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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