At the moment, I’m writing to you from my hotel in Beijing after a long night at the bar. The jet lag of our 13-hour flight hasn’t quite left yet, and when onstage taking a solo, vulnerable seconds can feel like minutes. My winter term 2011 project is in full swing. Literally. For the second time, I’ve been able to bring my jazz sextet, the Terry Hsieh Collective, to Beijing, China to play, teach, and learn.
In the summer of 2009, I had the opportunity to study Chinese language in Beijing. During most of the program, I was so focused on my language studies that I had little time to explore the city. I spent most of my free time trying to look for places to hear good music. My expectations were low the first night I walked into East Shore Jazz Club in Houhai. The gimmicky sign reeked of western appropriation and the dingy stairs to the club were cramped and creaky instead of reminiscent of the Chicago clubs that they were supposed to imitate.
However, as soon as I pulled back the curtain and walked in, my jaw dropped. Standing front and center was my soon-to-be best friend Nathaniel Gao, blowing away all my expectations with his alto saxophone, joined onstage by pianist, friend, and mentor Xia Jia, bassist Zhang Ke and drummer Izumi. I couldn’t leave, even if I had wanted to, because I was so astounded that such vibrant, modern, and hip music was flowing from musicians in this diverse city of flashing neon lights, drab concrete dwellings, grungy dumpling dives, and gaudy karaoke bars. That was where all of this began.
I soon discovered that Beijing had a small but vibrant jazz scene. Local musicians had formed a community, providing for each other and enjoying an all-around camaraderie that I felt was largely missing in other cities that called themselves homes to jazz music in the United States.
I decided to return in January of 2010 with a band of Oberlin Conservatory and double-degree jazz majors under the moniker of the Terry Hsieh Collective, to explore this community and see what it had to offer, and throughout the fall semester of 2009 I secured financial aid from the Winter Term Committee, the Tuckership Fund from the East Studies Department, the Office of Study Away, and my good friend and business partner, Henry Zhang, Vice-President of Investment Banking at Barclay’s Capital.
Our tour showed me that Beijing’s music scene was starving for growth, and that this represented a unique opportunity for Oberlin jazz majors to find work upon graduation. Indeed, it only took five weeks of playing in Beijing for senior drummer Alex Morris ’10 to convince himself to save up for a plane ticket and book a one-way flight to Beijing. He’s been doing extremely well.
Our first tour showed me how much the musicians in China were starving for new players and new musicians to come around. Musicians feed off of each other; energy comes from synergy, and when one cat is tearing it up, he or she raises the level of performance from everyone else. In Beijing, the small number of musicians that regularly perform are close, but they’ve been yearning for other people to play with.
This January, I’ve returned again with yet another band. We’re a six-piece ensemble: Will Miller ’12 on trumpets, Alexander Cummings ’13 on alto saxophones, myself on trombones, Julia Chen ’13 on piano, Brandon Gaoiran ’12 on bass, and Cory Rogers ’12 on the drums. We’ve supported ourselves with over $7,000 of grant money from CIGSIE, the Office of Winter Term, and the Study Away office.
I’ve discovered even more about the work required to run, lead, and manage a band. Aside from the managerial and financial duties of being a bandleader, “leading a band” means so much more than playing the role of master and commander. As a musician, a bandleader gives the group direction, an attempt to take some others’ music or aesthetic and put it in words that the other group members can understand. In this sense, a group of musicians must feel empowered to take initiative, something that a good leader must be able to foster.
A bandleader is explicitly not someone who gives orders: he gives suggestions, encouragement, or positive criticism in order to nudge the group in one direction. Above all, the bandleader has to rise above petty squabbles between individuals, and sometimes put aside personal expectations. I can definitely say that many a problem has been solved by being able to objectively mediate an argument instead of diving headfirst into it. As the only Chinese-speaker in the group, it falls squarely on my shoulders to make sure simple everyday activities like eating, or finding a bathroom, go smoothly. I’ve discovered ways of subconsciously hammering certain routines into the group, in order that I don’t have to micromanage their schedules or take them around to every single place.
But most of all, the most important thing I’ve learned so far is that friendship is the bottom-most rung on the ladder of music: the best jam sessions, the best solos, and the best memories are shared on stage with people who can lose themselves in each other. Logistically, it hasn’t been the smoothest tour, but I can say that the camaraderie that has been developing among the group, and the local musicians, will last us a lifetime.