Wynton Marsalis China Tour 2000

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Wynton Marsalis China Tour 2000

An article by David Moser

About his China tour and concerts in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and how David Moser got in his role as an official tour translator.

An interesting article written from an insider's perspective on the jazz scene AND on the music scene of China.

More about the author including some video samples at WoDeGe. Many thanks to David Moser for allowing us to publish his article at Rock in China! Rock on David!!!


Wynton Marsalis in China

by David Moser

When the China Culture and Arts Co. contacted me and asked if I would act as translator for Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra during their upcoming China tour, my response was “That would be way beyond my ability, but I’m certainly the best person for the job.” (The company had contacted our bass player Long Long, asking him to give them a list of foreigners who might be able to take on such as task. “I provided them a list,” Long Long told me, “with just your name on it.”) Indeed, it seemed like a job I was born to do. Here I was, an avid jazz fan and jazz player (a trumpet player, to boot), a native English speaker fluent in Chinese (a semi-professional translator, to boot), living and performing jazz in Beijing. There couldn’t be too many of us in China. I had also been an admirer of Marsalis since he burst on the scene as a 19-year-old enfant terrible playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Winner of Grammy awards for jazz and classical recordings (at 22 years old), and a Pulitzer Prize for an oratorio Blood in the Fields (the first Pulitzer ever awarded to a jazz composer), Marsalis was already one of the leading musicians of the latter part of the 20th century.

They didn’t have to ask me twice.

I was very soon in email contact with some of the Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) people in charge of logistics for the tour, in particular Kathy Brown, in charge of press relations, and Laura Johnson, the education coordinator. The puzzled and frustrated tone of their email messages was very familiar to me from years of dealing with Chinese bureaucracy. (“We’ve sent them several email messages with crucial questions, but we never seem to get a straight answer. Are they avoiding answering us?” And “Could you tell me, does ‘It would not be convenient’ mean ‘It won’t be easy but we’ll try’ or does it just mean ‘No’?”) I also sent them a copy of my article on jazz in China to give them some idea of what they were in for. Laura Johnson, at least, read it and said she found it enlightening.

Marsalis is also creative director of the Jazz and Lincoln Center program, and this tour of China was part of their Duke Ellington Centennial. Although he is universally recognized as one of the best trumpet players of his generation, his status in the jazz world and his role at the Lincoln Center have been controversial in recent years. A number of players and writers have been critical of Marsalis’ rather conservative musical agenda for Jazz at Lincoln Center (he almost completely excludes any electronic instruments from venues, which effectively blocks funk-jazz, fusion, and much experimental music from consideration). Since JALC is the recipient of a substantial chunk of sought-after corporate and foundation grant money, this obviously enrages a large number of worthy but struggling jazz groups. In addition, a controversy arose a few years ago when some players and critics accused Jazz at Lincoln Center of racism, claiming that white musicians were being under-represented in the performances there. And of course, the highly acclaimed but controversial documentary by Ken Burns, Jazz, seemed almost an attempt to crown Wynton Marsalis as a sort of jazz laureate for America, a position of power that many feel is unwarranted and self-serving.

Whatever the outcome of all these artistic and political turf battles, Marsalis is an important and influential figure in the current jazz scene, and his visit to China along with the Jazz Orchestra would surely be a significant cultural event. I wouldn’t have missed it for all the tea in China.

Beijing, Feb. 12, 2000

A group of seven of us went to the airport in the evening to meet Marsalis and the group. That night I met several key people who would be in charge of the tour, among them: Wang Long, a thin, laconic representative of the China Culture and Arts Co., an elegant, cosmopolitan woman from Shanghai named Xue Ya, who was in charge of arranging Shanghai venues, and Cathy Barbash, an energetic American arts promoter who had made the initial contacts between the JALC and the Chinese host organizations ¾ the “midwife” of the event, as she put it.

As the band members began to emerge from the exit, it suddenly became distressingly clear to me that no decisions had been made about who was in charge of what. From the start there was great confusion as to where and when the group members were to exit the terminal building and get into the waiting vans and limousines. Luckily, it was quite easy to spot the orchestra members ¾ tall, jet-lagged African-Americans bobbing in a sea of Chinese faces. (I overheard several Chinese waiting at the exit comment that there must be an American basketball team touring China). Xue Ya and Wang Long quickly disappeared somewhere to help with baggage problems. I stood there at the main exit, not sure what to do. I saw several of the group members wandering in a confused daze in the general direction of the ground transportation exit. The airport was thronging bedlam as usual, and it made me nervous to see these guys just sauntering out the exit. It seemed incredible to me that we had not discussed in advance how we were going to escort these people to the cars. When Wynton Marsalis emerged, looking dazed but passively expectant, I was the only representative from the Chinese side at the exit to meet him. In contrast to the other members of the band, who were all wearing sneakers and casual travel clothes, Wynton was impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit and tie. He looked as if he were ready to go on stage for a formal concert. I walked over, said “Hi, I’ll take you to your car” and gingerly took him by the arm. He didn’t look at me, but nodded and followed obediently, and we began to thread our way through the crowd. The airport was, of course, a madhouse.

“Welcome to the People’s Republic,” I said, in a weak attempt at chit-chat, as we pushed forward. “And I do mean people,” I added, pointing to the chaotic throng.

“That’s okay,” he said, still gazing straight ahead, “People are people, the same everywhere. There’s just more of ‘em here.” Outside at the curb we were joined by Rob Gibson, a thin white guy who is artistic co-director for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Wynton and Rob chatted while I went off in search of their limo. I bumped into Wang Long, who was busy making sure all the group members made it into the right vans. He said to me “You’re in charge of Wynton and Rob. So go with them in their car over there,” ¾ he pointed to a black Lincoln ¾ “They’re staying at the Kunlun Hotel.” I ushered Wynton and Rob to the car, said hello to the driver (who didn’t speak English) and we were off, me in the front seat, Wynton and Rob in the back seat.

Wynton and Rob were in the midst of a discussion about the upcoming jazz concerts at Lincoln Center. The driver was making small talk with me in Chinese. I nodded, pretending to listen, while eavesdropping intently on the conversation in the back seat. Rob was recounting to Wynton a conversation he had had with Wayne Shorter just the other day, concerning a concert of his works.

“Wayne’s complaint,” Rob was saying “was that the younger players who perform his pieces tend to just imitate the record instead of interpreting the tune in their own way. And he said the ironic thing was that often the recorded version didn’t reflect the original idea he had in mind. So I said ‘What do you mean?’ and he said ‘Well, for example, on the recording of Speak No Evil, I had originally intended for there to be a long piano solo at the beginning. I had it all written out and everything. But the day we recorded it, the piano player had an intense hangover from the night before and he just couldn’t sight-read the part. So we ditched the intro and just did the tune beginning from the A section.’ So I said to him ‘Do you still have the sheet music for that intro?’ And he said ‘Yeah, it’s in a trunk somewhere, I’m sure I can dig it up.’ And I told him ‘Look, this is what these concerts are for. We treat your music with the same respect we would treat a classical performance. We can reconstruct for you the piece as you originally intended it. And we’ll make sure the pianist doesn’t have a hangover.’”

This sort of anecdotal gossip was intensely interesting to me, and I sat silently listening in the front seat. At one point Rob asked my name, and when I told him, he said “Ah, right, you’re the one who wrote that article on jazz in China. Laura showed it to me. Quite an interesting article. I learned a lot from it. Did you read that, Wynton?” Wynton just shrugged.

We arrived at the Kunlun Hotel, one of Beijing’s best 5-star hotels. The manager was waiting outside for us. He said some perfunctory florid words of greeting to Wynton, which I dutifully translated. We were pulling luggage and sacks out of the trunk, and I was handed Wynton’s trumpet in its leather bag. This made me pretty nervous. What if I dropped it? The bus hadn’t arrived yet, so apparently I was supposed to escort Wynton to his room. I hadn’t expected to be quite so abandoned by all the other members of the entourage. Yet here I was, seemingly the only one responsible for checking Wynton in. We went upstairs to his suite. I was too shy to say anything, and Wynton hardly looked at me. When we got to the room, the key didn’t work. This was China, after all. Since I was holding all the bags in my hands, Wynton said “Just wait here. I’ll go find someone to open the door for us.” My first thought was that this wasn’t a very good idea; I was nervous about him wandering off alone. I started trailing off after him, schlepping all the stuff with me. By the time I caught up with him at the end of the corridor, he had already talked to a desk clerk, who was heading back to the suite with a passkey. Wynton looked at me and chuckled. “Just couldn’t wait, could you?”

The desk clerk let us into the room, and I stashed the stuff on the bed, carefully placing the trumpet bag on the desk as if it were a newborn baby. In a corner of the room was an upright piano ¾ one of the requirements Wynton’s rooms during the tour, so he can continue composing during off hours. He took off his coat, and for the first time I could see his physique, that of a boxer, with a wide upper torso. Playing trumpet as he does for hours a night is quite a physical work-out, of course. I made sure everything in the room was okay, and that he knew who to contact in case there was some problem. Before I left, I introduced myself, and told him I had admired his playing for a long time. I noticed he had a very impish way of looking at you out of the corner of his eye. I told him our group was scheduled to play for him at the master class the day after tomorrow, and we were wondering what kinds of tunes we should prepare for him to critique. “Anything you want,” he said with a wave of his hand, “A blues, a standard. Just to give me some idea how the group interacts and how the players improvise.” As I left, he was sitting down at the piano to try it out.

I closed the door and breathed a sigh of relief. My own room was just a few floors down. I spent the rest of the evening studying the Jazz at Lincoln Center material, trying to cram for the translation tasks that awaited me the next few days.

Beijing, Feb. 13

At breakfast I finally met the press relations person, Kathy Brown, and the education coordinator Laura Johnson. Interestingly, in all our email contacts, I had not really stopped to imagine what race these two women were, whether white or Afro-American or what. Only when I was about to meet them did I suddenly realize I had no mental image of what they might look like. It turned out both were white, and I wondered if they had also mentally held my race in abeyance during our email contacts.

. At any rate, they were both extremely friendly and open, and after about a half hour with them it almost felt like we were old friends. And this was one of several junctures where I was quite struck by the cultural differences in attitudes toward information. In the weeks leading up to the Jazz Orchestra’s arrival, the CCAC had barely given me any information about what the tour would entail. In fact, aside from contacting me and getting my agreement to act as translator, I had hardly heard from them. Wang Long’s interactions with me were largely short, terse and uninformative. In thirty minutes Kathy, Laura and I traded more information than I had gotten in weeks from the China side. And this pattern would continue throughout the two-week tour.

After breakfast we had a meeting in the lounge of the Kunlun with some of the Lincoln Center people, including Billy Banks, their road manager, and David Robinson, their sound man. These two were very no-nonsense types, and didn’t waste much time in small talk. There were also three Japanese representatives from Sony Music, two non-English speaking women and a middle-aged, very Westernized chap named Tai. Tai was a real schmoozer, good at remembering names and at making the other person feel at home with him. He was very friendly, almost smarmy, with me. It turns out the CCAC had provided them with a list of names and resumés of those in the entourage, and Tai already knew a great deal about me.

“My job is to report to Sony everything that is said about the company on this tour, so maybe you can help me out with that,” Tai said.

About a dozen of us crowded together on the sofas in the lounge and discussed the logistics of the tour. We would go to three cities: Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. There were to be three concerts in each city, two formal evening concerts with the entire band, and an afternoon educational concert (sort of a jazz “Young People’s Concert”). There were also master classes scheduled in all three cities. I was to be a kind of translator/M.C. for all the concerts, master classes, and various press conferences. This was a bit terrifying for me, as I had never shouldered such a real-time interpreting burden before. At the master classes, local Chinese groups were to perform a few tunes for Wynton, who would then critique the group and give informal seminars on jazz improvisation and performance. My jazz group, In-Sound-Out, was one of the groups scheduled to play at the master class in Beijing.

As the various events and logistical problems were ironed out, I became increasingly nervous about my role in all this. I kept a notebook with me at all times in which I hastily scribbled technical terms and vocabulary items I would encounter during the discussions. I began to panic as I realized I didn’t even know how to say things like “Metropolitan Opera”, “non-profit organization” or even “New Orleans” in Chinese. And I was supposed to be translating at a press conference that afternoon!

After the morning session, I talked a bit with Rob Gibson. Rob is a very laid-back guy, with a heavy Georgia drawl. After just a few minutes talking with him, it became very clear that he was someone very, very deeply “inside” jazz and the jazz idiom, so much so that it seemed to me he must also be a musician. When I asked him he said that yes, indeed, he had played jazz piano and saxophone for years, and had also taught jazz history courses. No matter how much certain non-musicians may love jazz, there is something very special about talking about it with a player, someone who knows the music from the nuts and bolts angle.

For the press conference that afternoon, I was on the podium with Wynton, Rob, Wang Long, Victor Goines, a clarinetist from Louisiana, and Walter Blanding, a lanky tenor saxophonist with enormous, inquisitive, child-like eyes. Rob and Victor made some introductory remarks, introducing the history and purpose of Jazz at Lincoln Center. There were indeed a few places where I had some trouble translating the names of organizations or other terms, but with some circumlocution and one or two blatant omissions, I got through it. The most challenging, but also the most interesting task was to translate Wynton’s remarks. Wynton spoke at a very abstract level, expressing the social significance and soul of jazz. What he was saying overlapped with my feelings so exactly that it felt as if I were actually translating my own thoughts and ideas instead of someone else’s. Many of the things he was saying about jazz ¾ its universality, its emotional meaning, its expressive qualities, its technical problems ¾ were aspects I had been trying to convey to my Chinese musician friends for several years. Thus, in a very real sense, I had been “rehearsing” this translation task for quite some time, and when called upon to render Wynton’s words into Chinese, I felt it was more of a collaboration than a translation. In addition, I had a very good sense of the cultural background and limitations of the audience, and I occasionally embellished or reformulated what he said for the benefit of the Chinese in the room. I knew what kinds of images and metaphors would resonate with them, and how to adapt the message so that they could respond to it. And I think right away Wynton and the others could tell by the reaction of the Chinese audience that the message was getting through.

Nearly every remark raised some interesting little linguistic or cultural challenge in translation. At one point Wynton quoted Duke Ellington’s remark about his expectations toward the players in his orchestra. “I don’t ask for perfection,” he said, “just goose pimples.” I had to translate this on the spot. The problem was that a direct translation using “goose pimples” risked misunderstanding, since the Chinese equivalent (“jipi geda”, “chicken-skin bumps”) metaphorically signals a feeling of fear or disgust, lacking the positive connotations of the English. What I did was to first directly translate the phrase, and then add an explanation that “What Ellington meant was that he wanted the players to play music so thrilling and astounding that it caused in the listener a kind of excitement and thrill that would cause “chicken-skin bumps” of enjoyment rather than terror.” (Someone later told me that the Chinese audience probably could have surmised Ellingtons’s meaning from context, but I couldn’t be sure at the time.)

Disappointingly, the actual reporters in the audience had come rather unprepared, and the questions were few and lackluster (asinine questions like “Which do you like better, jazz or classical?” and “How much does your trumpet cost?”). The questions asked by the non-media people in the audience were somewhat better.

In the course of the press conference, the comments of all the Chinese speakers, as well as my translations from English to Chinese, were peppered with the word “neige” (pronounced “NAY-guh”), meaning “that”, used in colloquial speech as a kind of hesitation noise, equivalent to the English “uh” or “y’know”. Naturally, to the English-speakers in the band, the word stuck out like a sore thumb in the flow of otherwise incomprehensible Chinese speech. After the press conference, Walter Blanding turned his big, inquisitive eyes to me and asked, good-naturedly but with intense curiosity, “I have a question, Dave. What is this word ‘niggah’ I keep hearing you and the others say all the time?” I explained to him that this was a merely a rather unfortunate homophonic coincidence, and that he and the other members of the band should not take any offense at it. This explanation was quickly spread to the other members of the band, but for the next two weeks, I and the other Chinese-speaking members of the entourage were made terribly self-conscious about the use of this word ¾ a word that was nevertheless virtually impossible to eradicate from our speech. (Imagine going all day without saying “Uh…”)

After the main press conference, there were some one-on-one interviews with various radio and newspaper reporters, and I did translating for that, as well. Here, as with the press conference, the questions were disappointing, uninformed, unresearched, and perfunctory. This did not surprise me much. My experience with reporters in China (especially TV reporters) was that they seldom do much advance preparation, and usually care little about what they are reporting on. Most of the questions were on the order of “What is jazz?” “What does jazz have to do with blues?” “How long have you played the trumpet?” “How come you chose trumpet and your brother Branford chose saxophone?” etc. Wynton for the most part patiently answered everything that was thrown at him, but occasionally he also showed signs of annoyance. In response to the question “What is jazz?” he would simply pick up his trumpet and improvise for a few minutes, while the reporter stood there dumbstruck, notebook open, pen poised futilely on the page.

That night there was a dinner hosted by the American embassy. I could relax for the dinner, since the American embassy had provided their own translator, a rather famous Chinese national who had done translating for Kissinger and others (his name escapes me right now). He was superlative, and very adept at the diplomatic aspect of translation. For example, at one point one of the Chinese officials repeatedly mispronounced Rob Gibson’s name as “Robe Jibsum”, to the stifled snickers of Rob and the other band members. When the time came for Rob to make some remarks he said “I want to thank some people now, and I know I’m going to butcher some of your last names. But I know you’ll forgive me, especially since my own name took a beating just now.” The embassy translator blithely rendered Rob’s remark as something like: “I want to thank some of you now, and I’m terribly sorry if I mispronounce some of your names, but the Chinese language is very hard, you know.” Years of translating for diplomats had given him an instinctive ability to smooth rough edges and potentially irritating comments.

Over dinner I got a chance to get to know some of the members of the band. I had a very interesting talk with bassist Rodney Whitaker. He seemed to know something about nearly everything (one of the trombonists nudged me and said “We call Rodney ‘The Professor’”), and our conversation ranged over everything from old TV show themes, Eubonics, political correctness, Greek ideas about esthetics, and the psychology of music. He teaches bass and music classes at Eastern Michigan, has 7 kids, on top of being an active studio and performing jazz bassist. I couldn’t help noticing that he bore a remarkable resemblance to the actor Forrest Whitaker, and I ask if they were related. “Well, we’re some kind of cousin, I guess,” Rodney said. He then explained that all the African-Americans in America with that last name could be traced back to two slave plantations populated by two different families, one group spelling the name with one ‘t’, ‘Whitaker’, and the other with two ‘t’s, ‘Whittaker’. And since Forrest Whitaker’s surname was spelled the same as his, they were probably descendents of the same slave family.

Beijing, Feb. 14

The first activity on the agenda was the master class in the afternoon. The location for the event was the CD Café, Beijing’s only jazz club, where my group plays every Sunday night, and where most of the jazz groups that make their way to Beijing end up playing or doing after-hours jam sessions. The manager is Liu Yuan, saxophonist in rock star Cui Jian’s band, and China’s most famous jazz sax player.

The club was packed with reporters and musicians. The first group to play was a high-school group from the International School of Beijing. They were, of course, a pretty raggle-taggle ensemble. The “bass player” plunked out bass lines on an electric keyboard. The soloists couldn’t keep track of the chord changes and mainly just noodled around aimlessly on the blues scale. Wynton nevertheless took their attempt very seriously, tactfully pointing out their main problems, and giving them very helpful advice aimed specifically at their level. Next Liu Yuan’s group played a blues, and Wynton had more substantial issues to deal with. He asked some of the members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to get up and demonstrate some of the techniques in question on their instruments. Throughout the process Wynton naturally employed a host of musical terms and jazz jargon, mixed in with American slang and spontaneous colorful metaphors. Having gone through countless rehearsals and discussions with Chinese and western jazz musicians in Beijing the previous few years, swimming back and forth from English to Chinese in this esoteric world was really not a problem for me. The translation went rather smoothly; at least Wynton was beginning to relax and have a little bit of fun with the whole thing. (During a break, Laura told me “Usually it’s very painful for Wynton to go through a translator in these foreign settings. Often he just stops talking and plays his horn instead. But with you, it feels like anything he says just gets instantly transferred, 100 percent.”)

Then came our group, Du Yinjiao on sax, Long Long on electric bass, a guy from Japan named Izumi on drums, and me on piano. We did just one tune, Stella By Starlight, basically just a head arrangement I had whipped up during a rehearsal a couple days earlier. We kept our solos to a minimum, not stretching out much. Everyone was pretty nervous, of course, but the tune was one we were very familiar with, and we weren’t expecting to impress anyone with our performance, anyway. When it came to my piano solo, I found that I was completely relaxed, as calm as I might have been at home alone, playing the tune for my own pleasure. That afternoon I had so many responsibilities, so many translation and logistics matters to worry about, that I simply had had no time to think about, much less be nervous about, my playing during the master class. As a result, I found myself able to concentrate totally on the music. The solo flowed naturally, simply. Nothing spectacular, just a somewhat tasty, assured piece of improvisation. When I was finished, I was pleased that at least I had made no mistakes ¾ an unusual state of affairs for me. When we finished, the first thing Wynton said was “Very good! Except the piano, of course.” I was a bit taken aback. He was looking at me with his sort of impish half-smile, and I wasn’t sure if he was serious. I took it as a joke, anyway, saying “Okay, well I’m only going to translate the ‘Very good’ part, if that’s okay.” He laughed, went on with the master class, giving us some very good advice and criticism. Of course, he criticized the use of the electric bass, which miffed Long Long a bit, but I had expected that.

After the master class the Jazz Orchestra set up and played a couple of tunes for the remaining crowd, a movement of an Ellington Suite and a blues tune. It was truly astounding how they filled the club with sound with no amplification of any kind. This was the first time I had heard them live, and they were just about everything I expected. Walter Blanding had an extended tenor sax solo on the Ellington number that was positively electrifying, even in the context of an informal afternoon jam session. It merely whet my appetite for the concerts to come.

That night was the first Beijing concert. I showed up early to go backstage and get a briefing from the JALC people, and to get some sense of what the evening program would be. Though we had received a list of some of the tunes they might do on the tour, Wynton had the habit of deciding the program at the last moment. This was driving the Chinese crazy, since they had wanted to print up programs for the performance. The host company had given me some suggestions for the translations of the song titles, some of which were useful and some of which were not. (They had translated C-Jam Blues as something like “C-major fruit-paste blues”, for example.) So I wanted to have a list of the actual program so that I could start trying to come up with adequate translations.

So I went in to the Wynton’s dressing room to ask him about the order of tunes. He was there with one of those tiny portable travel irons and a miniature ironing board, carefully pressing his shirt and pants. I was struck by this fastidious attention to personal appearance. I had perhaps expected him to be practicing his horn, not sprucing up his wardrobe. But this is part of Marsalis’ style, and is also very much in the Ellington tradition. The idea is that, if you respect the music, then you should dress in such as way as to make others respect you, as well. As with Louis Armstrong, the Modern Jazz Quartet (who often wore tuxedoes in performance), and even Miles Davis, who never wore the same outfit twice in performance, dressing well implies the kind of self-respect that extends to the music itself. (Throughout the tour, Wynton always wore an immaculately pressed suit and tie for every public event, regardless of what the other band members wore, or how informal the event.)

While Wynton was ironing his clothes, Fan Shengqi, one of China’s most famous jazz musicians, came in, wanting Wynton’s autograph. Fan Shengqi is a rather eccentric character. 65 years old, long gray hair pulled back in a pony tail, and a gray-streaked beatnik goatee. He is a gregarious, almost pathologically talkative type, with highly frenetic mannerisms. He began playing jazz saxophone before Mao took power, and was one of the first of that generation to take up the artform again after Deng Xiaoping’s cultural thaw in the late 80s, forming a group of aging players calling themselves Lao Shupi, “Old Bark”. Fan Shengqi’s playing is rather amateurish, actually, but he is a colorful and likeable character who at least brings a lot of enthusiasm to the music. He was glad to see I was in the dressing room, and asked me to translate.

“In the lineage of trumpet players,” he said, “it’s Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and then you!” He had Wynton sign some postcards and then he backed out of the dressing room, bowing all the while, as if he were a lowly court official leaving the presence of the emperor.

I asked Wynton about the program. “Oh, I haven’t figured it out yet,” he said with a wave of his hand. “We’ll see how it goes when we get out there.” Then, continuing his ironing, he said to me, “You know, you sounded really good at the master class. Nice touch, beautiful chords, nice feel. I have to say, when I read that article you wrote, for some reason I got the impression that ‘Well, this guy probably can’t play.’ So I was prepared to hear some really lame shit. But instead you sounded really good, man. You’ve got something. Where did you learn to play piano like that?”

I was a bit speechless, unprepared for any sort of praise from him. “Uh, well, I don’t know,” I stammered. “From players like you, I guess.” I just stood there in silence. Finally he went on.

“It just goes to show that you can never judge people. See, people are always judging me, based on one little remark I made once, or some record I put out a decade ago. So when they actually meet me, they’re surprised. I may be nothing like they imagined. This always happens to me with reporters. They make these assumptions about me based on the flimsiest evidence. So I should know better, but then I go and make exactly the same mistake with you. So we always learn.”

I came out of the dressing room walking on air, but didn’t have time to enjoy the feeling. I had to right away start worrying about my M.C./translator duties. Unlike the master class, this venue was much more formal, with less leeway for error. I’m really no good at being a master of ceremonies in Chinese; the few times I’ve done it, it’s been pretty pathetic. I don’t enjoy it. And this was by far the scariest stage performance I’d ever done. Dozens of people would be videotaping it, and virtually all of my friends and acquaintances were in the audience, many of whom were quite bilingual. Slips and bloopers would be obvious to them.

Luckily, Wynton didn’t want any kind of stilted, formal introduction for the group, which was fine with me. (Not so fine with the people from the CCAC, who really expected a more standard, “proper” stage presentation, and were somewhat aghast at Wynton’s disregard of the niceties of performance etiquette. They were constantly afraid that the audience would take offense. In truth, I think the audience found Wynton’s casual demeanor and my klutzy MC’ing a refreshing change from the rigidly cheerful, robotoid stage presence most Chinese performers adopt.) I was, however, suddenly saddled with the task of announcing before the opening that the audience was allowed to videotape the opening piece of the program only, after which all video cameras and tape recorders were to be shut off and put away. I was able to communicate this clearly, but not really in an elegant, idiomatic way. Sort of the difference between “The audience is kindly requested to refrain from videotaping the performance” versus “Please don’t videotape the show, folks.”

The sound of the orchestra was astounding. A fat, gorgeous texture, with each player phrasing perfectly with the others, everyone swinging like mad. It was so great just to hear a big band of this quality live, and the sheer sonic quality was thrilling. And all of the soloists, were superb, every one a virtuoso in their own right, and all capable of infusing each solo with such fire, poignancy and aching feeling that I sometimes had to hold back the tears. How could anyone not be floored by this music? But I was also hearing the music through two sets of ears, one set my own, the other the ears of the Chinese audience. From their cultural background, this music must have sounded very strange to many of them. Perhaps many just heard it as chaotic noise. I was sure they could sense and respond to the rhythmic intensity, but I was almost sure the harmonic language, the subtle passing tones, dense altered chords, etc. would be lost to them, incomprehensible, just clusters of noise. Worst of all, Chinese audiences put a supreme importance on melody; if they can’t go away humming it, they aren’t going to like it. And the jagged syncopations of wild intevallic leaps of jazz melodies sound random to them. (Many of my Chinese friends have told me that jazz seems to have no identifiable melody. And most traditional Chinese music is essentially monophonic; harmony and counterpoint play no significant role in the music.) I soon quit worrying about this cultural problem, however ¾ most Americans don’t much like jazz, either ¾ and just got into the music. I had the equivalent of a free front row ticket for the whole tour.

Seeing Wynton perform live was also a revelatory experience. Here he was playing the same instrument, this squiggly metal contraption, this same piece of pipe that I had struggled with for two decades and could never master, but in his hands it somehow became a conduit for a magical flow of limitless creativity. He possesses such astounding, natural technique. For Marsalis the trumpet is an extension of his own voice, literally. In fact, I was particularly struck by the astonishing range of vocal sounds he gets out of the instrument. He doesn’t merely play notes. He screams, wails, blats, weeps, snarls, moans, bleats, screeches, pleads, preaches, grumbles, spits, howls, hisses, yells, whispers, shouts, sobs, sings, sputters, swoops, glides, clucks, chokes, barks, buzzes, squeals. Also, it was interesting to see how much exertion Wynton put into his playing. After a Louis Armstrong piece, he had to pause to catch his breath before he went to the mike to announce the next number; he was puffing like a runner who had just finished the 100-yard dash. (And as Wynton told me, when you actually try to re-create a Louis Armstrong solo, it gives you a renewed admiration for the man’s stamina. Armstrong was doing his major work before the advent of microphones on stage, and in order to cut through the ensemble and be heard, he would play consistently up in the higher register of the horn. Just to play through one of his solos is utterly exhausting.)

Once the show got underway, I found I often wasn’t sure how to handle the proper names. “Ellington” and “Armstrong” already had fixed transliterations, which I had memorized (Ai-ling-dun and Lu-yi-si A-mu-si-te-long, the latter being quite a tongue twister). But what about other names like “Thelonious Monk” or “Dizzy Gillespie”? Should I make up my own Chinese translation? Or just say them in English? For the Monk tune Little Rootie Tootie, I just transliterated it as Xiao Ludi Tudi, which succeeded in evoking laughter from the audience. Harlem Airshaft was Ellington’s ode to Harlem. An airshaft was evidently a kind of duct leading to the roof of the apartment house, through which one could hear echoes of everything happening in the apartment, the conversations, the laughter, the arguments, etc. I just translated the title as “Harlem Scenes”, and I translated what Wynton had to say about the tune. Pieces like Happy-Go-Lucky Local, Mood Indigo, Take the A Train and Black and Tan Fantasy presented no serious problems. Amusingly, the band played an Ellington piece called Chinoiserie, which was translated in an English-Chinese dictionary roughly as “Chinese style”, so I simply used that rough gloss when I announced the tune. (Later many of my Chinese friends expressed puzzlement that there didn’t seem to be an iota of “Chinese style” in the piece. But no matter.) Wynton announced the Mingus piece Goodbye, Porkpie Hat, but didn’t explain the significance of the title to the audience. I asked Wynton if I could briefly explain the title and he motioned me to go ahead. So I told them the song was written as a tribute to the late Lester Young, who had always worn a distinctive trademark hat, a “porkpie hat”. (In subsequent concerts, Wynton would, at the beginning of this number, simply signal to me to go ahead and explain the title in Chinese.) Another Armstrong piece, Tight Like That, was clearly a smutty reference to a desirable attribute of a certain part of a woman’s anatomy, but not being able to translate that, I opted for an alternate meaning of “tight”, as in “a tight rhythm section” or a “tight ensemble”, meaning “rhythmically accurate, played cleanly and correctly, etc.” (Jincou in Chinese.) After all this prudish sidestepping, Wynton then threw in a wry remark as an afterthought, “He must have been talkin’ about a pair of shoes.” I translated Wynton’s words, but they suddenly made no sense whatsoever in the new context I had created. Win some, lose some. The audience chuckled when I translated the nickname of one of the alto sax players, Wes “Warmdaddy” Anderson, into Chinese (Nuanhuhu de baba.) That night Wynton also decided on the spur of the moment to play I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You with the rhythm section. This was quite a challenge to translate with no preparation at all. I took a deep breath and came up with “Wo shizai shi debudao ni” (“I really can’t have you”), which was sort of lackluster. Later I came up with a better translation, “Wo xiang gen ni zai yikuair, danshi mei menr” (“I want to be with you, but no door”, “no door” being an idiom roughly equivalent to “No way, José” or “Don’t even think about it.”)

A problem arose with people taping the concert. Though the audience had been asked politely twice not to tape any part of the show after the first number, people continued to videotape and record the concert quite openly and blatantly. Someone even placed a camcorder on the edge of the stage in plain sight and left it there throughout the entire first half. At halftime the sound engineer, David Robinson, cornered the guy when he came to take his camcorder off the stage. David wrested it out of the man’s hands, and took the tape out of the machine. Instructing me to translate, he said “Tell this guy I’m gonna take this tape and burn it. And if he continues taping the second half, I’m gonna take his machine and fucking break it into little pieces.” The Chinese guy continued to argue, defending himself by saying “I paid my money for the concert, I ought to be able to tape it if I want,” etc. A distressed Laura Johnson told me “We’ve been to a lot of countries, but this is the worst we’ve ever seen it. And they don’t even bother to hide it! I can see them out there standing in the aisles with their tape recorders. Usually wherever we play, the audience complies after the first announcement. What’s wrong with these people?”

This state of affairs was also one I could have predicted. China is still far from being a country ruled by law, and at the grassroots level people routinely ignore traffic regulations, tax laws, and especially unwritten social rules, such as waiting your turn in line and “first-come, first-served.” So when we announced the ban on taping, the reaction of the Chinese audience was to simply disregard it as another pointless and impotent rule that nobody was going to pay attention to, anyway. Another example: At intermission several parents brought their kids backstage to meet Wynton and the group and get autographs. (The Chinese are rather autograph crazy.) They were politely informed that no one was allowed to disturb the musicians during their rest at intermission, but that they would be welcome to come back after the show was over. The parents would then invariably say something like “But there will be lots of people crowding around here at the end and we won’t be able to get in. Can you make an exception?” Or “Oh, come on. It’s no big deal. He’s a seven-year-old boy! Just let him in. Go on in, Wang Lei.” (Many times throughout the tour I was called on to translate for disputes between the stagehands and pushy parents trying to shove their kids into the dressing rooms with autograph books.)

After the show there was indeed a throng of people backstage. People kept pulling me this way and that, asking me to translate for them as they asked Wynton or the band members questions. Another cultural difference: I noticed that Laura, Kathy, the Sony people, and the Americans in general were very complimentary about my translating for the concert. Almost invariantly, they all clapped me on the back and said “Great job!” (Whether or not they meant it is another matter; but for Americans it would be almost impolite not to say so.) There was even an American woman from the American Chamber of Commerce who said to Laura, “I don’t know if you know what a great resource you’ve found here. I’ve been in China many years, but I’ve never seen an American who could translate into Chinese so well. He not only translates the basic sense of the original, but the feeling and emotion come through, as well.” The Chinese were very different toward me. The members of the CCAC said nothing to me afterwards, and Wang Long simply pulled on my coat sleeve and reminded me “Don’t say ‘neige’ so much.” Only a very few of my Chinese friends commented on my translation, and when they did, their style was much more subdued than the Americans. “Not bad,” they would say. “Must be difficult, eh?” At first I supposed this difference was due to the fact that the Americans (even those who spoke Chinese) couldn’t really judge for themselves how well I was translating, because they’re not native speakers, and many of the mistakes and garbled parts would not be noticed by them. The Chinese, who were more sensitive to every nuance and word choice, would have a very different impression of the quality of the translation. And I still think that was indeed part of the reason. But as days went by, I could see that the contrast in attitude was actually a true cultural difference. The Chinese were less likely to compliment anybody about anything, whereas for the Americans, compliments seemed to flow as easily as “hello” and “goodbye”. The Americans were forever hugging, praising, boosting, encouraging. The Chinese members of the entourage, even among themselves, were neutral, matter-of-fact, and quite quick to criticize the slightest fault. It doesn’t mean that the Chinese don’t compliment each other, or share encouragement, but it’s done in a very different way, and at special times. In fact, they often tend to view the American way as being insincere and excessive. This is just another case of a surface cultural difference, and I’ve long since come to recognize and accept it.

Another example is applause. China’s audiences simply applaud less than Western audiences. The Americans were at first a bit startled by what seemed to them very lukewarm, almost rudely brief applause from the audience. A rollicking 10-minute virtuoso piece would garner about half a minute of applause. The players barely had time to complete their bows before the applause petered out. This cultural difference, however, is well known enough that the Chinese immediately assured them the sparse applause was not an indication of lack of enjoyment, but merely a case of the two cultures being “calibrated” differently. Once the phenomenon had been explained, the audience response no longer concerned the group too much.

After the concert, several of the musicians wanted to check out the local music scene, so we organized a jam session at the CD Café. Wynton showed up, along with the rhythm section. This was very exciting for the Beijing jazz musicians, who were suddenly up there on the stage with these world-class American jazz giants, jamming on familiar blues and standards. One of the tenor players with the LCJO, Ted Nash, played a solo on Body and Soul that was so heartfelt, ear-stretching, and achingly beautiful that a Chinese sax player turned to me and said “If I weren’t already playing jazz, this one solo would be enough to convince me to give up everything and make music my life’s work.” Our sax player, Du Yinjiao played a few numbers with Marsalis, which he had his wife videotape from the balcony, and which he cherishes to this day. I only sat in on one number, because I had to get home early and get some sleep so as to be awake for my duties the next day.

Beijing Feb. 14

Though still jetlagged and tired, some of the members of the group got up at 7:00 a.m. to take a trip to the Great Wall and then the Forbidden City. I skipped that outing going instead to a lunch with some embassy people, and then taking a much-needed afternoon nap.

By the second concert that night, Wynton was already establishing a kind of joking rapport with me on stage. He would give me exaggerated dirty looks if my translation seemed to go on too long, or he would look at me suspiciously if the audience laughed at anything I said. He also began to take obvious pleasure in seeing me struggle to translate tricky song tittles. “This is a movement from Duke Ellington’s Afro-Eurasian Eclipse Suite,” he said, and turned to me with a sly, smug smile. I slowly eked out a translation with obvious difficulty and the audience actually burst out in applause. He also began to purposefully pepper his speech with uncompromisingly complex phrases. In his introduction to his own piece, Back to Basics, he became quite long-winded: “This next piece is about a man who succumbs to the sin of hubris, and gets very cocky. But then life itself ¾ the very forces of Nature, one might say ¾ conspires to show him the folly of his ways, and forces him to get back in touch with his roots, with the very ground of his being, to go back to basics.” He then watched me out of the corner of his eye with a nasty smirk as we watched me sweat and squirm.

That night they played a Dizzy Gillespie piece, Things to Come, an almost impossibly fast-paced, unrelentingly frenetic tour de force for the whole band, especially the trumpets. Ryan Kisor played a mind-boggling trumpet solo, spitting out sixteenth notes at harrowing speed and high range. It brought the house down. We all saw Wynton looking at Ryan with a mixture of grudging approval and jealousy. So when it came time for Wynton’s solo, he unleashed a machine-gun spray of notes during the beginning solo break that can only be described as death-defying, and then continued the solo with an unrelenting display of almost terrifying technique. Sort of made it easier for me to imagine the thrill of all this music when it was brand new in the 40s and 50s, when such flights of bebop virtuosity were new to the ears, and as exhilarating to the performers themselves as it was for the audience.

I quickly struck up some friendships with some of the members of the band. Farid Barron (no relation to famous pianist Kenny Barron, it turns out) is a shy, serious young player from Philadelphia. A wife and two kids, who he had seen rarely recently due to his schedule on the road. Joe Temperley, one of the four white members of the band, is a portly 50-year-old, originally from Scotland. Came to the U.S. as a young man and began entering the jazz scene in New York, playing with baritone sax with many of the famous big bands, and recently with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. (I could remember reading his name on Thad Jones album jackets when I was in high school. I never imagined I’d be meeting any of those people.) Joe, in contrast, with the other members of the group, is a rather stuffy, humorless guy, and seems to often be the butt of their jokes. They lampoon his stuffy Scottish accent. Walter Blanding, Jr. has an Israeli wife, and spent many years performing jazz in Israel; articles in major magazines were written about him, describing him as the “jazz ambassador to Israel.” Walter has a very open, sweet demeanor, and large, inquisitive eyes that seem to stare right through you. (He showed me pictures of his kids, all of whom seem to have the same enormous, limpid eyes.) In talking with trumpet player Ryan Kisor, I found out ¾ small world ¾ that we had some acquaintances in common. He had played with a pianist named Michael Weiss, someone I knew and played with when I was at Indiana University.

One thing about the band members that struck me ¾ though it certainly came as no surprise ¾ was how much they practiced. When they weren’t performing or on some outing they were usually just in their hotel rooms, playing, practicing, or listening to music. They continued to listen constantly, and were always swapping CDs with one another and discussing the merits and shortcomings of various players and styles.

Overall the first leg of the tour in Beijing was a success. Most everyone was over jetlag, and the basic formula for the concerts and master classes had been established. It would be pretty much downhill from here on. On to Shanghai.

Shanghai Feb. 15

Wynton, it turns out, is terrified of flying. Evidently he had had a rather bad scare in an airplane a couple years earlier ¾ the plane almost crashed ¾ and since then he swore he “wouldn’t get in one of those things again unless he absolutely had to.” So while the jazz orchestra and the rest of us went to Shanghai by airplane, Wynton and Rob went by train, accompanied by Wang Long. (Interestingly, Wynton as a big band leader is not alone in this. Evidently Duke Ellington also had an extreme fear of flying for years, and when his international demand finally forced him begin flying again, he would not board a plane without first clutching a gold cross that his sister had given him. Jazz book p. 288)

On the airplane, some of the members of the group were showing off the tourist certificates they had received for climbing the Great Wall. On the certificates was the common but hard-to-translate Chinese saying “Bu dao Changcheng, fei hao han” (“If you haven’t been to the Great Wall, you aren’t a hero/true man.”) The English translation on the certificate was “Not a plucky hero until you’ve climbed the Great Wall.” This caused great mirth among the members of the band, and for days afterward there were jokes about who was or wasn’t a plucky hero, joking arguments about the essential qualifications for true “pluckiness”, etc.

On the plane I was perusing the promotional brochure for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra tour. On the first page was a congratulatory note from Bill Clinton, with a large photo of him. At one point a stewardess who notice that I could speak Chinese, asked me “What group is this?”

“This is a famous American jazz group,” I said. “And our leader is President Clinton.” When she looked skeptical, I showed her the photo of Clinton on the first page of the brochure. She was still skeptical, but now not so sure.

“You knew Clinton played the saxophone, right?” I said.

Another Chinese passenger joined in, “Yes, that’s true, I’ve heard he likes jazz.”

“So we’re performing in Shanghai, and Clinton is going to join us for the gig, playing saxophone.” By this time some of the other members of the group, who were watching this exchange, became hip to my joke and started trying to convince the stewardess that we were indeed a group headed by the American President.

“Why do you think it’s called the ‘Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’?” asked Rodney Whittaker. “It was started by Abraham Lincoln, and every new president gets to lead it and play with the group.” Other members of the group were cracking up. The stewardess was becoming confused, but clearly beginning to wonder if it wasn’t true.

“I hadn’t heard about it. Well, I should announce over the public address system that we have such a famous group on board our plane,” she said, picking up my used coffee cup and walking off in a daze. She did indeed announce later that the group was on board, but I don’t think she fully bought my ruse.

Shanghai Feb. 16

Shanghai, the jazziest city in China during the 1930s and 40s. Many American big bands actually came to Shanghai to perform, and at one time Shanghai had dozens of nightclubs featuring jazz, played by Chinese jazz musicians. All that changed after 1949, of course, and now there are no jazz nightclubs at all here. (Though there are plenty of discos.) It would be interesting to see how the music was received here.

Breakfast at the hotel. Wynton came bleary-eyed, having spent all day and night on the train. He came over with his food, sat down next to me, and put his head on my shoulder like a little boy. (Causing a brief twitch of surprise in our waitress as she poured the coffee.)

“Dave, Dave, you’re doing a good job here,” he said. “Keep it up.” He told me he was tired of the content of the educational concerts and wanted to change things around a bit. “Don’t be surprised in the next concert if there’s more improvisation in what I say than in what I play.”

Tai, the Japanese representative of Sony also sat down at our table. He said if this tour worked out, Sony had other plans to bring people like Joe Zawinul to China. I told him that rock-fusion stuff would actually be better received here, since in China, as everywhere, a danceable beat is essential to commercial success. (It’s strange to me that swing and traditional jazz are considered “undanceable”. Crowds used to dance like crazy to a swing beat during the big band era, and I still find swing the most infectious beat in the world.)

Lunch at the hotel. Most of the group members carrying around CD players and listen to music constantly while on the bus or waiting in hotel lobbies. Lunch was arranged in a kind of plush club area, and some of the guys asked the management to turn off the Muzak so they could set up a CD player with portable speakers and listen to jazz during the meal. The CD that one of them put on was a classic Miles Davis recording of My Funny Valentine, with George Coleman on tenor sax, a recording I knew well. We were all sitting around talking and eating, and sort of listening to the music out of the corner of our ears. When George Coleman’s solo on Funny Valentine began, the entire sax section spontaneously burst out together scat-singing along with the solo, which they all obviously knew note-for-note. Everyone laughed in surprise, delighted to find they were all so much on the same wavelengh.

I sat talking with Victor Goines, clarinetist and saxophonist from New Orleans. He is more or less in charge of compiling the educational material for the Jazz at Lincoln Center youth programs. He told me he also knew David Baker, the jazz educator at Indiana University. Victor used to study math and has also taught it at the high school level. Most of the members of the band, in fact, had held other jobs while they perfected their music.

Wynton came over and sat down next to us. I asked him about how the Jazz at Lincoln Center program is perceived by the audience. “The audiences love it, man,” he said. “They just come to it and respond to it like they should. It’s the critics that drive me crazy. Every time they review one of our concerts, they get into this political thing. It’s like the music doesn’t even exist. They don’t like us playing Ellington and Armstrong. They think we don’t represent the jazz of today. But what is the jazz of today? It came from a tradition, man, a tradition that no one cares about anymore. It’s really in danger of dying out. I mean, we’re there at Lincoln Center doing fucking waltzes and marches from the early New Orleans jazz tradition. Who’s going to do that if not us? This drives a lot of people crazy. But if I don’t keep it alive, who will? Most of the young players out there have never even heard any of Duke’s music. Nobody ever plays the later Duke from the 50s and 60s. He was still going strong then, writing more than ever, and extending the language in beautiful ways, man. But nobody ever plays that stuff anymore. None of the young people even know about it. The radio never plays it, and you can’t find recordings. I just want to introduce people to all this great music that’s there in the tradition that nobody cares about anymore. But this is a threat to certain people who just want to make a fast buck off the music. The truly worthwhile stuff is threat to them, because they can’t control it, don’t know how to market it. There are all sorts of voices trying hard to squelch this stuff. So we can’t just make music; we’ve got to fight all these battles constantly. It’s got to where I don’t even read the reviews in the New York Times or wherever. It’s just too frustrating.”

The press conference in Shanghai was rather disappointing. As in Beijing, the media reporters had not really done their homework, and there were no good questions. Actually, it didn’t matter too much, since no matter what they asked, Wynton and the others would simply go back to the main messages they wanted to convey about the universality of the music, etc. I had more trouble than usual translating because when the head of the China Culture and Arts Co. gave her speech, I was so far across the hall from her that I could hardly hear her. Plus, she spoke in a very soft voice using stilted, flowery language, so that several times I had to ask her to repeat what she said. Very embarrassing. There was a woman from the Shanghai host organization there next to me trying to help me out by whispering in my ear, but she only made things worse since I couldn’t follow as well what was going on. I felt flustered for the rest of the press conference and didn’t do too well. I forgot how to say things like “sponsor” and “box office” in Chinese. There were a couple more cases where I actually misunderstood the intent of the Chinese speaker and came out with a few wrong translations. In one case the speaker, who knew some English, caught it and made the correction. In the other case somebody told me about it afterwards. Later I apologized to the CCAC woman who had given the speech, but she was very nice to me and said the lapses were not as distracting as I thought. She said that, on the contrary, she was somewhat embarrassed that she could speak no English whatsoever, and was glad a native English speaker who understood Chinese was there to translate her words into fluent English.

The master class was also a bit of a disappointment. Laura, in charge of education, had made contact a month in advance with the Shanghai people and told them to have some groups prepared to play. (The master classes always have a large audience, and if the groups are not prepared, the whole thing is a bit of a waste of time for all involved.) The event was scheduled for 2:00, and at 1:30 none of the groups had shown up. A few minutes before 2:00 a couple of musicians showed up backstage, saying they were with Wu Ren Xing, “The Walking Five”, one of the groups to appear at the master class.

“But there are only three of you,” I said. “Are you the ‘Walking Three’ today, or what?”

“I don’t know where the guitarist and drummer are,” he said with a shrug. “They don’t answer the phone.” Laura was there at my side, frantically trying to get some idea about what was going to happen. Though the event was free to the public, there were still a substantial number of people in the audience waiting for something to happen.

“Ask them what tunes they’re going to play,” Laura said to me. When I asked the guy, he just shrugged again.

“I don’t know,” he said, “I guess just a standard or something.” This did not exactly reassure Laura. Another kid showed up with a trumpet, saying he wanted to play a movement from the Tomasi trumpet concerto for Wynton to critique.

“Sorry,” Laura said, a bit impatiently, “This is a jazz master class. Not classical, jazz. We can’t have you play the Tomasi concerto.”

“But I can really play it pretty well,” the kid objected. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said that there was a trio in the audience ¾ piano, bass and female singer ¾ who would be willing to participate in the master class if there was room.

“There’s room, there’s room!” I said. “Take me to them.” I spoke with the singer, an American, about some tunes they could perform. The rest of the Walking Five finally walked in, and so we had two groups at least. Enough to do a reasonable master class if we gave them time to stretch out. Laura was flabbergasted.

“We’ve never had this happen before!” she said. “Usually people are thrilled, overjoyed at the chance to play for Wynton Marsalis. Usually they rehearse for weeks before the event, and show up early to make sure everything is ready. What’s going on here?”

China. I told Laura I really didn’t understand it, either. Chinese people often don’t seem to want to “go for it” in the way that Americans do. Whatever. The even didn’t get going until 2:30.

Wynton came out with some of the members of the group. The Walking Five got their members together and prepared to do their tune. Wynton asked them what they were going to do. The trumpet player said he didn’t know the name of the tune, but he could hum the first line. It was Ellington’s Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. Wynton nodded, motioned for them to go ahead. The singer began “Missed the Saturday dance…”, and the group promptly fell apart, butchering the syncopated opening phrase so much they couldn’t reassemble. They stopped, started again. Two phrases in the piano and trumpet were a measure off from each other. The music stopped again. The singer looked at the pianist. The pianist looked at the trumpet player. They all shrugged.

“Let’s not do that tune,” they said to me. “Let’s do Days of Wine and Roses.” Whatever. Wynton nodded wearily. They limped through the tune. The trumpet player played the whole time with his trumpet pointed to the floor. The bass player never seemed to make it to the bridge section. The drummer drowned them all out, anyway. When they finished we all sort of stood there stunned. What was the point of even saying anything? They hadn’t even rehearsed for the event.

Wynton, to his credit, jumped in good-naturedly. “First of all,” he said. “Is the trumpet playing to the floor or to the audience? I know you probably think that looks really cool, but first learn your instrument and master the music, then worry about what kind of ‘attitude’ to adopt. Get the music happening first, and then you can play standing on your head for all we care.” He went on to use the hopeless deficits of the group as a jumping-off point to introduce the key musical elements of jazz. He then had the group try the tune over, taking into account some of his suggestions. The improvement was stunning. (But then, of course, the only direction they could go was up.)

The trio with the singer was much better. The pianist was very good, with a gorgeous chordal sense and nice bluesy feel. They did a ballad, The Nearness of You (I couldn’t really translate it), and the biggest flaw for me was that the singer overdid it a bit. The tempo was too slow, and she was emoting in a far too exaggerated and schlocky fashion. But at least it was a fairly professional rendition. As they were performing, Wynton whispered to me “99% of all jazz singers are shit. The few good ones are great, but most of them just take a tune and ruin it.” He was more charitable when actually giving advice to them after they finished. He praised the pianist but reminded the singer “With a really great song, you don’t need to put so much of yourself into it. You should respect the song as it was written and try to project that as best you can.”

At the concert that night I stood backstage talking to Billy Banks. I was noticing what a hassle it was for Rodney to carry his bass around.

“Poor Rodney,” I said. “He has to lug that awkward bass around everywhere.”

“Yeah, well that’s what he gets for playing bass,” said Billy. Then he went on, “The thing is, Rodney is so talented that he could play any other instrument and…”

At this point I anticipated Billy’s next phrase and began to say it in unison with him, diverging only on the last word, thus:

Me: “…he would be just as good!”

Billy: “…he would be just as bad!”

Billy was using “bad” in the Black slang sense meaning “great”, and I was speaking ordinary vanilla English. We both laughed at the unexpected clash of opposite surface meanings.

Shanghai, Feb. 17

We all had an afternoon without anything to do, so I accompanied Walter Blanding and Farid Barron to buy pearls for their wives. (High quality pearls are very cheap in China, for some reason, and many tourists who visit China snatch them up for gifts.) Walter was like a kid, asking me all sorts of questions about Chinese and Chinese characters. By the end of the afternoon he was getting to where he could consistently recognize five or six characters, including the character for “woman”. At one point Farid mentioned that he had read my article on jazz in China.

“Your article was very interesting,” he said. “I thought the anecdote about Michael Brecker your sax player thinking their might be AIDS on his reed was really funny.[1] Wynton had some things to say about that. I don’t think he liked that part too much.”

Before the concert I stood behind Farid watching him warm up. I learned more about jazz piano just watching him for five minutes than I had learned from books and records in the last year. He’s clearly not classically trained, and his technique is somewhat non-standard (splayed fingers, like mine). But he nevertheless could play astonishing things with his left hand, enormous stride leaps, sometimes so fast I couldn’t even see when the fingers were striking the keys.

At the concert that night, I began to get a better sense of the tensions between Sony, the sponsor of the tour, and the Lincoln Center people. Before the concert Tai came up to me and said “Great job, David. You’re really making this more interesting and entertaining. The audience loves it. Keep up the good work. And thanks for mentioning Sony at the beginning of the concert. I was wondering…” and here was the point of his oily flattery, “…if you might mention Sony again at the beginning of the second half. Just a few sentences would be fine.” I told him it was fine with me, but I’d have to clear it with the Lincoln Center people.

I asked Kathy Brown about this, and she said “What? No, don’t do it. They’re so sneaky, these Sony people. We’ve already plastered their logo on everything, and they’re all over the brochure. Our rule is no mention of corporate sponsorship during the concerts, and we’ve already made an exception for this tour. So we shouldn’t have to add any more plugs for them.” I began to realize the tension between their two agendas. Sony would love to turn the whole thing into a big ad for Sony, of course, whereas the LCJO wants to keep the focus on the music, the jazz, and not get into advertising during the concerts. So there is a tug-of-war, and I was beginning to be caught in the middle of it. These three Sony people were a little bit scary, I must say. They had secret meetings all the time, and they were supposed to make daily reports on their corporate image during the tour. Tai even asked me several times to give him a more-or-less verbatim account of what I had said about Sony during press conferences and concerts.

The Shanghai audiences were a bit smaller than in Beijing, and the response somewhat more lukewarm. This was a bit odd, since by all rights Shanghai should be more receptive to jazz, given its history. But actually, since the Deng Xiaoping reforms, Beijing has become the real cultural center of China, not Shanghai.

In the piece Back to Basics, Wynton toward this end wrote this very interesting riff in the trombones and saxes that I thought was very effective. After the concert, I made a point of telling him this. I said that the riff was very straightforward and simple, yet at the same time somehow fresh and novel sounding. I told him I knew how hard it is to write something that has a kind of simple predictability, yet at the same time bears repetition without getting stale. And he had succeeded with that riff; the amount of tension and consonance was balanced just right. He seemed to really appreciate this.

“You know, Dave,” he said, “If someone says the song is good, I sort of wonder if they’ve really heard it. But if they say ‘That particular chord change is great,” or ‘That riff really swings’, then I know they’ve got it, the music really got to them.” He’s absolutely right. Actually, people seldom comment about or compliment the music in this way. Most people just say they liked it, or that it was moving or exciting or whatever. Seldom do they delve inside the nuts and bolts of the music, or make reference to a really specific device in the music and its effect. The other members of Wynton’s band might make remarks like the one I made, but they are too inside the whole process. Someone like me has just the right amount of objectivity and expertise to make the compliment meaningful. And I know from experience that sometimes just one person putting their finger right on the essence of the music can make the whole project seem worthwhile.

Guangzhou, Feb. 19

The biggest surprise about Guangzhou was that the reporters at the press conference were hipper than any of the reporters elsewhere. Some of them had obviously done a great deal of research for the press conference, and at least one woman had gone to the trouble of getting several of Marsalis’ CDs and listening to them. There were also some DJs there, who had spent the last few weeks playing jazz and Wynton’s music on the air in order to prepare audiences for the event. This is something we hadn’t anticipated. From the very start, the level of awareness and the interest in the music seemed higher than what we had seen in Beijing and Shanghai. (This may have been in part because fewer international groups make it to Guangzhou, and the Beijing and Shanghai audiences and media are more blasé.)

The result was that Wynton was much more into the Q & A at the Guangzhou press conference. Reporters not only asked better questions, but they would also ask numerous follow-up questions, which Wynton was happy to answer. One DJ was interested in Wynton’s stance on electronic music.

“You say that your group covers the entire history of jazz,” the reporter said, “but there seems to be nothing like funk or jazz-rock on the program, nothing reflecting the newer currents of fusion or electronic music. Why do you exclude these?”

“I make this decision partly in protest,” Wynton replied. “Actually, I have nothing against those kinds of beats and electronic instruments per se. I’ve even played in such groups when I was younger. But now it seems the airwaves are just swamped with that stuff. It certainly doesn’t need our help or support. It’s already everywhere: in commercials, FM radio, and so on. We’re trying to champion the great tradition of improvisational swing, which we feel is almost in danger of dying out.” He also added that he believed the swing rhythm was one that provided the improvisational soloist with greater freedom and space for creativity, and that funk and rock beats were more restrictive.

“Jazz is America’s great musical tradition,” he said. “It was originated by African-Americans, but now it belongs to the whole world. What’s tragic to me is that so many Afro-Americans are so ignorant of the music. Most people now when they think of Black music think of some kind talking pornography over a rap beat for half an hour. I get sick of seeing this stuff all the time.” Several times during the press conference Wynton would pick up his horn and just start playing. But this time the reaction of the reporters was different. One of them said “Wonderful! May I quote you?”

At one point during the press conference I made a boo-boo by referring to the early jazz music performed by people like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton as “Dixieland” jazz. Wynton and Rob Gibson gave me a very dirty look and were quick to correct me. “That term is a no-no,” said Rob. “The right term is ‘New Orleans’ jazz.”

Some of the band members and participants at the table were collapsing from hunger, but Wynton was indefatigable. The press conference lasted over three hours. I was totally exhausted afterwards, and could sympathize with the simultaneous translators at the United Nations who collapse in mental fatigue after a grueling session.

Guangzhou, Feb. 20

The master class the next day was more productive than Shanghai, but still a bit disappointing. A young kid at the conservatory showed up with his trumpet and wanted to play a movement of the Hummel concerto for Wynton. This time they allowed a classical piece, since there wasn’t much jazz. The kid played through the movement, and then Wynton critiqued his playing. He impressed the crowd by flawlessly playing several passages of the piece by memory.

Some reporters cornered Wynton backstage and were asking some more questions. “You said the other day that jazz doesn’t always export very well,” the reporter said. “Why do you think rock music exports so well? Why is rock so popular?”

Wynton immediately said “Because people everywhere like to fuck!” The reporter knew enough English to understand what Wynton had just said. “Oh,” he said timidly, without writing the response down.

After the master class Wynton and I were sitting in a hallway waiting for a car to pick us up and take us back to the hotel. We chatted for a while. Then at one point he just picked up his horn, pointed it directly at me and started playing, improvising on tunes, playing blues lines, all the while giving me this sly look. Strange behavior in a way, yet I realized this was a kind of natural form of communication for him ¾ perhaps a more direct form than language. He just went on and on for several minutes. I sat back and enjoyed the show. “Here I am,” I thought, “receiving a little impromptu concert by Wynton Marsalis. A serenade, if you will!” A strange, unforgettable moment.

For dinner we went to a seafood restaurant. I sat next to Billy Banks. Billy had always seemed rather aloof and cold to me throughout the tour. This persona is part of being a road manager. A road manager has maintain a tough façade to more effectively deal with incompetent hotel and travel personnel, and cost-cutting tour organizers who are less than forthcoming with promised money. But tonight he had his guard down, and I had a rather pleasant talk with him. He has spent a great deal of time in Europe, it turns out, and is fluent in Italian and French. He is also quite a connoisseur of fine food, and educated me about Cajun cuisine and Italian food. I told Billy that I had had a dream about him the night before. I was driving a large truck through the narrow streets of a crowded city. Suddenly the brakes went out, and I had to negotiate all sorts of tricky hairpin turns and traffic-congested intersections at frightening speed. One faulty turn and the lumbering vehicle would overturn, smashing into pieces and spilling the contents onto the road. I told Billy that I woke up and said to myself “That’s Billy! That’s what Billy feels like managing this Asian LCJO tour!” He chuckled and said I must have read his mind.

After the concert that night, there was an informal jam session at a quasi-jazz club in Guangzhou called the Take Five. Some of the musicians, including Wynton, went there to jam for a while. The drummer and bass player had promised to come, but then backed out at the last moment. So Farid the piano player was there, but no bass or drums. There was quite a crowd there at the club, having heard rumors of a jam session, and they were clamoring for Wynton to play something. Luckily the road manager, Nate, also played drums, and he happened to be there. But no bass player. Seeing a battered electric bass there in the corner of the club, I volunteered to play bass for the jam.

“You can play bass?” Wynton asked, giving me his skeptical look.

“Well, yes. No, but yes,” I said. (I was thinking of a paraphrase of Dana’s remark, “Of all the instruments I don’t play, bass is the instrument I don’t play the least.”) I took out the bass, dusted it off, plugged it in, tuned it up. The other members of the band were also watching with amused curiosity. Now this is really ridiculous, I thought. What am I doing backing up Wynton Marsalis on bass? It was just too absurd for me to even feel nervous.

Nate got behind the drums, Farid sat down. “What do you want to do?” he asked Wynton.

“How about Just Friends?” said Wynton. Farid nodded. Wynton turned to me. “Do you know the tune?” It turned out I knew the tune pretty well. A piece of cake! I nodded confidently. “Okay, great,” Wynton said. “Okay, here we go. Key of D-flat.”

What? D-flat?? Now wait just a minute! I’ve only played the tune in the key of G. Isn’t that the key God intended it to be in? “One…two… one, two, three, four…”

Luckily I was standing close enough to Farid that I could watch his left hand and be reminded of the chord changes. Otherwise I could never have transposed the song so quickly. After a few choruses I had sort of memorized it in the new key and everything was okay. Wynton’s solo was so amazing I almost lost my concentration. Farid helped me get back on track a few times. Knowing how Wynton hates electric bass anyway, I turned the volume down low to mimic the sound of an upright bass. While Farid and others were soloing, Wynton stood next to me and shouted bass lessons in my ear. “Feel it in your stomach,” he said. “Don’t let your head dictate the beat. Listen to the ride cymbal. That’s where the groove is. Loosen up your walking, you don’t have to play a note on every single beat.” Etc. We played a couple of tunes this way. Nate was not very solid on drums, so the beat was not so good. After a while Wynton dismissed us from the bandstand, and he and Farid did a few numbers on their own. The audience was transfixed.

Guangzhou, Feb. 21

Kathy Brown had collected some press clippings about the tour, and wanted me to translate a few of them. I was reading one of them and ran across a quote supposedly from Wynton, which in Chinese was something like “Zai mou yi ge yiyi shang, Guangzhou de guanzhong bi Beijing, Shanghai dou hao. Fanying bijiao kuai.” (“In some sense, the audiences in Guangzhou are better than those of Beijing or Shanghai. They caught on very fast to the music.”) The funny thing was, this was almost word-for-word what I had said to a reporter the day before. I realized that actually I had said the quote, but the reporter had either intentionally or unintentionally attributed it to Wynton.

Guangzhou has a wonderful new concert hall, but one designed more for classical music than jazz. The group did a sound check and then we went out for dinner. I spent some time on the bus talking with Ted Nash. I told him how much I enjoyed his playing, and that it had a sort of probing, risky quality that reminded me of Chris Potter or Joe Lovano.

“Well, you’ve hit the nail on the head,” said Ted. “Joe Lovano was one of my teachers, and I used to spend hours in the practice room playing with Chris Potter when I was in school. Those two have certainly been a big influence.” Then Ted said “By the way, I was amazed that you could play bass last night at the club.”

“I can’t really play bass, of course,” I said.

“But you were playing it,” he said. “And plucking all the right notes at the right time. What else do you want? You think music is some mystical thing? Just getting the notes out there in the right order is 90% of it.”

That night Wynton planned that for the start of the concert, the group would enter from the back of the auditorium, playing while threading through the crowd, in New Orleans style. This threw the stagehands ¾ who had never managed anything but classical concerts ¾ for a loop. They were absolutely in a tizzy over this development. How would they handle the lights? What would they audience think? Suppose someone attacked them? What if they tripped coming up on the stage? The stagehands asked me a million questions about what might happen. I tried to reassure them that the LCJO were old hands at this kind of thing, and that the audience would actually love it.

The tour of China was coming to a close, and some of the members of the band were a bit frazzled. The concert was supposed to start at 8:00 sharp, but at 7:55 some of the band members had still not shown up, and Wynton hadn’t even come out of his dressing room. The stagehands started flailing their arms and screaming at me. Where were the band members? They were going to start late! No concert there had ever started late! The audience would revolt! What kind of irresponsible American decadent behavior was this? They kept trying to shove the few band members who were there out onto the stage, which annoyed them greatly. Finally Wynton showed up. Where was Farid? Where was Marcus Printup? They decided to go out into the wings and start the concert without them.

They went through the side hallway out to the lobby and then began the march into the hall, playing a Mardi Gras tune. The audience, indeed went wild. Kids were jumping up on their seats, people were clapping and laughing, everyone loved it. They had never seen a concert begin like this. They finally reached the stage and took their places on the stand. I came out to do my translation thing, and Wynton prepared to begin his introductory remarks. At that point Farid and Marcus sheepishly crept onstage, 15 minutes late for the performance. Wynton simply introduced them at that point as if they were special guests or something, but then gave them both secret glares when he turned back to face the ensemble.

The concert went very well, with a very enthusiastic response from the crowd, much better than the Shanghai concerts. This was the last concert of the China tour, and by now I was familiar with the repertoire and with Wynton’s quirks and preferences, that the whole thing went very smoothly. Backstage after the concert Wynton again put his head on my shoulder like a little kid. “Dave, you’re a cool motherfucker,” he said.

There was a mob of reporters and autograph seekers backstage. Wynton sat in a little back room talking and signing autographs. I was on hand to do translation when needed. As the crowd was thinning out and the entourage was preparing to board the buses and leave, a couple of skinny high school boys came in to the room, one of them carrying his battered trumpet case.

“Could you tell Mr. Marsalis that I’d like ask him some questions,” he asked me in Chinese. I introduced the two of them to Wynton. The one with the trumpet said “I have trouble hitting high notes. Could you give me some tips on how to increase my range?” Wynton had the boy take out his trumpet and play a bit for him. He started advising him on some problems with his embouchure. (This was some of the hardest translating I had to do, by the way.) Both of the students took turns playing and getting advice from Wynton. Wynton even took out his own horn and began to demonstrate some principles of breath control and relaxation. Billy Banks and some members of the group were pulling on Wynton’s arm, whispering that it was time to go. One of the stagehands came up and told the boys that Mr. Marsalis was very tired, and they should just get an autograph and leave so he could rest. Wynton ignored them and continued with this little impromptu master class. Twenty minutes went by, thirty, forty. In all he spent about 45 minutes with these two kids, and I imagine neither of whom had dreamed of receiving a private lesson with the most famous trumpet player in the world.

After the concert, the Guangzhou people had arranged a dinner aboard a boat, which would sail around the harbor for a few hours while we ate. The weather was mild, the air fresh. Everyone was through with their obligations for a few days, and we all relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves for the first time. There was a pipa player on the boat playing music for the passengers. (A pipa is a Chinese plucked stringed instrument, sort of like a large mandolin.) He was pretty good, and he and Wynton wanted to converse a bit, so I stepped in and did more translating for them. Actually the pipa player was not all that great, but Wynton and the other band members had never seen the instrument before, so they were quite interested in his playing. They had a very interesting conversation, and I did quite a bit of cross-linguistic explaining about jazz and Chinese music. At any rate, this was so typical of Wynton, and perhaps all people of his ability and standing ¾ he simply never rests. He is always thinking, exchanging ideas, preparing for some event, exploring something new. Even on a relaxed evening boat ride, he’s there engaged in an intense cultural exchange with a pipa player.

After dinner I ran into Wynton again in the lobby of the hotel. He came over to me and put his arm around my shoulder. “Dave, you saved the tour,” he said. “We couldn’t have done half of what we did without you.” Hyperbole, of course, but it’s true that I was a two-way conduit for most of the cultural exchange that occurred. Music may be a universal language, but in a case like this, I think it was good to have other forms of verbal communication to supplement it.

For some reason, one of the coordinators for the Guangzhou, a diminutive, tireless woman who had gone two days without sleep to take care of the concert logistics, wanted to invite Wynton for a midnight dinner to express her thanks. We communicated this to Wynton, but nobody really believed he would show up. None of the other band members wanted to go, and they all either went back to their rooms to crash, or went out to explore the night life of Guangzhou. I went to the dinner with a few Chinese organizers. We all sat down and the woman began to order food. Amazingly, around 12:30 Wynton actually did show up, still wide awake, still going strong. He sat next to me, and I did a further bout of translation for several hours. He was gracious, engaging, charming to everyone. This was the height of the Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the Chinese were full of questions for Wynton on this subject.

Wynton and I talked quite a bit more, as well. We found out we both had a great love for Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, and we sat for a while singing our favorite trumpet licks from the piece (much to the amusement of the Chinese dining with us). It turns out Wynton had written a ballet with the same orchestration that Stravinsky used, and the same general format and plot. In his version, the protagonist was a musician rather than a soldier, and the Devil was an unscrupulous record producer. He had even produced a CD with both Stravinsky’s suite and his own. Wynton is incredibly prolific. He told me that last year alone he had put out 15 albums, much of it music he had written earlier and was only now being released. He’s written big band pieces, suites, an oratorio, ballet music, symphonic pieces, small group pieces, and all sorts of solo albums. I also learned more about his personal life. He’s divorced with three kids.

“God, I miss my kids,” he said. “But I hardly ever see them any more. I’m on the road half the year, and it’s hard to visit them when I’m back in New York.” He now has a girlfriend, only 19 years old. “She’s one incredible woman,” he said. “Fantastic musician, plays the flute. Speaks several languages, a mathematical genius. I mean, the woman is a genius, a great intellect. And beautiful, you can’t believe how beautiful. I thought about bringing her with me, but I can’t bring her on the road with me, man. It just doesn’t work. Can you imagine what it would do to my relation to the other guys? Here they are, away from home, lonely and looking for women, and here I am with this gorgeous fox at my side all the time. Just wouldn’t work. The thing is, she doesn’t want to get married, doesn’t want to marry me. I mean, this woman is incredible, she could have anyone she wants. I don’t think she wants to settle for me.”

We talked some more about music, about life, politics. We both lamented over the sorry state of the U.S. artistic environment, the pathetic status of the arts in the U.S. market, the hopeless struggle to make meaningful music amidst the flashy, worthless pop-dominated music world. And, and of course, jazz was never far from the topic. As time went on, we sort of tuned out of the Chinese banquet and entered into a conversation all our own. We sort of woke up when the host finally raised a glass to us in a final toast at 3:00 am.

We parted ways at the elevator in the lobby. He was leaving early the next day by train to the next destination, I was going back to Beijing. We shook hands, then a brief hug. He said we would keep in touch, that he had “other plans” for China, and he would certainly call on me again.

I haven’t had any contact with him since then.

But then again, we are always in contact ¾ through the music.


  1. Jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker played once in Beijing, and he jammed with our band. Our sax player Du Yinjiao loaned him his saxophone for a few numbers. After the jam session, Du said to me, “Just think! Michael Brecker played my saxophone! I'm going to take this reed off and frame it!” Then he added “It probably has AIDS on it, anyway.”

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