“The Blues” is such a foreign and outlandish concept to most Beijingers that it barely registers as a tick on the grander scheme of Beijing’s daily hustle and bustle. And yet, there is an expansive amount of Jazz music happening on a daily basis, within veiled but not-so-hidden avenues of the city. As a musician first and foremost, my reasons for coming to Beijing revolved around this particularly eclectic group of individuals – the four current members of Cui Jian’s rhythm section are all trained Jazz musicians—and institutions, tucked away as far as Tongzhou and as near as Houhai.
Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to join guitarist Liu Yue and his Jazz Trio at Houhai’s East Shore Jazz Bar (东岸爵士咖啡馆, Dōngàn Juéshì Kāfēi Guǎn). We were joined by Tokyo-drummer-turned-Beijing-native Izumi Koga and bassist Zhang Ke. Playing at East Shore is always an interesting and unique experience—it’s a throwback to the days when Jazz music reflected the trials, tribulations and trepidations of quotidian life. Instead of velvet curtains and armchairs, lavishly-stocked bars and air conditioned booths, the lack of frills and fancy at East Shore convey a sort of brutal honesty about music and life.
First of all, East Shore Jazz Café is completely out of the ordinary, for Beijing. Not twenty years ago, the surrounding area of the Houhai lake district still bustled with the mundane Beijing life. Today, it is a veritable tourist-trap: the smorgasbord of multi-colored neon signs flashes all the way to the back of your eyeballs, and bar-hawks physically assail the nearest passerby with the largest-looking wallet. Behind the ruckus lie the few remaining traditional quadrangle courtyard houses, the siheyuan (四合院). The smells of liquor, vomit and dirty lake water constantly waft in and out of your nostrils.
East Shore isn’t a classy joint by any means: the wooden floors creak, the bathroom is a squat-pot with a jury-rigged crank handle for flushing, and decoration is sparse. In contrast to the gimmicky display of opulence going on right outside, a single Zyldjan ride cymbal hangs over the cramped stage as a reminder of what’s going on in this space. East shore is dingy and dark, starkly-decorated and at night well-furnished with bodies, some of which crane to get a glimpse of the music while others guffaw loudly over their pricey gin and tonics. Outside, green lasers streak the sky, sometimes raking against the darkened windows; dangerous tokens hawked by vendors on the lakeside. Grainy 90s photos of Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock and a group of young Chinese men with long hair and goofy glasses dot the walls near the bar. Most likely, a few of them will be on stage that evening.
There’s something timeless and placeless about East Shore: whether it’s the boundless music, diverse audience, mildly expensive beer or ever-thickening haze of cigarette smoke, the essence of East Shore can be found anywhere in the world. To musicians, some nights, East Shore feels like the greatest Jazz club in the world: full of the inspirational energy that brings out the cutting edge in a Jazz musician; other nights, it feels downright desolate. And there are also those nights when you just want to play the most despairing blues you’ve ever heard until the lights go out. But no matter what you’re feeling, it’s a place where every musician, Chinese or otherwise, carries no pretension of doing anything but making an honest night’s pay with even more honest music. To an audience that is there to enjoy it.