Chen Yinxi: the free life of a jazz singer – 陈胤希:唱着爵士的自由生活 – English

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Jasmine Chen was born in an artistic family from Liaoyang in Liaoning province. From a young age, she was trained as a pianist, but she stopped playing the piano at 11. At age 19, she went to England where she battled alone for five years, to pursue studies of music and piano. During this time, she discovered jazz and fell in love with it. After graduating, she decided to return back to China, and turn her passion for jazz singing into the focus of her life and work.

Text/LI Zixin, Editing/TANG Xuedan

Jasmine’s been back from England for the past decade, living the free life of a jazz musician in Shanghai. She most commonly performs at the Shanghai Jazz Club, JZ Club, on West Fuxing Road, which is also the place where she began her performing career as a singer. She has chosen to live nearby, saying she has “a deep affection for these little streets and the old houses with Chinese parasol trees. For so many years I’ve watched the shops on the side of the road open and close, the people coming and going, meeting and parting – I’ve been here all along.”

She was born in an artistic family from Liaoyang in Liaoning province, and from a young age, she had a strict education in as a pianist. She originally wanted to apply for the conservatory, but at 11, she stopped playing the piano, and led a normal life, like other children. At 19, she went to England on her own to battle for five years, and after completing a language course in the early months, she decided to continue her studies in music and piano, and take a Bachelor degree in classical music at the Leeds College of Music. During that time, she occasionally attended and performed jazz, and increasingly enjoyed it. So after graduating, she decided to settle in Shanghai, and turn this hobby into her life goal and profession.

In 2008, her first record ‘the colour of love’ came out. In it, she mixes Chinese influence with the jazz tradition in her own unique way. Following this, she got more and more opportunities to perform live, her influence increased, even as her musical productions got increasing attention.

Right now, she’s focusing on preparing a second record, blending bossa nova, jazz and elements from the Chinese tradition. On the other hand, she’s also experimenting with many ways to promote jazz. She runs a fortnightly ‘Sunday Afternoon Jazz’ session at the Wooden Box Cafe on Qinghai road, where she interacts with the audience to share the stories between jazz pieces. She’s also been invited to universities and cultural institutions to help popularise jazz among the audience and share the spirit of innovation characteristic of jazz.

From piano to jazz

Q: You were born in a family which is full of art, so what kind of environment did you grow up in?

A: Both my parents are artist, dancer and actors. When I was pretty young, they wanted me to be a musician. My family lived in an art troupe where my parents worked, other kids there, which were the children of my parents’ colleages. They all learns some musical instruments or dancing etc, after a long time of thinking, my parents decided to let me learn piano. I was just 4 at that time.

From that time, I was taken from Liaoyang to Shenyang, spends hours and hours on the trains for the piano course, once a week. Traveling back and forth everyday no matter what happens. I have never gave up for 7 years. During these 7 years, I was not quite happy, because all of my spare time was wasted on this. Although I had great talent, the strictness of my parents sometimes let me have some kind of negative mentality. I hate practicing pianos, the same as my parents. All their extra time was used to accompany me to practice as well as take me to the piano course. They have to pay for it too! You could how much pressure they had. Now I can fully understand their thoughts at that time.

After seven years, we decided to terminate all of these things. After quitting the piano course, we became much happier then.

Q: How long was the train-ride?

A: It was two hours one-way, a four-hour round trip, including several bus transfers all within the same day. My family was not particularly rich back in 1980s, so they struggled a lot to save up for my piano. They were under great pressure.

Q: Did you talk to your parents when you decided to quit the piano when you were eleven?

A: Yeah. I remember one day, my mum called me to sit beside her, asking me whether I wanted to study the piano anymore. I thought for a moment, and I said no. My mum didn’t say anything. And my life of learning the piano ended as such. After that, I went to an ordinary high school. I went abroad when I was a sophomore.

Q: Did you go abroad for music?

A : We didn’t consider much. The reason why my parents sent me abroad was letting me recieve a better education. I chose to learn music again after landing in England. For I had a good piano basis, I managed to enter a college for music rather easily.

Q: You mind must have changed a lot since you went to England alone, right?

A: I went to England along, after the security check in the airport, I feel there’s no turning back. I didn’t have a lot of pressure, since I was too naïve.  My parents made me go to a language school in Exeter, and I home-stayed in a native British family.

I felt a huge culture shock. I was not used to have cereals for breakfast, because we Chinese love hot food. I had a stomachache during the first few weeks. It’s actually okay if I get used to it.

Also the nightlife culture kind of surprised me, not only wine but also awesome food. I was always thinking bars were for the bad guys, but I found out it’s not true. Students and teachers joined together in the bar after school. Teachers there were very sociable and I can easily make friends with them. I’ve never seen such things in China.

Q: What did you learn in Leeds?

A: Classical music, my major was classical piano performing and my optional class is vocal. I was pretty fascinated by singing, so that the opportunity to learn the vocal brings me a lot of fun. It happened that my vocal teacher is a jazz specialist. Maybe I was destined to learn Jazz, though I didn’t have any concept of Jazz music.

Q: did you have a small job when you were in England?

A: Yea, I did. When I was in the preparatory course in Liverpool, in order to earn some pocket money, i was worked in a restaurant bar doing waitress only for giving the food in hours, and I took the base salary at that time in England about 3.75 pound for an hour. The work for me to do was to took the food from the kitchen in the first to the second floor which is the restaurant, then gave it to the waiter. At that time, i worked three days in a week, 5 hours a day, at the end of the day,my clothe was full of my sweat, very tired.

I remembered that the way from the first floor to the second floor, there is a corner. Some old workers told me i need to say:’i am around!.’ Cause the workers who were doing this job they all do quickly passing the food, so they wont see you if you didn’t say that. Two months later, i was walking on the street at a corner, i almost said ‘i am around!’, i was so terrified of my behaviors. It let me think of the <modern time>, Charlie Chaplin saw a gear shape of buttons, he really wanted to twist. That was conditioned reflex.

After nearly three months later, i quit my job because i find a job in At.John’s Centre to play the piano. It is at the top of the floor- a coffee shop, in the middle there is a black piano. I worked for three afternoons in a week, every time i played 3 hours, my salary in 7.5 pound per hour. It was doubled than the salary i took before. I was satisfy about that. I played for 6 months until i went to Leeds.

Ten years in Shanghai

Q: Why did you decide to return to Shanghai?

A: I just received a bachelor’s degree in Leeds college of music of classical music in 2004. And back to Shanghai during the summer holiday, then prepared back to England to do the things. That was the first time in Shanghai, i was totally attracted by the beautiful views. At that moment, there were so many people from all of the world came into Shanghai, they started a business and lived here, meanwhile it also add a lots vitality.Compared with Britain’s  life, there are various surprises. For me who was just finished her school it was a shock.

In that summer holiday, i know a friend from JZ club’s originator called Yuqing Ren. I recommend myself to sing there. The store was at an unremarkable place in Fenyang Road. There wasn’t many consumers, but there were lots of impassion jazz musicians who came from all of the world. In the three months, i fell in love with Shanghai, and my stage where i song. So i made an important decision is that to give up the plan that i made before, learning jazz singing in Shanghai.

So after one year, 2005, I came back.

Q: So you also persuaded your family??

A: Yea, I told to my parents that i wanted to back to China to learn jazz. At the first time, they didn’t understood and disagree. But when i was in Shanghai, my mum came to see my performance and my life in Shanghai, she finally said yes for my decision. That was really impotent to me.

Q: Can your mum think that you can feed yourself by singing for living? Almost all parents would think that.

A: Emm..She didn’t say that too much. But i was very confident and i think i can feed myself.

Q:In fact, what do you really do to feed yourself??

A: In the first two months, my family give me the support from economics, include the rent and living costs. After two months, i totally independent in the income which is from the performance that i did. Actually i didn’t earn too much, but i think in these 20 years, all of the costs were using my parents money. Since i am going to society, i should do it by myself, even if saving the money and then earn less. In the recent years that i just came to Shanghai, all the places i almost song. In addition to survive, it is a kind of accumulation, the accumulation of life experiences, the accumulation of contacts, I feel I have so many chances in my life.

Q: All Jazz?

A: Em. Firstly I perform the Jazz classics, because I learned that in Leeds. But I start thinking, I won’t have any break through if I keep on doing this. There are already plenty of jazz singers in the western world. They don’t need such a Chinese singer to sing their songs in their languages.

Steve Sweeting, the pianist whom I played music with showed great interest in Chinese music. So that we attempted to mix two different styles. We held some personal concerts in Shanghai. I heard a lot of Chinese folks because my parents were folk dancers. So I and Steve put a lot of folk elements into jazz music. Except for the folk elements, we found a lot of Chinese music to recreate. We held like 20 concerts in the city and have wonderful feed back.

Q: Do you think Chinese audience could understand your music?

A: They consider it mysterious, but interesting as well. Chinese people barely know western music at that time. I tried my best to express my music, so that those who don’t know jazz could also feel it. Including language, communications and performing. Absolutely, music itself has this magical power, no matter what kind of music it is. That magical power is what I’m searching for.

Q: You mentioned that sometimes the audience was a little bit too noisy when you play in a bar. Would you mind it?

A: Yes. It makes me extremely uncomfortable. Actually there were great differences between ordinary bars and concert bars. In concert bars, people were coming for the music, and the performers perform simply for the music. So the music is always the key thing. When I was in Britain, the jazz club and concert hall are pretty the same. Audience shows great respect to the music, the only difference is audience could murmur in jazz club if necessary. They tried their best to not to interrupt others. But sometimes when they were too distractive then I will tell them to shut up.

It is a habit, but it also about respect, respecting others. Every time I give a lecture, I would tell this to the audience. Hopefully they will accept this idea.

Q: Tell me, all these nights you’re walking through the streets of Shanghai after singing in the bar, what do you think about?

A: Haha, all the images disappear, I just think about life, existence. After the gorgeous spotlights turn off, all the rest is calm and ordinary, and I feel very happy. I’m also very fond of Fuxing Lu, Wuyuan Lu, all these little roads, with old houses and plan trees. Over the years, I’ve watched the shops open and close, the people come and go, and I’ve been there all along.

Growing slowly is best

Q: Did the 2008 GFC have a strong influence on your musical career?

A: It didn’t influence my musical career at all, I still sing as usual, but it did have impact on my income. Because of the crisis, many entertainment venues reduced their expenses, and activity reduced.

Q: Isn’t it during these few years following the GFC that your first record came out, and you’ve started to go your own artistic road?

A: This album which came out in 2008 is one of my attempts, and then I got opportunities to perform on larger stages, including the Shanghai Oriental Art centre and the Shanghai Concert Hall, and I started to work with more important people and groups, such as Grammy Award winner Jeff Peterson, the great Brazilian guitarist Filo Machado, the Shanghai philharmonic orchestra, the Shanghai national orchestra, the Shanghai chamber music group, this is just a result of the work over the previous years.

From 2010 to 2012, I’ve gone overseas to perform quite often, including twice in Australia, Holland, Denmark, Brazil, Malaysia, Taiwan and other places. From about 2010, more and more people have started to pay attention to my music, and the click rate on my music online was growing and growing, only then did my album ‘The Colour of Love’ start getting some interest. Now, more and more people are listening to this album, but it only reflects a short period in my artistic creation, from 2007 to 2008. So many years have passed, and I’m ready to record a new album, to reflect my current situation.

Q: How do you mange to get noticed by music producers and event organisers overseas?

A: Circumstances differ. For instance, my tour to Australia happened through recommendations of producer John Huie, we’re good personal friends, and I recorded four songs for his album ‘Shanghai Jazz 2′, which he released in Singapore in 2008. My tour to Brazil happened through recommendation of my friend Marcos, the former Brazilian consul in Shanghai. At the time, he was very supportive of me inserting Chinese lyrics to Brazilian songs, he introduced me to the great Brazilian guitarist Filo Machado, and we did three concerts together in Shanghai and Brazil.

Q: You’ve followed the path of more popular jazz, like Wang Ruolin, Do you think it’s acceptable for companies to be involved in the way you present your music?

A: Wang Ruolin is a success story, she got everyone’s attention on jazz. As for me, I’m not sure this route would suit me, because I have my own views of things, and I sometimes find it hard to mainstream, unless there’s an alignment of view between myself and a record company.

Q: You’re now working on your second album – what are the main characteristics? Can you tell us a bit more about it?

A: It’s a Bossa Nova Style, and the theme is nightlife. The album is full of pieces I’ve written over the past few years.

Q: Is this an independent production?

A: It is.

Q: What are your plans for release and promotion?

A: I’m organising a national tour, as well as online promotion and download opportunities. In fact, I have stations on xiami, Douban and other online music platforms, and I hope many people will come listen and download the album.

Q: Would you join a TV music program?

A: No, that kind of program would not suit me.

Q: You’re a bit aloof, aren’t you?

A: All jazz musicians are, haha – I’m joking. I think it’s more solid to grow your own territory step by step.

Q: Are you willing to accept growing slowly?

A: Yes, this has been my experience in the past few years. It takes time for things to grow, and what suddenly baloons one night, might burst on the next.

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Source : China 30s

About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org