Left to right: Kavian, Josh, Xiao Wei, Larry, and temporary guitarist Will. Photo by Julien Rideller.
Boss Ma Jazz Band (马老板爵士乐队) is one of two jazz bands currently active in Chengdu. Having formed just over a year ago with a mix of foreigners and Chinese, all from outside of Chengdu, they have built up a steady following and full schedule of near-nightly gigs. GoChengdoo caught up with them recently.
Can each of you introduce yourselves briefly for our readers?
Xiao Wei I'm the drummer, Sun Shiwei (孙世伟), also known as Xiao Wei. I'm from the northeast—Liaoning. I work at the music school as a teacher. I've played drums for 10 years. I graduated from the Shenyang Music Conservatory and after graduating came to Chengdu.
Larry I'm the pianist, Lu Yan (吕焱) or Larry. I'm from Xinjiang, I graduated from Xinjiang Jiaoxueyuan, and finally came to Chengdu, also to teach at the Chengdu Music Conservatory. I've been here just over a year.
Kavian I'm Kavian, I'm French. I play electric bass and double bass. I first came here to study Chinese because I was majoring in Chinese in France, and then when I came here I started to play music with the jazz band as well as Proximity Butterfly. The jazz band was a good place to start to study music, so I stopped my Chinese studies and started to learn double bass. I never studied music before in a conservatory, so I'm learning by myself and with these guys. When I was a child I played a little guitar and saxophone, that helped me.
Josh I started music in high school in my hometown of West Hartford, [Connecticut], and I continued my studies into music school at the University of Miami, the conservatory there. I studied jazz performance with saxophone. When I graduated I was looking for jobs all around; I worked for a senate campaign, and after that I was working retail shops, but I had done nothing with jazz. I had a close friend who went to China. He loved it, so I decided to Google "jazz China" on a whim. I ended up in Chengdu, went to the Bookworm and saw Melissa [Carroll]'s gig, and she invited me to jam one time. I jammed, and they asked if I wanted to join the band.
So what's the story behind the band's name?
Larry The founder of the band was Melissa, she played saxophone. When she first came to China she was a teacher in Wenzhou. Most of the Wenzhounese are businesspeople. In China, businesspeople are called "boss," so we decided to call her "Ma Laoban" (Boss Ma). We said, 'This is Boss Ma.' But in the end Boss Ma decided to leave Chengdu, to get more money and become an even bigger boss.
But you kept the name?
Larry Sure, why not?
Josh Everybody already knew 'Boss Ma.' Now Boss Ma is a concept, not a person.
You sometimes have additional members playing with the band temporarily.
Josh Because of the economy, a lot of my former classmates [in the U.S.] didn't have jobs, especially people who studied music. Recently there have been good opportunities [for musicians in China]. So two of them came; they've left, but I think more will come later.
Larry In Chengdu before, there was no jazz. So if any other jazz musicians come to Chengdu we of course want to get in touch with them and jam. It's very important. So any jazz musicians who come here—they'll ask around and find us and come jam.
Can you talk about your style?
Larry When we started, we played a lot of swing. Then after Josh joined the band, his specialty is Bebop, so now the band has a lot of Bebop influence. Now we're playing more modern jazz. So we don't have a really set style, we just play it if we like it.
Josh If somebody finds something they like they'll bring the sheet music to the next practice, and we'll learn it.
You guys perform almost daily, at several venues in Chengdu. Can you talk about playing in front of these different audiences?
Kavian Café Panam(e) is the most free. The audience is more challenging. They're more used to listening to jazz, so their standards are a little higher.
Larry Other places, like at Music's Simple Life, the audience wants something lighter, simpler. They just want something that sounds good. Most don't really understand jazz.
Do you find you're starting to change the way locals think about jazz?
Larry Yes, of course. When the band had just started, there weren't that many people who really liked jazz. Now there are more. One reason is because there's a band that performs regularly, so people can hear it regularly ... they're getting used to it and starting to like it.
Josh That day we played at Little Bar they quite liked it. There were more than 300 people there.
At the moment there aren't that many jazz bands in Chengdu ...
Larry There's one other. All Chinese—Handprint. They're still practicing a lot. Their bassist only started playing jazz when he started with them, so they have a young sound. They play at the Bookworm.
Let's talk about the Zebra Music Festival. Among mostly rock bands and some pop groups, you're the only jazz band in the lineup. How do you think the audience will react?
Larry Of course they'll think it's weird. But my thinking is that because jazz sounds good—you know, there's so much rock, it's tiring—so we'll be like a little break for that.
And if they don't like it?
Larry If they don't like ... whatever.
Kavian I think it's better that they don't like it than they don't care.
What kind of people are usually into jazz?
Larry Younger people are interested in studying jazz, but right now in China there aren't that many opportunities to study it. Among the older folks, it's the people who are more well-off. Right now in China the main places for jazz are Shanghai and Beijing. If you go to Shanghai to listen to jazz, you've gotta have money, the young kids don't have that kind of money. Maybe they can go to study, but they definitely aren't going to pay money to go to Shanghai just to listen to jazz.
Other than Beijing and Shanghai are there other cities with a lot of jazz?
Larry Not really. Hangzhou has some. Chengdu, now, has a bit. Hong Kong. Shenzhen and Guangzhou don't have any. I heard Guangzhou has one band but I'm not sure if it's really jazz or pop. Macau as well—it's more big band stuff. And Taiwan.
So, Larry and Xiao Wei, you two are pretty rare as far as Chinese musicians. Why did you decide to study jazz?
Xiao Wei Well, actually before I played jazz, I played other styles—rock, funk, but when I got into jazz it gave me a bigger impression so in the end I finally chose jazz. Originally I was in a [rock] band like everyone else, but I just like jazz better now.
Larry Other music is insufficient. Jazz is like speaking. If I played rock, it's just hatred and anger, but I'm not that angry, so I don't need rock to express my anger. If life is too good, maybe you play pop. Jazz lets you speak, just like life. It's not really angry, it's not really base; it's like talking with a friend. Keeps your life in balance.
So if you're at home what do you listen to?
Josh Of course!
Kavian I listen to some folk music.
Larry But it's tiring to listen to folk music all the time. It's not like jazz or classical music that's really intellectually oriented. [As musicians], we can listen to jazz or classical and hear the musician's concept, all the notes and whatnot. Folk doesn't really have this—you don't really understand the lifestyle of the people. Sometimes you might listen to it and think it's weird or you might think it's interesting, and you're constantly wondering why they've done this or that in the music. Jazz is the highest form of music, the most evolved.
You don't seem to regard other forms of music very highly.
Larry No, it's not that. We respect and like all kinds of music, but, you know, the development of music and the development of people is similar. If we don't want to go along with it, we can just go back to human's earliest stage—stop wearing clothes too. Why do we wear clothes and use tables? It's convenient. It's scientific. The development of music is scientific, too.
Josh I listen to all kinds of music all the time, rap, rock, country, even country music, like folk music, stuff like that. If I only listen to jazz, I'll get sick of it.
Larry But if you're talking about the development of jazz, the science of music, absolutely! It's not just me! All musicians say this! As far as the public is concerned, it doesn't matter—if whatever music gives you a feeling, that's fine. But if we're talking about musicians, they'll talk about jazz.
Josh As far as performing too, other than freestyle rap, there's nothing I prefer to perform because every single time you play it's totally different. If you're playing classical music, it has nothing to do with you, a little bit, only your interpretation, but for jazz, your solo is exactly how you feel right at that moment in relation to the people in the band, and I don't think anything else really comes close to that in music, other than freestyle rapping.
Do you do a lot of that?
Josh Sometimes, at the end of the night at Music House, if I'm a little drunk. It goes over well because nobody understands.
What plans do you have coming up?
Larry I'd like to create more of our own music. Usually we just play a lot of standards, so I'd like to perform more of our own material.
Josh And next month, Melissa (Boss Ma) returns. And she'll be impressed with our progress, and maybe she'll have brought back some fresh ideas from Singapore. She's the Ma Laoban, you know?
Josh blogs about jazz in Chengdu, and you can catch Boss Ma Band (and perhaps some of Josh's freestyling) on the ZMF Lotto stage on Friday, May 1 at 6 p.m. Otherwise catch them at 9:30 every Friday at Music House and regularly at Cafe Panam(e) and Hemp House.