Clarence Chang, founder of Jazz World Live Series in Hong Kong, sat down with Pelago co-founder, Bob Bunger, to share with us how jazz became his life.
Pelago: What was your first introduction to jazz?
JWLS: When I was growing up in Hong Kong, there was no Canto-pop back then. Everybody was listening to western pop music – the Beatles, Bee Gees. But what really got me into music was listening to progressive rock. Bands like Mike Oldfield and King Crimson. So I picked up a guitar at 12 years old listening to western pop and progressive rock.
Later I heard music like Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra. I didn’t know what that was when I listened to it at the time, I thought, it’s so great! But I didn’t understand it, so I put it to the side. Then got into bands like Bob James, Larry Carlton. Maybe it’s not considered jazz now, but its music with groove, funk, a kind of fusion. Whatever moves you is good music.
Pelago: What gave you the idea to start your record store?
JWLS:I got a job in a recording studio in the 80’s for a while at a time when recording technology was advancing quickly. It started off, wow, man, it’s something new, something different. I was one of the first people to use a drum machine. Now I listen back to the records I did, you know, I’m still happy with the ones I did with real musicians. I listened to the first couple things I did with drum machines, and just want to f*cking throw it out the window. But some people can use it very well, with colors, like Phil Collins, incorporate electronic drums with the real drums. So everything was changing, people started doing their own recordings, I was getting less calls.
Then I had a chance to work with American jazz label GRP, one of the pioneers of the jazz label in the 80’s (founded by Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen in 1978). They had all the great recordings. At that time a jazz renaissance was starting in Asia. It started because of Kenny G, it was lot of people’s introduction to jazz.
I was their representative in Asia. I travelled around Asia to promote jazz and bring the artists over for GRP.
Robben Ford, Spyro Gyra, Lee Ritenour, Acoustic Alchemy, Brecker Brothers, Chick Corea, Larry Carlton…..nearly everybody from the roster…….
I worked for GRP for 3 or 4 years, then they sold their label and it was time for me to move on as well. So I went back to studio work, recording and producing local musicians.
So in 2001 I wanted to continue my work in Hong Kong and I started Jazz World as a CD shop.
Pelago: How did you evolve this into doing the Jazz World Live Series ?
JWLS: After starting my CD shop, I remember thinking back to one day when I was helping Eric Marienthal with his Asia tour and he said to me, “hey Clarence, you are taking us to all these jazz festivals in Asia, why don’t you take us to a jazz festival in your country?” And I said to myself, that’s it, that’s what I’m going to do next.
I started the first jazz festival in Hong Kong in Oct 2008 with acts including Bob James, the Yellow Jackets with Mike Stern, Alain Caron with Frank Gambale
It was difficult with the economic problems of 2008, but managed to get the first festival done. I followed that with festivals in 2009, 2010 and 2011. That gave me some good experience doing live jazz in Hong Kong. But I found it was difficult to do a 3-day festival in Hong Kong, to get the attendance to make it work. I knew what artists to bring. But people couldn’t commit to a 3-day festival and the artists schedules didn’t always line up with the festival’s 3-day schedule. So the idea came to me to do a series, spread the festival over the year. And that solved the problem. That started in 2013, when I did 12 concerts, 2014 was 14 concerts and we’ll have about 11 this year. We try to bring in different types of artists but sometimes it’s too my taste as well.
Pelago: There are many genres of jazz music. What are the genres of jazz that you feel works better for Hong Kong?
JWLS: I’m not crazy about avant garde, I like jazz with a melody. Music is about communication, unless you have melody its really hard to communicate, unless it’s something really rhythmic.
When I was doing recording in the 80s, in Hong Kong we always lacked good horn players. Now its better but back then you could only find 2 or 3 horn pliers. For one song I needed a horn player. One day I met a guy, a sax player, who claimed he recorded with Anthony Braxton. Ok he must be something. So ask him, you want to do some session work with me, I said its a simple song, 4 bars of melody, 8 bars of solos. Ok, I can do that. So he shows up to the studio and he’s warming up. And I think wow this guy sounds great. So I put the sheet music in front of him and he says I can’t read the music. I say, oh that’s fine, it’s 4 bars of melody, I can play it for you , you can learn it easily. Then the melody he plays isn’t even close. So I say ok ok ,forget the melody, you can just solo. Then he can’t even follow the chord progression. So from that day onwards, fuck avant garde. I respect the artists who have the technique to play both, like Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane.
We bring in a lot of obscure artists, especially from Europe, lot of Italian jazz. A lot of people like Italian jazz, it’s quite melodic, not corny. Enrico Pieranunzi, my favorite pianist Daniel Rea, one of the greatest guys you will ever meet, I brought him out here twice, I went to Italy to see him once.
Pelago: What is one of your most memorable encounters with a jazz artist?
JWLS: Most of the people I’ve met, the artists are great people, they are so down to earth. Even the super stars, like Herbie Hancock, Larry Carlton. They are so much fun to be with. And the other great thing about doing the series, is I have more time to be with them. To have dinner with them, talk with them, hear their stories. Herbie was telling his stories about Miles. Miles sent Herbie and the band to check out Electric Lady Land with the idea of recording with Jimi Hendrix. They booked a date in two weeks after to do some recording. But before that could happen, Jimi died and the recording never happened. Can you imagine? A recording with Miles and Jimi?
Pelago: Since you started in 2001, how has jazz evolved in Asia?
JWLS: It’s getting more popular, a lot more concerts in Asia, in Korea, so many jazz artists going to Korea. And of course Japan, everybody goes to Japan. And China, jazz appreciation is growing. Alot of people are more open minded than in Hong Kong. And China is big, so the market has a lot of potential there. Even so, jazz is never going to be mainstream, not even in the US. It’s always going to be a niche market, that’s the culture of jazz. People are loyal to the music.
Pelago: So what do you do in your spare time when you’re not producing?
JWLS: I go home and listen to good music. That’s the beauty of it, even when I’m working, I’m not working! But it’s not always easy as a job. Of course, you still need to sell tickets to keep it alive. Some times you don’t mind not making money, but still don’t want to lose money. You have to minimize the risk.
Pelago: So how do you decide which artists to bring to Hong Kong?
JWLS: I’m learning how to say no to some artists I really love but I may lose a lot. Sometimes I would rather buy a plane ticket to go see them. I went to Singapore twice this year to see concert, once for Pat Metheny and once to see Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Pelago: Crosby, Stills and Nash? That’s awesome but that’s not jazz!
JWLS: No, but it’s still great music !
Pelago: What else would you like to share with your jazz fans of Hong Kong ?
JWLS: One thing we are always looking out for, we can always use more sponsors. For the next couple shows, the ELEMENTS shopping center are sponsoring us. Here it’s only the sponsors who support jazz. In a lot of cities, the government help support jazz music but not in Hong Kong. We are building up a brand, and people know our series.
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