I am writing from my little studio apartment on the 20th floor of a 23-story building here in north Shanghai. This apartment is a welcome refuge from the lively and often chaotic streets below. I am into my eighth and final week here in China. Feeling so grateful that I have had this opportunity to both play music on the road but also to be in one place and experience a more settled-in life here. I have met a lot of interesting people and am enjoying the pace, and am even getting used to some of the more bewildering aspects of it here. I am learning so much!
The apartment looks north over a sea of tall apartment buildings some old, some new, stretching for miles further than the eye can see. Intermittently are pockets of spectacular architecture at hubs of commerce. Intense density. Actually, you can’t see that far because of the almost daily grey haze. Having said that, the weather here is wonderful, the temperature is balmy and comfortable and the tree-lined streets are breezy.
The number of people here often produces in me the same feeling as looking out into the Milky Way – awe – it is unfathomable – crowds everywhere and – young! So much beauty in these faces – the numbers of people like the countless stars giving you an important perspective on one’s own insignificance. I am not saying any of us are insignificant – just the perspective can be so helpful.
I am in a section where I am definitely the only white person – and very few speak english. Not in stores or markets or restaurants. This language barrier can be stressful at first. I found it helpful to deliberately relax while in a taxi cab to counter the feelings arising around the uncertainty of not knowing if I would end up anywhere familiar. The taxi app works great – but the first week I wasn’t sure about the names of the places I was going – or even how to write my own address into the app. Or I would wonder whether once you push “yes” and order a cab, if the information was really correct that you entered. In week # 2 here I found a version of the app that lets me enter destinations in english and translates them for the arriving cab. And did I mention the cost of the 30-minute ride downtown when I have to go somewhere new, and don’t want to take the subway for fear of not finding the place on foot – $7.
Sometimes just going to a restaurant and not knowing what to order or how to order because of the language barrier has its own teeny bit of stress. So you have to remind yourself to relax. What is the worse that could happen? Though there is a restaurant on my street where there are snakes in cages and people pick out the snake they want to eat.
Today I had lunch with the founder of the JZ Club and School. It is the club where I played last week. He ordered for us, and I was given a straw to suck the marrow out of bones with….Probably wouldn’t have ordered that myself. Luckily there is a cafeteria-style place nearby where I can point to steam tray of broccoli and garlic and they will serve me a bowl with rice. (for $1.40) There is convenience store with yogurt and fruit stores everywhere with watermelon and bananas. So I won’t starve – but am most likely losing weight.
The two-hour History of Jazz class I teach five days a week (for four weeks) is part of a summer-school program for Chinese college students who are not music majors. They are all native Chinese, but study in American colleges so their english skills are fairly up there. I have 9 adorable students and a T.A. in the class. We sit around a table, and ostensibly, I am teaching a History of Jazz Class. But of course it is so much more. It is about understanding each other, and finding ways to encourage them to speak up. It is about freedom, and US race relations, and it is about the music I love and about finding ways to share and explain, demonstrate. I have them drumming, and marching and clapping, and talking and listening over and over to some songs and so their understanding and appreciation deepens. But we are also talking about the purpose of art and what makes something music. They are all contributing! I think they know how lucky they are to have a college class with almost no homework! And in exchange, they sit without their electronic devices so we can all learn together together!
It is so much fun. This all takes me most of the day to prepare. So even without a piano for the entire month (for the first time in my life) I am still very involved with music.
In Shanghai there is a guitarist whom I know who went to NEC – I audited a class that he was in five years ago and we became friends. I contacted him. He is now teaching jazz at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. (College) Xiongguan Zhang is a great guy, natural leader, mature and wise for his 25 years.
He set up a few gigs for us here in town And he asked me if I would volunteer to teach a masterclass at his school – where I coached three small jazz ensembles in front of the student body. I really enjoy doing that kind of thing. I feel that I am able to offer a perspective on what music is for, or what it can accomplish – or what matters in it – besides offering specific technique on how to get your thinking brain out of the way while you play – and let the music speak through us. Jazz education can be so mired down in the notes and chords and harmonies that its pedagogy often obscures the bigger view. Yes, attention to detail is required, but often the essential simplicity of the act of listening and inwardly singing/imagining a musical response is obscured.
Because so much is unfamiliar and I am so far away from the people and objects and musical activities that I usually occupy my time with – and since I am alone so much of the time — I have lived a more internal life here – there is freedom in this and a letting go and these things have been joy producing.
It is very safe here – at all times of day and night for women and men. And everybody appreciates that. No theft, no begging, no homelessness. Renée read that in 1984. 75% of the population was under the poverty line, now that number is 1%.
Connecting with the people I play with and teach here has given me a window into how different life is here. Things are competitive – how could they not be with this many people? People mention their feelings of uncertainty – even as they work hard towards achieving their goals. Things are uncertain as trade wars are ramped-up by Trump and as a capricious all-powerful Chinese government responds.
People here feel very content with WeChat – a social media platform that does everything. You can call a friend, get a cab, pay for everything in this near-cashless economy, send any kind of file, video, music, amazing animated collections of emojis – and build a data base of loyal jazz fans. Of course the restrictions on speech are understood but not talked about – haha.
Everyone is friendly and welcoming and generous – there is just so much to like about the people that I have met and played music with who live in this crowded city. Of the many many people with menial jobs that I encounter, everyone says hello and smiles and does their job well. I am not experiencing any slackers here. Anywhere.
Well… Of course there must be slackers. Maybe those are the guys delivering food from restaurants to apartments. But no – I have seen them running into apartment lobbies with bags of food – and they aren’t getting tips. They hang out in crowds of twenty or so on every major corner, lounging on their electric vespa scooters and insulated food carriers staring at their cell phones. The app dings them from the restaurant to go pick up – then they make it to the apartment building, drop the food at the front desk – and call the customer on their way out. Every single time I come and go from my building there are food containers in bags at the front desk waiting to be picked up. Day and night.
Downtown in some of the old french sections of Shanghai, the streets are two lanes in each direction and there are Sycamores that line these charming roads. But where I live and most other places – the main streets have 4 lanes of traffic in each direction often a bus lane – plus a motor scooter lane – plus sidewalks. To move traffic through the city, the stop lights are on very long cycles – so when they finally change at least fifty noiseless electronic vespas / scooters pull out and begin crossing over from the far right dedicated lane to take a left turn – or they go straight or go right – and as a pedestrian, Renée says, you are forced into “an exercise in raw faith” – that you will make it across without getting run over. It seems so chaotic. And yes there are elevated highways snaking through the entire city as well for those who cannot wait for the lights.
The names of the four streets that form the very large city block around the three buildings in the complex I live in are Huangxing Road – Guoquan Road – Guanshan Road – and Guoshun Road. “Q”s don’t sound like english “Q”s. Nor do “X”s sound like “X”s. Needless to say I have said many things improperly. I have an embarrassing story about getting lost on my first day here – having to do with spelling. But I think I will spare myself the re-living that embarrassment now.
My apartment is a 40 minute walk from school. I have noticed the numbers on the buses that drive by, and figured out which route to take. The price is 2 Chinese Yuan – 28 US cents for a trip to school. I take the subway downtown to meet people friends and it costs 42 cents for a 30 minute ride. And I have never had to wait more than 2 or three minutes for a train ever – even connecting lines. Shanghai is an enormous dense city of 28 million people.
Here is an observation I have made, and shared with Shanghai friends who then agree. Women, are for the most part, dressed quite modestly. Unlike the US there is no cleavage showing or shoulders or midriffs – hardly any makeup too. Just tee-shirts and jeans and sneakers – all nice and clean. There is not the overt sexualized dress of America. This seems really wholesome to me.
But then there is the unexplainable phenomena of everyone wearing shirts with an english word on it. Today I saw a tee-shirt that said “Sunset” and then one with a picture of the character Waldo and it said “Where’s memory?” There is one in the supermarket that says “Defeat”. My favorite typo error shirt so far said “World of Warcaft – Never Serrude.” Easily 50% of clothes have brands or english words on them.
My first three-and-half weeks here in China were spent on the road. I was hired by a music touring agency that books almost exclusively western classical musicians. It was a 14-city tour with a jazz trio. I brought my friend Nathan Reising – the phenomenal alto saxophonist whom I came to China with two years ago when the same agency hired us as a duo to do a similar tour. This time they let us bring a bassist. We came with my neighbor in Brighton, the excellent bassist James Heazlewood-Dale, who was a cohesive presence in the music. Still, without the sonic cushion and support of the drums, the music required a delicacy of listening that allowed us to be close to chamber music. We played in some spectacular large 1000 seat halls and also two smaller recital halls attached to bigger concert venues. These 400-seat intimate venues where people sit on three side were acoustically perfect. We sold out those shows! This is a kind of performing situation that I have almost been afraid of even dreaming about. To play in those conditions and to be received the way we were was immensely gratifying.
School ends Thursday. I will give my students a listening exam where they will identify and write something about some music samples I play them. Then I am going out to dinner with my students at restaurant I discovered last night on my way home. It has a funny name for an Italian restaurant, “Chartres!”
Then on Saturday I fly home.
I am so grateful to have friends like you who would want to read something like this. It has been fun writing this too and it is a way for me to remember all of this. I do hope you all have traveling experiences that broaden your horizons and connect you even more deeply with your feeling of wonder and gratitude for our blessed lives. We are clearly in this together.