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BIRTH OF A NEW COOL: the story of Vietnamese Jazz. by Steve Bewick


the story of Vietnamese Jazz.

by Steve Bewick

In the West, those of us of a certain age will remember the anti-war demonstrations outside of the American Embassy, London, UK. Our memory will be a collage of the clashes with the police, the chants of, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” and the pop and protest music of that time. Trade Union struggles were regularly a feature of the news, rebellion was in the air free jazz was in the ascendency

This was a very British scene in the seventies. In Vietnam the armed struggle for the right of national self-determination was one marked by the horrors of the American insurgencies and it lives on in the minds of those who survived that horror, and their children, today who live and work in the now Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). Less known however is what came with the bombs and what remained. This article explores the emergence of a musical love affair with jazz in the SRV.

Inspired by the sounds of different ethnic music heard in the pre Vietnam days of the seventies and eighties, original melodies were being developed by indigenous musicians making room for improvisation to tell their own stories, interwoven with their personal experiences.

Duke Ellington

This process was underpinned by the echoes of Charlie Parker’s Bebop and Duke Ellington’s swing sounds to become the bona fide Vietnamese jazz of the early years of reform in the new nation into what now has become a growing movement of musicology. Vietnam has included jazz as a major within a Bachelors of Art in Music and performance with the establishment of the jazz department at Vietnam National Academy of Music since 2015.

The Jazz Department was established by Associate Professor/Doctor Lưu Quang Minh, also a leading educator of accordion in Vietnam. The Vietnam National Academy of Music (Vietnamese: Học viện Âm nhạc Quốc gia Việt Nam), formerly the Hanoi Conservatory of Music, is the major classical and traditional music teaching institution in Vietnam.

They further offer courses in Master of Arts in Jazz Performance and to date a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in Jazz Education & Pedagogy attained by Dr. Nguyen Manh, current Head of the Jazz Department. Mr. Quyen Van Minh’s son, Quyen Thien Dac was the first jazz musician from Vietnam to enroll at Berklee College of Music in the States. A number of lecturers from the Jazz Department have studied at Malmo Academy of Music in Sweden under the Sida cooperation project between Vietnamese and Swedish governments. The Vietnam National Academy of Music (Vietnamese: Học viện Âm nhạc Quốc gia Việt Nam), formerly the Hanoi Conservatory of Music, is the major classical and traditional music teaching institution in Vietnam.

For the past 15 years, Professor Hakan Rydin from Malmo Academy of Music has been particularly supportive in developing the jazz scene in Vietnam and at the same time, educating the new generation of jazz lecturers and musicians in Vietnam. The Jazz Department has also welcomed a number of exchange students from Malmo Academy of Music to study for one to two semesters.

Vietnamese jazz musicians have now performed outside of Vietnam in Sweden, Denmark, Singapore and Malaysia. This is not a one way street on this jazz journey. Some big names from the jazz scene in Sweden have also graced the stage at European Music Festival and the Vietnam National Academy of Music. These have included, Hakan Rydin, Jan Lundgren[1] and The Tovan Big Band. Because of this music and cultural exchange, it’s fair to say some Vietnamese contemporary jazz musicians are influenced by the Nordic/Scandinavian jazz style.

Håkan Andersson Rydin (born January 4, 1951 in Gislaved, Sweden), is a jazz pianist living in Malmö, Sweden. With Jörgen Nilsson and later Ulf Rådelius and Anders Lagerlöf he formed the jazz group (Swedish) Nexus, which during its existence between 1972 and 1992 performed over 1000 concerts.

Swedish jazz pianist, composer, music producer and senior lecturer at Malmö Academy of Music, born March 22, 1966 in Olofström. Artistic director for Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival and also for Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen.

One Virtual Jazz Club judge, Helge Albin commented on Tolvan (Tovan) Big Band’s Effortlessly – Sweden (3rd Prize 2019 Pros and Amateurs’ category about its ´Superb arrangement excellently delivered by musicians that seem to not only give it their all, but seem to be having a great time doing it. Big Band Jazz seems to be in great hands with this band out of Sweden´.

It’s perhaps time to start taking notice of this re-birth of the cool.

´This love affair did not have an easy start´, says musician and jazz club owner Quyen Van Minh. ´There were very few records in Hanoi then … there was very little information and we could not find more …. the (new) Government kept culture under control´.

In 1970 Quyen was given a saxophone. This was an instrument in traditional Vietnamese folk music. However, Minh soon swapped it for the clarinet. On his travels to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in 1976 to play his first concert, he received a chilly reception from officials of the State.

´At that time, the North and the South were not good friends´, Minh said. ´They checked my clarinet case for weapons´.

Jazz musicians like Minh persisted in listening to, and playing, jazz. Traveling abroad to East Germany and Bulgaria to bring back swing music by Miller, Ellington and Goodman and bebop from Charlie Parker. This was all despite his Minh´s father warnings that he would go to jail for subversion.

World events were soon to come to the aid of jazz musicians in Vietnam. The decline in 1989 of the Soviet Union’s influence in the region gave way to a relaxation in Government restrictions on playing western music.

Minh opened his first jazz club in Hanoi’s old French Quarter in 1997. Whilst Minh has changed locations three times since those early days, I am informed that the music mix has stayed pretty much the same Some Vietnamese jazzers seem to prefer melodies to improvisation according to Brendan Gibbons in The Global Post in 2010. In conducting email interviews with other musicians and students of jazz,  he observed that most of Minh’s staff and patrons at his Jazz club are students, young musicians and young music lovers. Many expressed a view that jazz is not universally liked in Vietnam as it has no words. Many in Hanoi can name contemporary American artists and musicians as like Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé. But the mention of John Coltrane and Miles Davis brings only blank stares. Much like musical appreciation here in the west! Hope springs eternal, however, as at least one student expressed the view that the increasing globalisation of culture will bring about a greater enthusiasm for jazz especially amongst the younger generation.

Hoàng Minh Châu

This is not necessarily a universal view of the Jazz scene in Vietnam. According to Ms. Hoàng Minh Châu. A fashion stylist and PR freelancer and former student of the Vietnam National Academy of Music Hoang is also the Founder of Hanoi Jazz Lover Facebook Community and she suggests that the interplay between music lovers and jazz is more complex than it seems.

“Music lovers in Vietnam found jazz quite difficult to appreciate because there’s a lot of improvisation that doesn’t provide a sense of melody repetition like in pop or rock music´, she says. ¨I think it’s mainly because jazz brings a sense of suspense, surprise and sometimes dissonance, something that’s so fresh and even strange to Vietnamese music lovers at that time.”

QVM  Events have recently moved at a pace in Hanoi. In 1999 Quyen Van Minh released his first CD, a synthesis of Vietnamese melodies with jazz rhythms and instrumentation. In 2005, pianist Herbie Hancock appeared at Minh’s Jazz club performing with Wayne Shorter and singer Nnenna Freelon. Minh released a second album, Jazz with Vietnamese songs. 2015 saw a Vietnamese jazz band, JumpforJazz reportedly delight Hanoi jazz lovers with a free concert introducing unique jazz pieces at the Japanese Centre for Cultural Exchange. This included Nguyen Boa Long, saxophone, Hoang Ha, drums, Nguyen Huu Vuong, piano and guitarist Trinh Thy San. Dr. Nguyen Manh, Head of the Jazz Department from VNAM (Vietnam National Academy of Music) and pianist performed at Ystad Jazz Festival entertaining a crowd of some 300 jazz fans.

The Hanoi Jazz Lovers Facebook Group permits its users to  discuss anything about jazz, share songs, borrow/swap jazz CDs/DVDs, exchange collaborating ideas, update jazz gigs/concerts/jam sessions and organize meet-ups in Hanoi. It also lists and supports almost twenty jazz clubs and venues for jazz in the City of Hanoi. Several of these were highlighted by Mr OK Jazz, a Japanese resident who spends most of his free time wandering the Kanto area looking for jazz establishments. His piece also usefully includes a three day guide to where best spend your time in a short tour of Hanoi. Three such jazz clubs are highlighted by Harry Menear in a piece for Culture Trip, A Travel Guide For Vietnam. These include the Binh Minh Jazz Club, about which it is said,

´In Hanoi’s historic French Quarter, among luxurious colonial-era hotels and upscale restaurants, it is a comparatively humble affair. It sits on the intersection of a street crammed with shops selling ghost money (which is burned, sending it to the afterlife as offerings) and another on which vendors can be found selling rattan chairs. A quarter of a mile away, the Song Hong River makes its sluggish way toward the sea. Inside, you can find the heart of the Hanoi jazz scene – beating in 4/4 time.´

Cool Cats Jazz Club (right) is described as, ´possibly the most elegant jazz venue in the city, the club styles itself after 1920s sophistication, which seeps from every marble-coated corner of the bar. Behind the stage, a full-length window shows off the city lights dancing on the surface of a lake, at the heart of which sits the historic Miếu Đầm temple´.

And the Tadioto club is  described as ´an attractive Bohemian bar/cafe with superb services, with a full range of whiskies, wines, cocktails, and a superior sushi/ramen menu. We attract local artists, architects, photographers and other professionals, and friends from the expat community, including diplomats and journalists, fun people involved in art, business and development fields.”[2]

Today what we have in the modern city of Hanoi, Vietnam, is a phoenix from the wanton destruction of much of the old Country which has risen, carrying with it an occupying army’s musical pastime. In the past few years, jazz has become a genre no longer  something strange to Vietnamese music lovers. Not so much a love supreme, but certainly a re-birth of the cool.

Steve Bewick,

Freelance Jazz Broadcaster & Writer.

offers a special thanks to Ms. Hoàng Minh Châu, for her research, helpful comments and patience in this article.

Steve Bewick (left) is a regular contributor to Sidetracks And Detours, of course, and we would gladly appoint Hoang as a new member if she wished to submit occasional correspondence about jazz developments in Vietnam. Meanwhile we thank Steve (and Hoang) for a really interesting article that arrived to us fully annotated in a format we have changed only slightly to create access for readers of our WordPress format blog.

Steve is one of the four founder members of the Joined Up Jazz Journalists (JUJJ) of Sidetracks and Detours, along with Gary Heywood-Everett, jazz historian and researcher on Steve´s Hot Biscuits week jazz radio broadcasts, which you can hear live at www.fc-radio.co.uk

The other two founder members of JUJJ are Norman Warwick, editor and owner of the not-for-profit daily arts blog, Sidetracks & Detours. Norman is a broadcaster, poet, author, biographer and journalist who also writes a weekly arts column for Lanzarote Information for which the fourth founder member of JUJJ, Susana Fondon, is a music writer.

Sidetracks & Detours is always interested in hearing from its readers, especially those who would like to submit an article for consideration. So, if you would like to give us news, interviews, previews or reviews anything about the jazz scene in particular or the arts scene in general from wherever in the world you are, please feel free to submit an article in Word document format to normanwarwick55@gmail.com

Any work subsequently published will be fully attributed so you should feel free to include a brief self auto-bio and a jpeg of yourself and / or appropriate jpegs with which you may like to us to complement your piece. We do, of course, have archive material if you would prefer us to make our selection.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Meanwhile we have received exciting news our friends at Jazz In Reading and they have allowed us to PASS IT ON

We’re delighted to announce the full Summer Programme of Jazz in the Vines starting on Bank Holiday Monday 31 May. All performances are at the Oaken Grove Vineyard, Benhams Lane, Fawley, Henley on Thames, Oxon. RG9 6JG

Sweet Chorus – A Tribute to Stephane Grappelli

Monday 31 May | 3pm (doors open midday)
John Etheridge guitar, Christian Garrick violin
Dave Kelbie guitar, Andy Crowdy bass
Tables for 2-6 people, £66 to £199 per table | Information and tickets

Art Themen Trio

Sunday 6 June | 3pm (doors open midday)
Art Themen saxes, Dave Newton piano, Andy Crowdy bass
Tables for 2-6 people, £50 to £150 per table | Information and tickets

Celebration of Louis Armstrong’s Music – Denny Ilett Jr Trio
Sunday 4 July | 3pm (doors open midday) 
Denny Ilett Jnr guitar, Enrico Tomasso trumpet, Andy Crowdy bass
Tables for 2-6 people, £30 to £90 per table | Information and tickets

Alex Clarke Trio
Sunday 1 Aug | 3pm (doors open midday)
Dave Newton piano, Alex Clarke sax, TBC bass
Tables for 2-6 people, £30 to £90 per table | Information and tickets

Art Themen Trio
Monday 30 Aug | 3pm (doors open midday)
Art Themen saxes, Pete Whittaker organ, George Double drums
Tables for 2-6 people, £30 to £90 per table | Information and tickets

Surrounded by ancient woodlands, Oaken Grove Vineyard is a family-run, boutique vineyard offering a range of award-winning English wines. Established in 1986 in the foothills of the Chilterns, the seven acres of Pinot Noir, Bacchus and Madeleine Angevine vines produce exceptional quality still and sparkling wines that are fresh, modern and packed with flavour.

Vineyard gates open at midday and guests are welcome to enjoy drinks on the wine terrace before the jazz starting at around 3pm.

Tables for 6, 4, 3 and 2 people are available. Wines from our own vineyard as well as some other local beers and guest wines will be available to order, as well as food offering (further details TBC). Every table of 6 will receive a complimentary bottle of wine.

Full Covid prevention measures will be in place, and we ask all our guests to follow guidelines.

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