“Your excellency the australian ambassador and wife, ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends, on behalf of the peking city light industrial import-export corporation, i would like to welcome you all,” said deputy manager zhang xiwen.
It was an unlikely beginning to a don burrows jazz concert, but as the tickets indicated, it wasn’t supposed to be a concert but a “musical instrument performance.”
There are two sorts of entertainment in china, public and “nei bu” (internal). nei bu concerts and film shows are only for privileged officials and those with the right connections. they usually feature products of decadent, western culture which, if unleashed on the masses, could seriously endanger public morals.
The “don burrows quartet live in peking” show was definitely nei bu.
a select and privileged audience of perhaps 400 Chinese gathered in the cinema of the international club in peking’s embassy district last tuesday evening to hear that strange form of western music known as jazz. most of them probably now think of it as a peculiarly australian art form.
The burrows band, led by the father of australian jazz, was brought to peking by mr geoff brash, owner of the various brash’s musical shops scattered around australia.
mr brash has been importing musical instruments from china for several years, and has been helping the Chinese to improve the quality of their products. don and boys were expected to show what could be done with the results.
But back to the deputy manager, mr zhang. “i hope and believe that business relations between our two companies will be developed in the future,” he said.
mr brash then tried to match the platitudes. “we have great confidence in the future of the Chinese musical instrument industry,” he replied.
The important thing to remember about the concert was that if it had not been disguised as an industrial exhibition, it would probably never had been held at all.
The guardians of socialist morality in the culture ministry, if they had been consulted, would almost certainly have stopped it – jazz and other forms of popular western music have been coming under heavy attack recently from conservative fuddy- duddies who see almost any outside cultural influence as a threat.
a recent book entitled “How to distinguish decadent songs”, for instance, informed readers that jazz and other forms of western popular music had “no artistic value to speak of. they simply meet the needs of people’s negative spiritual life in capitalist society.”
“the rhythm of jazz,” it added, “is against the normal psychological needs of man. it leads people into an abnormal, demented state of mind.”
so with the possibility of causing a sudden upsurge in peking’s mental health problem no doubt weighing heavily on their minds, mr burrows and his three comrades bravely took the stage.
a young Chinese lady came out with them to explain to the audience what jazz was about — only a small minority of those present had ever heard jazz. the man sitting next to me said he had no idea at all what to expect.
“this music is based on excitement and is marked by freedom of expression and lack of structure,” said the lady. “unlike normal musical performances which are always the same, what we will hear today is 99 per cent improvised.”
The boys, — don burrows on flute, clarinet and sax, james morrison on piano, trumpet and trombone, david pudney on bass and piano and len barnard on drums — then leapt into their repertoire, beginning with a jazzy version of click go the shears boys, followed by satin doll and honeysuckle rose.
Then came the great experiment of the evening — three traditional Chinese songs reworked as jazz numbers. to this listener, the combination of western style and Chinese melody worked better for don burrows than it did for french synthesiser star jean-michel jarre who played here last year.
especially pleasant to western ears was the burrows version of a well-known Chinese tune “orchids and butterflies”, but an unrepresentative sampling of the audience afterwards indicated the Chinese were not too impressed.
“i didn’t think it was very successful,” said one young musician who works with the peking song and dance troupe. “one of the Chinese songs was all right, but the other two lost all of the original flavour in their arrangements.”
The audience was amused when the drummer exchanged his kit for an old-fashioned australian washboard, but they generally seemed bemused by the music and lost in the tunes which in the west would have been greeted with instant recognition..
“i’ve never heard music like it before,” replied one man when asked for his opinion. “it’s very different from our music.”