victims.

Mr. BAO: (Through translator) They broke into my house and took my saxophone, and said it was forbidden, a pornographic instrument. They took my piano, too. Afterwards, they rehabilitated me, and gave them back.

LIM: But rehabilitation took decades. Bandleader Zheng Deren was part of a troupe playing revolutionary operas. He said he stopped playing Western music for almost 30 years.

70-year-old trumpeter Chen Yulin was interrogated and watched as his beloved jazz was demonized as forbidden music.

Mr. CHEN YULIN (Trumpeter): (Through translator) Then jazz was a reactionary music. When we watched Chinese films, whenever the enemy appeared, there'd be jazz music in the background.

LIM: Finally in 1980, as Shanghai began to open up once more, the management of the Peace Hotel decided to start a jazz band, the first in China. They asked Zheng Deren to organize it.

Mr. ZHENG: (Through translator) We didn't have any music. It had all been burned. So we had to rely on our memory. Just a couple of piano manuscripts were left, so I used those, and wrote out all the other parts for saxophone, trumpet, piano and bass.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: To this day, the band uses these handwritten parts of the music. Here they rehearsed their favorite "Begin the Beguine." Only three of the band members date back to that era. As Chen Yulin says, the last relics of a bygone age.

Mr. CHEN: (Through translator) There are only a couple of us left. After us, there won't be any more Shanghai jazz. Because for so many years, there was no jazz, and the young people who came afterwards don't do classical jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: But back at the Paramount, the band still plays on. The faces may be younger, but one has a familiar echo. It's the son of percussionist Bao Zhengzheng, whose sax was confiscated for being pornographic. He's a second-generation jazz musician, who now continues the family's jazz legacy at the Paramount Dance Hall.

Louisa Lim, NPR News at the Paramount Dance Hall, Shanghai.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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