Fellow tourists and guidebooks will tell you that the best Jazz you can hear in Shanghai is at the Peace Hotel Jazz Bar on the Bund. They're right about that on two conditions. That it's still 1925, and that jazz has nothing to do with the atmosphere, just the music.
The jazz in Shanghai was one of the main attractions to 'the Paris of the Orient', and the art-deco Peace Hotel jazz bar was where you went to hear the best of it. You can still find vestiges of Shanghai jazz as it was, and whilst the music is still great, the atmosphere isn't, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the majority of its jazz band was there to witness the jazz bar's heyday first-hand. Just like any other bar on the bund, expect to pay a premium for your drinks. You're buying that Bund view, remember, even if the jazz bar is on the ground floor and facing in the wrong direction. You are guaranteed to hear consistently good jazz there, but you'll leave with an impression somewhat akin to meeting a film star past their prime, and that the bar's obstructive pillars aren't structural, they are there for the performers to lean against after a particularly taxing solo.
Where You Can Hear the New Sound of Shanghai Jazz
The Peace Hotel Jazz bar has the history, but to find what Shanghai jazz really sounds like today you have to go to JZ jazz Club, nestled on Fuxing Lu in the leafy streets of the French Concession, JZ is exactly what you would expect a jazz bar to be - dimly lit and cave-like - and it's where Shanghai residents go to hear their jazz, so make sure you get there early, by nine, if you want to get a seat. That still gives you time to eat at one of the small, reasonably priced, Western restaurants or wine bars, like Salute, situated very close by. Drinks at JZ are perfectly satisfactory, but you are there for the jazz, and if its high quality cocktails your after then El Coctel is just around the corner on Yongfu Lu.
Once at JZ you will find a vibrant mélange of homegrown and international talent that showcases jazz of almost every conceivable style, from orchestral to avant garde. It's a truly odd sensation when you realize you are sitting in a Chinese bar in the French Concession, drinking Scotch whisky, listening to an American Saxophonist (the amphibious looking green man pictured), and a Mauritian drummer and bassist.
You can only get that in Shanghai.
The JZ Jazz Festival
Another part of Shanghai's new jazz scene, and a perfect place to spend see an evening of jazz is the annual JZ Jazz Festival, that runs from the 20th-21st of October, appropriately held on the banks of the river at the site of the 2010 World Expo, the event that catalyzed Shanghai's astonishing development out of its turbid past and into its glittering present. This is where you can hear musicians like the talented Chinese jazz vocalist Coco Zhao, or that same green American Alec Haavik, both pioneers of Shanghai's jazz revival, or more famed western acts, like Brendan Power, with 15 albums to his name and collaborations with Van Morrison and Paul Young.
The JZ jazz festival is not one of those beer fueled events, expect a relaxed, family friendly atmosphere, more Cava than Carlsberg. Ticket can be bought at the gate for 220 RMB.
Like Shanghai as a whole, jazz here has emerged from the wilderness more vivacious, progressive, and modern than perhaps anywhere in the world; in Shanghai jazz is moving into a second golden era. No longer the Paris of the Orient, Shanghai has become something else entirely. And it is something you really have to see, or hear, for yourself.
The Fairmont Peace Hotel Jazz Bar: GF, 20 East Nanjing Road.
JZ Jazz Club: 46 Fuxing Xi Lu.
Salute: 59 Fuxing Xi Lu, near Yongfu Lu.
El Coctel: 2/F, 47 Yongfu Lu, near Fuxing Xi Lu.
The JZ Jazz Festival: Runs from 18-21st October. Expo Park/1700 Shibo Avenue.
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