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Jazz Club
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Quyen Van Minh
Quyen Thien Dac


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All that Jazz

Jul 1, 2003

allThatJazzHeritage - Quyen Van Minh explains how his parents, both musicians, were too poor to send him to study at the Hanoi Conservatory. Instead, his mother told him to stand outside the school’s gates and listen, then run home and try to play what he’d heard. At night, the young boy would listen to BBC and Voice of America radio broadcasts. That’s how, at the ate of 14, Minh first heard jazz music. When his dad sold the radio, Minh says: “I kept [jazz] in my dreams.”

From his first encounter with jazz in 1968, Minh was hooked. Having traded his clarinet for a saxophone, on a 1976 trip to Ho Chi Minh City he found some old jazz cassettes.

Whenever friends traveled to Eastern Europe he begged them to bring him jazz records. “I listened and played and wrote and listened and played bay myself,” he says.

These days, Quyen Van Minh’s name is all but synonymous with jazz in Vietnam. The owner of the Hanoi Jazz Club, Vietnam’s only nightspot devoted to jazz music, Minh has recorded a number of jazz CDs and performed around the world. He’s also been invited to teach at the same Conservatory where, as a child, he stood listening outside the gates.

One of Minh’s students is his 24-year-old son, Quyen Thien Dac. “When I started jazz at 15 I didn’t like it but my father pushed me hard,” recalls Dac, who, like his dad, plays the saxophone. “I followed my father’s way and came to love it.”

Now studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in the United States, Dac plans to return to Vietnam upon his graduation in 2004 and found his own jazz quartet. While he swears that he won’t abandon jazz for the possibility of pop stardom, he adds that he might play pop “to support his dream”. His dad looks alarmed. “ Making money is OK,” says Minh. “But I’m sad because some of the best players are gone.”

“In Vietnam, allmusicians are poor but jazz musicians are even poorer,” says Vu Anh Tuan, who studied the classical cello in Hanoi for 16 years. He recalls how, as a student, he played jazz until his fingers bled. But although Tuan calls jazz “the love of my life”, he admits that, these days, he rarely has time to play. At least his jobs hosting MTV Vietnam and a television music quiz show give him some opportunities to educate people about jazz . “I’ve been able to do some dhows about jazz,” he says. “I got lots of good comments but it’s hard to get all the jazz musicians together in one concert since some of them are now playing pop.”

One man who makes no apologies for playing different genres is saxophonist and composer Tran Manh Tuan. “As a professional composer you should play all kinds of music,” He says. “I play pop to make a name fo my self and earn a living. Jazz and contemporary music give me the power to continue working with new music.”

The first Vietnamese musician to study at Berklee, Manh Tuan is optimistic about the future of jazz in Vietnam. Five years ago,he says, the audience was mostly foreign. Today, local fans and young musicians are discovering jazz.

What Vietnamese jazz needs, all these musicians agree, is its own voice. For Manh Tuan this means drawing on his musical roots. Raised in a family of traditional cai luong musicians, he’s now mixing traditional Vietnamese music with jazz and world music. “If we only play Vietnamese traditional music around the world people say it’s nice but they don’t understand it. Combine it with contemporary rhythms and sounds and they get it.”

allThatJazzWhile a number of local musicians are trying to mix traditional and contemporary styles, the results are, well, mixed. One man who’s made a name for himself by blending jazz with traditional Vietnamese melodies is composer and keyboardist Nguyen Quoc Trung. “It’s not easy,” says Quoc Trung. “You can’t just cut off your head and put it on another body.” Having been introduced to jazz as a student in Bulgaria in 1989, Quoc Trung started composing jazz tunes for his Hanoi based Orient Band in the early ’90s. Today, he’s moved away from pure jazz to focus on world music. “I still love jazz but I’ve found my own way,” he says “I was more than 30 when I was introduced to jazz. Younger musicians still have the time to catch up.”

“With the right conditions to learn young Vietnamese musicians will ne great,” agrees Vu Van Tuyen, who wants the present generation of musicians to have the opportunities that were denied to him. A boyish-faced man with a grey buzz-cut, Tuyen recalls how, as an 18-year-old in 1996, he’d play jazz with his father and brothers in Saigon’s nightclubs.

Known as the city’s best bass guitarist, Tuyen’s jazz career came to abrupt halt in 1975. “Up until 1990 jazz did not exist,” he says.

Today, Tuyen has returned to his true love, playing and teaching the bass guitar. He also plans to open a jazz club in Ho Chi Minh City so that aspiring musicians will have somewhere to play. “Many musicians are playing rock or pop to survive, but they always think about jazz,” says Tuyen. “Jazz stays in my heart and soul.”

Heritage july / August-2003

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