Lao Ren and his world of jazz

Ren Yuqing, hailed as the godfather of China's jazz music, talks about the development of the musical genre in Shanghai.
Lao Ren and his world of jazz
Ti Gong

For over a decade, Ren Yuqing, or Lao Ren as he is popularly known, has been working hard to promote jazz among the ordinary folks in China.

The former bassist for rock veterans Cui Jian and Zhang Chu is the founder of JZ Music Group, which has provided a platform in Shanghai for jazz musicians from all over the world. He is also the man behind the annual JZ Festival and regular live performances.

Among the big-name jazz artists Ren has collaborated in Shanghai are Pat Metheny, Chick Corea and Dee Dee Bridgewater, to name just a few. He has also supported young and promising Chinese jazz singers and helped bring them to the world stage.

Thanks to Ren’s efforts, jazz is no longer an exclusive and niche genre of music for the locals.

Ren’s latest effort is “Jazz Novel Tetralogy,” a series of four performances to be held  at the Shanghai City Theater from the end of September. It is part of the “Jazz Novel” project which was launched in May and proved to be a hit among audiences.

Part of the upcoming “Tetralogy” activities include performance, knowledge sharing and interaction that will help the audiences better understand the language of jazz.

Ren, a native of Beijing, started playing bass at the age of 14. He started his musical career in 1993 with the band Stone. From 1994 to 1999, he performed with some of the most influential rock and folk musicians in China, including “godfather of China’s rock music” Cui Jian, Dou Wei, Liu Yuan and Pu Shu. After finishing his studies at Singapore’s LASALLE College of the Arts in 2000, he moved to Shanghai, a city of diverse cultures, to promote jazz.

In 2003, Ren established the JZ Music Group. The following year he started the first JZ Club and organized the first JZ Festival. Over the past decade, the JZ Festival has grown to become China's largest and most popular jazz event. Many consider him the “godfather of China’s jazz.” 

Since most music schools in China don’t offer jazz-related courses, Ren founded a jazz school with a full-time curriculum to cultivate China’s own jazz artists. This year, more than 30 students have enrolled. Some of them will get a chance to perform at the JZ Club and at the JZ Festival.

Ren continues to perform regularly on upright and electric bass. He has also served as the jazz band leader of Hong Kong pop star Karen Mok.

Lao Ren and his world of jazz
Ti Gong

Q: You were playing for rock bands in Beijing. What made you decide to come to Shanghai and promote jazz?

A: At that time I wanted to live a different life. Being a bassist was no longer challenging for me. I wanted to explore new possibilities in life. Shanghai was a cultural and art center in Asia as early as the 1930s. Music, film and theater flourished here. I believed jazz stood a good chance of becoming popular in the city. 

Q: For you, what's the charm of jazz?

A: Different from rock and roll, which is often illuminated by one's harsh experience, jazz draws its inspiration from ordinary life. Under a rigorous logical structure, jazz can have a lot of changes and can be improvised on the stage. The band members can follow the improvisation and interact with each other. It is a musical style featuring great imagination and unpredictability.

Q: Who are the major audiences for your jazz performances? How can jazz appeal to youngsters?

A: Most of our audiences are young people under 25 years old. Since jazz is still not mainstream in China, we used to combine jazz elements with other music forms. But now I think it is important to improve young people’s understanding of jazz. That is why we often organize workshops and present live performances. Most of our outdoor jazz shows at parks and plazas are free of charge. 

Q: What do you think of the growth of jazz in China?

A: Among all the cities in China, Shanghai has the best environment for jazz. Prior to 2000, jazz was rarely performed in the public. At that time jazz bands used to mainly perform for foreign guests at Peace Hotel. But now it is exposed to people of all ages.

Every year the JZ Festival in Shanghai attracts over 500,000 people. It has become a cultural brand of the city. However, compared with the jazz festivals in Europe and North America, it is still young.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival, the largest of its kind in the world, attracts 1.5 million people, which is almost half of the city’s population. In that sense, Shanghai, with a population of over 24 million, still has a huge market potential.
In addition to Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen (both in Guangdong Province) are also ideal places to promote and develop jazz. There's an estimate of around 80,000 jazz fans in the two cities who regularly buy jazz albums.

Q: What's the biggest challenge in promoting jazz?

A: Patience, I think. Though a lot of people keep telling me to do hip-hop and electronic music which are hot among the young generation, we don't want to be merely driven by the profits. Success always comes from perseverance.

Q: What do you think of the change of your role from a bassist for rock bands to an ardent jazz promoter? What have you gained from your experience in promoting jazz? 

A: I feel more fulfilled and peaceful because my work helps a lot of people enjoy good music. A gift for me is that now I have a new understanding of music. It makes me calm. On the way to pursuing our music dream, we should never lose faith.

Q: What's your future plan?

A: I have more than 30 performances a year. I will continue to organize the JZ Festival and manage the JZ Music Group. In the future I hope to bring the jazz live performances to people in smaller cities across China.

Lao Ren and his world of jazz
Ti Gong

“Jazz Novel Tetralogy” performances

Date: September 29, October 18, November 29, December 25, 7:30pm

Tickets: 80-280 yuan

Tel: 5415-8976

Venue: Shanghai City Theater

Address: 4889 Dushi Rd

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