Remaking All That Jazz From Shanghai's Lost Era : Code Switch Many Shanghai jazz standards of the 1930s and '40s were banned in China after the Chinese Communist Party took over. But they reemerged decades later through cover versions. Now, the songs are back again in a new cover album by a Chinese-American electronic artist and a jazz singer from Shanghai.

Remaking All That Jazz From Shanghai's Lost Era

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The American art form known as jazz was embraced around the world right after its birth almost a century ago. In China, specifically Shanghai, jazz musicians began writing their own music in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. It was suppressed later under Communism, but many of those early jazz standards were reborn decades later in Chinese pop arrangement.

Now, they're back again in this country in yet a new form, as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.


HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: You may not hear it when you're listening to Shanghai jazz standards from the 1930s and '40s, but producer Dave Liang says dig deeper into their history and you'll find a generational skip in the record.

DAVE LIANG: In the U.S., usually when you hear a jazz song you say, well, there's probably an original version back then. But in China, it's interesting with these pieces because some folks will say, that's an old '30s classic or '40s classic.


LIANG: And other folks would be like, no, that's a pop song from the '80s.

WANG: Liang, a Chinese American who started the electronic music group, The Shanghai Restoration Project, says it depends on when and where you first heard a song.

JAMES TIO: My high school education was in Malaysia.

WANG: You were in Malaysia when you heard this song.

TIO: It's very popular there, very popular.

WANG: James Tio who is Chinese and now lives in Edmonton, Canada, grew up listening to the original, (unintelligible) sometimes translated as "The Evening Primrose" on vinyl in the 1950s.


WANG: We met recently at a Shanghai-ese restaurant in New York city where Tio may have forgotten the exact lyrics, but could still remember the tune with a little help.

TIO: (Singing foreign language)

WANG: In 1950s mainland China, many of Jame's Tio's contemporaries would not have heard this song in their youth. The probably first encountered it nearly three decades later in this 1978 cover version by pop singer (unintelligible) or Teresa (unintelligible)


ZHANG LE: That's the way, how we heard the new song at the beginning. Later, we heard the first version. So, for me, like, (unintelligible) always seems to be the original singer for this tune.

WANG: Zhang Le, a jazz singer from Shanghai, grew up with (unintelligible) as a poppy love serenade in the 1980s. The original, that once filled the dance halls of Shanghai's jazz age, had virtually disappeared from mainland China's music scene during the early decades of communist rule.

LIANG: At that time, these songs were considered...

LE: Yellow music.

LIANG: Yellow music, yeah. It's sort of a term for pornographic music.

WANG: Music that's part of an often forgotten history that Dave Liang and Zhang Le hope to revive in their new cover album of Shanghai jazz standards.


WANG: It features yet another take on that serenade to an evening primrose with lyrics that may be not just about a flower, but about the people and the places where this music once blossomed.


LIANG: There's a lyric (foreign language spoken) and it's sort of about I'm concerned for your future, I guess, which is weird if you're talking about a flower. But you're talking about a singer in a nightclub, especially at that time when a lot of people likened nightclubs almost like two steps away from brothels.

You can understand where that sentiment comes in.

WANG: Jazz was an American import that once thrived in Shanghai beginning in the 1920s, a legacy of the international city's colonial history.

LIANG: I think there is this somewhat dark side to it, but there was a beautiful fusion that came about as the result of combining Chinese lyricism and Chinese singers with this American Jazz.


WANG: There was one thing the music lacked.

LIANG: In the old versions, I always felt the singers didn't swing as much. And I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday and so I think we wanted to really feature some scatting because that was just sort of unheard of, scatting in a Chinese song.


WANG: One of the album's last tracks hearkens back to the song's history in 1940 Shanghai dance halls.


WANG: Before a heavy beat transports the dance hall sound into a modern day club. It may sound like a party, but Zhang Le says listen closely to the lyrics and you'll hear a singer warning that flowers don't blossom forever.


LE: You analyze the lyrics and then you realize, Oh, a tune like telling just don't think about the future. Just don't talk about that. Let's just enjoy now.

WANG: Signs of unstable times, that Zhang says still resonate in today's China.

LE: There's nothing guaranteed, you know. Mentally, you're very pressured in a way.

WANG: And that feeling is bound to cross cultures, says Dave Liang, of the Shanghai Restoration Project.

LIANG: Somebody doesn't need to be able to understand Chinese to be able to understand what the singer is conveying in these tunes. That, to me, is why I believe these songs ultimately are for everyone.

WANG: And perhaps why these songs, generations later, are still played again and again. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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