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QUYEN VAN MINH - BINH MINH JAZZ CLUB

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Quyen Van Minh
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It's my life

Jul 5, 2002

Vietnam discovery - He holds three firsts: he was the first jazz musician in Vietnam; He opened the first jazz club, (bearing his name) and he was the first one to compose Vietnam jazz melodies based on local folksongs. He’s saxophonist Quyen Van Minh, “The Godfather of Jazz in Vietnam.”

Minh

When did you first hear jazz melodies? In 1968, when I was 14. It was a BBC jazz programme. I didn’t recognize the music, but the rhythm drove me crazy. I’ve been addicted to jazz eversince. But at the time, turning-in to the BBC was illegal, so I had to listen to my first jazz melodies in secret, under the cover of blankets, when all my family went to bed.

How did you learn jazz? There was no teachers, books or discs; I taught myself jazz which what I remembered from those BBC broadcasts. That’s all I knew for ten years, until I picked-up a jazz tape on a trip to HCMC, in 1976. Now I have about 200 CDs and 70 books on jazz, but those first melodies still remain fresh in my mind.

What has Jazz given you? Everything: my career, a love of life and the self-esteem that comes with the path I took. Many young jazz musicians now follow in my footsteps and that makes me happy.

And what has it taken from you? When I was a struggling musician, I could earn a fortune if I played “safe” pop music. But I gave it all up to be true to jazz, which at the time didn’t pay well. My first wife couldn’t accept this and left, leaving out two kids with me. Life was tough and jazz was the only thing that kept me going. But now I’ve since remarried, my daughter has her own family, and my son is developing into a good saxophonist.

You’re known as the father of Vietnamese jazz, with your compositions based on local folk songs. Where did this idea spring from? I discovered that Vietnamese folk songs have five main tunes that are very similar to “pentatonic” the main rhythm that makes jazz music so unique. From that equation, I tried to add new angles to jazz, with works inspired from minority peoples folk songs, such as from the North West (Meo), or Central Highlands.

You’ve received many awards; your three jazz CDs have been critically acclaimed, the first one, Birth 1999, is being re-released. What’s the secret of your success? My mother’s love. She sacrificed everything for her children and she was the one who advised me to play saxophone, saying it would bring me good luck.

What’s your most memorable moment? April 12, 1994. Tears rolling down my face, my vest covered in sweat and the audience’s never-ending applause ringing in my ears: my first solo concert, at Hanoi Opera House.

What’s been your biggest challenge? Making the choice between going solo or opening a jazz club to promote the music: the latter won.

Can you make a living from the club? Not yet. It’s been up and down since opening in 1997. The club has been moved three times and it’s only just breaking even this year. My aim is that it remains a jazz venue, not a commercial venture.

So what do you live on? My income comes from saxophone courses for foreigners, performing at prestigious venues such as the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi and repairing clarinets and saxophones.

What’s your biggest dream? That one day there’ll be 50% Vietnamese in the audience at my club: presently, it’s 15%.

Can you imagine ever living without jazz? No, I can’t. More than just a type of music, jazz is a part of me. I would die without it.

by Vietnam discovery July 2002

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