"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Creativity
February 7, 2011

How To Develop A Jazz Scene In Hong Kong

Every few weeks I field a question about the jazz scene in Hong Kong. What’s it like? Why isn’t it growing? How come I don’t play live? What could be done to make it better? Sometimes the questions come from people outside the city, but often they arise in conversations with the few jazz fans […]

Every few weeks I field a question about the jazz scene in Hong Kong. What’s it like? Why isn’t it growing? How come I don’t play live? What could be done to make it better? Sometimes the questions come from people outside the city, but often they arise in conversations with the few jazz fans and various musical omnivores who call this town home.

Last May I jotted down some thoughts on this (and the follow-up post, on the Music Matters live showcase also comes to mind). I wrote those posts after having “nearly” returned to the stage. But, none of those opportunities bore fruit and in the past year I haven’t really thought twice about playing live (aside from the crazy iPad performance coming up this Thursday).

But, I do keep wondering what it might take for Hong Kong to develop a richer jazz scene. Right now there are a few good musicians based here, a handful of small venues and even a decent annual jazz festival (more on that later). Maybe the situation bears comparison with London where, according to the Jazz Services UK report, The Value of Jazz in Britain II (PDF link) THE VALUE OF JAZZ IN BRITAIN II 11.7% of live music venues are jazz-centric.

In fact, that report makes for very interesting reading; in 2008, 5.7% of UK adult population attended some kind of live jazz event, compared to 4% for opera and 8.1% for classical music. Overall jazz revenue went up between 2005 and 2008, despite a significant decline in recorded music sales (with downloads not making up the difference in falling CD sales). Moreover, there was growing creativity in the hosting of live events, with alternative venues (i.e., not pubs, arts centres, concert halls, jazz clubs, theatres or restaurants) accounting for 27% of gigs (up from 20% in 2005) In fact, Jazz seems to be doing well in the UK despite a lack of media coverage.

A sobering picture emerges in Andy Derrick’s post, How to develop the jazz scene in the UK. Andy highlights a number of tensions for working bands and creative groups seeking funding. I was particularly drawn to his suggestions,

“What I would like to see is a two pronged campaign from those organisations that fund and support live jazz in the UK.

Provide training in marketing, promotion, social media, gig management etc. for gig promoters
Provide a fund that promoters can bid into that will subsidise musicians’ fees and not audience development”

That got me thinking – what would I propose for growing the Jazz scene here? Well, here are a few ideas,

Excellence – Brutal truth time – unstructured jams and soft, pseudo-bossa duets will not get us very far. We need music that will appeal to real jazz fans and curious musical omnivores. I’ve seen these people respond at gigs for Omar Sosa, McCoy Tyner & Christian Scott, Roy Hargrove, Cafe de los Maestros, Scott Henderson, Lee Ritenour, Hiromi and others. But, to do that the music has to be excellent, well-thought out, or at least outrageously inventive and original.

Engagement Social media has given us musicians a golden opportunity to engage fans, but too few people involved in the jazz scene are taking advantage of that. Festivals, venues and promoters could start by responding to emails and requests for information. Artists could talk to their fans, make themselves more available for lessons and offer more of their material for download or easy purchase. And fans could build momentum on blogs and other platforms.

Collaboration Look at any city in the world where jazz is thriving and you will notice a lot of collaboration. Not loose jams, but meaningful projects, both within and across genres.

Regionality Reading the jazz in the UK report I mentioned above reminded me that as much as I miss the Jazz scene in London, the truth is that musicians there sustain themselves by playing across the whole of the country. There’s no future in trying to be “big in Hong Kong.” Whether by touring, or engaging online, musicians have to develop a regional following in order to sustain themselves.

Patronage Patronage is most historically successful model for supporting musicians. With the death of the large scale recorded music industry it makes sense to come back to thinking about patronage, especially for venues and festivals.

Anyway, that’s a small set of ideas. Perhaps even that would not be enough. I’m not sure, but if you love jazz and would like to talk more about this, please leave a comment or get in touch via email.

Spike 13 years ago

Jumbled thoughts because it’s late and I should be asleep.

While jazz was once popular music, it hasn’t held that position in half a century. The perception now is probably that jazz is difficult music. Of course jazz has many sub-genres, many more accessible than others. But that is the metaphorical mountain that one has to climb. Otherwise the audience in Hong Kong for jazz is predominantly older (my best guess based on the audiences I’ve seen at jazz shows I’ve attended here). The answer is education. We live in a place where people think Kenny G is jazz and don’t want to hear anything more challenging than that. They have no idea of who Wayne Shorter is, why he’s great, why they should listen to him. Let alone John Coltrane. Or, buddha forbid, Ornette Coleman.

The predominant popular music form, canto-pop, is musically simple and relatively etched in stone. People won’t ask for what they don’t know, they need to get exposed to it somehow in order to know it exists to want more of it.

People need to know how to listen to it. More articles in the press, more music on the radio, classes in schools, that will lead to more demand for live jazz music.

There are excellent jazz musicians in Hong Kong. Eugene Pao and Flynn Adams are two names that come immediately to mind. I think Eugene survives by playing anything and everything and do a lot of work off-shore. Flynn maybe somewhat similar. You can hear these guys play live almost any given night of the week and yet they haven’t appreciably expanded their audiences in years.

My solution: in other cities I’ve lived in (not that many), cable TV companies have to provide public access programming, some channels that anyone can submit a tape to and get on. Why don’t we have that in Hong Kong? Two public access channels, one Chinese, one multi-language, and have some jazz on TV, music and interviews and archival footage. Then use social media as a way to promote this and get people to tune in – they can get it at home, it’s free, they’ll give it a try. And then we can start to rebuild the scene that was basically destroyed when the Jazz Club closed a decade ago.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Spike – thanks for your comments, I always appreciate your views on this subject. I like your solution. It makes me wonder though – do we even need to do it through public access TV. Would a really good website be enough?

Education needs to be a part of this and in my suggestions I slide that under the excellence and engagement ideas. I’ve seen some jazz performed by school orchestras, but not a lot of options exist for school kids to explore the genre. Also, I’m under the impression there is no specifically jazz programme available here in the tertiary sector. I did once see the HKAPA offer a big band programme in continuing education stream, heck I very nearly applied!

However, we probably need something even more fundamental than jazz education. You are right that the hard core jazz constituency tends to be skewed towards the older demographic. But, when we look at what sustains the live jazz scene in most major cities, it is partly supported by the jazz crowd, but largely stays alive thanks to a younger demographic of musical omnivores (people who just love live music, in whatever form).

So, what’s cantonese for musical omnivore? 🙂

Spike 13 years ago

In this case, I don’t think a really good web site on its own is enough. You have to go to a web site. You have to see a link that interests you enough to get you to want to click on that link and then take the time to wait while a streaming video or bit of music loads. Ain’t gonna happen.

TV programming, on the other hand … people lie on the sofa. Granted most people here have their TVs stuck on TVB but some will flip through the channels (I think the kids call it “surf”) and pass by this station and something will catch their eye or their ear and they’ll stay tuned and come back for more. (And then of course supported by a really good web site.)

And that’s aside from the thousands of other benefits that public access TV would bring to our little SAR. A place for free political expression. An outlet for artists of all kinds. Parodies of America’s Next Top Model. Oops.

P.S. You probably already all know this but for those few who don’t, go watch John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Many of the scenes are set in the late, lamented Jazz Club in Lan Kwai Fong, and you get a good look at the club and a good feel for the place. Chow Yun-fat plays there. John Woo himself plays the bartender. People freaking loved this place. They brought in big name artists from all around the world, jazz, blues and rock, usually on their own and then backed up by the best HK musicians, and the prices weren’t crazy. Any night there was a guaranteed good time.

FF 13 years ago

Fabulous blog entry! In response to the issues Fernando raised…if I may chime in:

The problem is the sound of jazz does not belong to the traditions of the local Chinese population here. One’s taste for music develops unconsciously. So if your parents preferred Cantopop, and if Cantopop is the genre that dominates the airwaves – i guess it’s quite impossible for these people to develop an interest strong enough to boost the demand for live jazz.

I grew up listening to those ‘watery’ Cantopop. My interest of jazz did not develop until I’m well into my late teens, the time when I have extra cash for live music and alcohol. My music teacher at secondary school is narrow minded. My weekly music class has always been a nightmare. Classical music seems to be the only genre she cares and supports and she knows nothing about ragtime, big band, dixieland, bossa nova…etc. And she kinda look down on budding musicians who does not follow the so-called classical music track. What’s wrong with our music education?! What’s so wrong about playing jazz, rock and roll and r&b? it’s just music, afterall..

Anyway, back to the topic. from my observation..those who enjoy jazz here are mainly expats, hippies and yuppies. Expats come and go – so from a demand and supply perspective that causes fluctuation in the demand and for owners of jazz club – that is not a piece of good news.

But we’re in a different age now – with the convenience introduced by the internet, everyone had more opportunities to come into contact with jazz – if they wanted to. it may be a totally different story in 40 years’ time. who knows?

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

FF – thanks for the comment. I certainly feel that if Jazz is ever to really make a mark on Hong Kong, it would need to be covered on local television and radio. Also, it would really help if there was a serious Jazz programme (both composition and performance) at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Hong Kong’s expat community is too small (and too young) to sustain a jazz scene by itself.

Tim 13 years ago

I’m on my way to HK so am very interested in what you have to say on this forum, as I like to play a bit.
Perhaps if people are encouraged to try it out for themsleves it might help things develop? It certainly helped me.
Have a look at
or better still

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Tim – there are a few opportunities to jam in Hong Kong, which is both a good and bad thing.

Tim 13 years ago

I don’t think that is quite what I meant. Jamming is one thing, Learning to Jam is another.

Karmina 13 years ago

This is not my first time here, and again you know what you’re doing, keep it.

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