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QUYEN VAN MINH - BINH MINH JAZZ CLUB

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Quyen Van Minh
Quyen Thien Dac

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Minh's jazz generation

Dec 13, 2004

Vietnamnews - Anyone who has ever tried to sleep in Ha Noi knows there’s a certain music to the city: the regular rhythms of construction, the trilled cadenzas of motorbike horns.

Yet, Quyen Van Minh, 50, has devoted his life to competing with the capital’s cacophony, introducing Vietnamese people to jazz and more recently creating a space in which people from around the world can share their common interest in music.

To see Minh’s Jazz Club at 31 Luong Van Can Street filled with listeners on any given night of the week, makes it

difficult to remember a time in Ha Noi when there was no jazz, and little other music either.

In 1969, when little in the capital was heard other than the sounds of air raid sirens, the strains of army bands and the sombre chords of funeral processions, Minh’s father gave him a saxophone.

It was a gift that he would keep his whole life, first playing it in his family’s band, then as an auditing student and later a professor at the Ha Noi Conservatory of Music and eventually in his own club.

Minh’s father played guitar and so Minh’s first instrument was the guitar as well. When he turned 14, his mother gave him a clarinet in an effort to expand the repertoire of songs his family’s band could play. His older brother played trumpet and his younger sister the cello, while his mother sang at local meetings and small get-togethers. The clarinet however, was not to be the woodwind that would change his life, and a year later when his father presented him with a sax, Minh knew he was hooked.

During the war it was difficult to find sheet music or instruction manuals and Minh was forced to improvise ways of learning to play, a skill that would serve him well later in life. At first he listened to the songs his father played on the guitar and played them back on the sax. When he heard everything his father knew, he began riding his bicycle to the Ha Noi Conservatory in 1973. Everyday he would stand outside the rooms listening to the musicians and repeating the notes back on his instrument.

At night Minh would listen to the radio, from which he learned many classical pieces and music written for the revolution.

Then one evening in 1978, he tuned his radio to the BBC and heard jazz for the first time. Benny Goodman, the musician Minh heard that fateful night, still remains his favourite. What struck Minh most about Goodman’s Perdido, was the improvisation. While retaining the core melody, Goodman would play variations on the theme.

"When one works on a piece of music, he plays the key melody first. But to jazz musicians," Minh explains, "that is just the beginning".

"When the melody returns, the musician improvises on the theme, creating something new every time."

Minh knew right away this was for him but quickly learned jazz was difficult to play on one’s own. For the next ten years, Minh would preach the gospel of jazz to any of his friends that would listen and agree to try playing with him. Together, they learned the basics, improvising as they went along and later writing their own music.

In 1988, at the theatre of the Viet Nam Association of Musicians, Minh performed a concert highlighting the versatility of the saxophone.

In the audience was composer Phuc Linh, then dean of the Wind Instrument Faculty of the Ha Noi Conservatory. Linh offered Minh a job and a year later the saxophonist was head of jazz in the newly created department of Accordion, Guitar and Jazz.

In 1997 the Government bestowed on Minh the title of "Meritorious Artist" and the importance of making something new and uniquely Vietnamese struck him. Minh wanted to infuse jazz with Vietnamese folk music.

He set to writing new music and performing with his band which included Quoc Trung and Vu Ha playing the bass and Hong Quan the drums. But Minh wanted to expand his audience and he knew the best way to do that would be through opening a club.

In the autumn of 1998 Minh opened his first club, but problems over the lease led to it closing after only two months. Minh was devastated and refused to leave his home or see his family during Tet (Lunar New Year festival). Within the year, however, he had found a new space and eight months later needing a larger venue he moved the club to its current location, where it has remained for the last five years.

Perhaps Minh’s greatest contribution to the future of jazz in Viet Nam is his son, Quyen Thien Dac. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music in the US, Dac is as committed as his father to the Vietnamisation of jazz and encouraging jazz in the capital.

by Hanh Pham

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