Jazz in Shanghai

Jazz made its entrance in Shanghai in 1919, following the end of the first world war. Newspapers described it as a ”dancing sickness” and weren't entirely sure about what to think about it. At least they could agree that it was probably just a passing fad. But it wasn't, instead Shanghai became host to a major jazz scene in the 1920s. Despite an attempted ban from China's antiwestern dictator Chiang Kai-shek following his unification of China in 1927, the city's jazz scene continued unabated until the Japanese occupation in 1937. This was in part due to Chiang's important ally the mob boss Du Yue Sheng, a jazz lover and financer of several of the major orchestras in the 1930s.

The jazz at the time was dance music and sounded considerably different from what we know as jazz today. It was played in the ball rooms of the city, some of which got large enough to hold thousands of dancers at the same time. Both the white community and the Chinese of the city pursued the music with great zeal, making jazz venues one of the few places even partially exempt from racial segregation.

Among the host of prominent American jazz players visiting the wealthy city of Shanghai was Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. Paul Whiteman was one of the largest names in jazz in the 1920s, earning him the nickname The King of Jazz. He performed at the Astor House Hotel in Shanghai during the spring of both 1926 and 1927.

Unlike him, some jazz musicians stuck around in Shanghai. Among others this includes Whitey Smith. He was born in Vejle in 1897 under the name Sven Eric Schmidt. In 1904 he and his parents migrated to the US and settled in San Francisco where he took up jazz in his teenage years. He got randomly hired to play in Shanghai in 1922 where he found enough success to stay until 1930. The high point of his career was probably playing at the wedding of Chiang Kai-shek and Song Meiling on December 1, 1927.


Whitey Smith's orchestra in 1924, a distinctly white jazz ensemble.


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Paul Whiteman, the amazing King of Jazz, has spent the last year filling the dancefloors of the world with his wonderful The Birth of the Blues.
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If you haven't had time yet, hurry over to Astor House where Whiteman famously plays all spring. He will certainly include Birth of the Blues on the set.

We all know the melody, but take a minute to enjoy the poetry of the lyrics. They can easily be appreciated without the music:


Oh! They say some people long ago

were searching for a different tune.

One that they could croon

as only they can.


They only had the rythm so

they started swaying to and fro.

They didn’t know just what they had

and that is how the blues really began.


They heard the breeze in the trees

singing weird melodies.

And they made that

the start of the blues.


And from a jail came the wail

of a down hearted frail.

And they played that

as part of the blues.


From a whippoorwill out on a hill

they took a new note.

Pushed it through a horn

‘til it was born into a blue note.


And then they nursed it, rehearsed it,

and gave out the news

that the southland

gave birth to the blues!

The illustration shows The King of Jazz on the right next to one of his greatest competitors, the talented Duke Ellington.

Søren Hein Rasmussen
Christina Maria Jessen

Ying Chen
Sissel Vennike Ditlevsen
Christina Maria Jessen
Carsten Lysbjerg Mogensen
Søren Hein Rasmussen
Rikke Holst Thomsen

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