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Is jazz really “difficult music with random syllables” for elites? What do our local jazz musicians have to say about this genre that is "sombre and happy all rolled into one"? We speak to four prominent jazz musicians in Singapore to learn more about their beginnings and find out how newcomers to this genre can dip their toes into the wonderful world of jazz. We also hear their thoughts on the growing local jazz scene and what the future holds for jazz in Singapore. The musicians are: Jeremy Monteiro: Dubbed Singapore’s “King of Swing”, the Cultural Medallion recipient is an accomplished jazz pianist, composer, producer and Music Director of Jazz Association (Singapore). Weixiang Tan: Lauded jazz pianist, former adjunct professor at New York University and lecturer at LASALLE. Currently serving as Associate Music Director of Jazz Association (Singapore) and Deputy Head of Music and Drama Company. Rit Xu: Jazz flautist and the first Southeast Asian to win a solo jazz competition in the United States, at the National Flute Association (NFA) Jazz Artist Competition in 2014. Siti Nur Iman: Vocalist for Moon Socks, a group of stellar young jazz musicians who made their debut in Esplanade’s Mosaic Jazz Fellows 2019. (From L-R: Jeremy Monteiro, Weixiang Tan, Rit Xu, Siti Nur Iman) Our influences and unconventional beginnings SISTIC: How did you first get into jazz music? Was there a specific moment you could tie this influence to? Jeremy Monteiro: I studied classical music from around the age of six years old. My father used to play jazz guitar and have jam sessions at home with his friends. He used to buy a lot of jazz records. So, while I'm learning classical, I'm always listening to jazz. But when I was fourteen years old, I remembered listening to an album by Quincy Jones, and on the album was a song [composed] by Ray Brown, the famous bass player. He was a harmonica player, a very famous, probably the best jazz harmonica player in his lifetime. His name was Toots Thielemans. I was listening, and I started having tears in my eyes, because it's so beautiful. My mother asked me, “Why are you standing in the middle of living room and crying, what's wrong with you?” I told my mom, I said, “Mom, I've never heard anything so beautiful in my life.” So at age 14, I'd already decided [that I wanted] to be a jazz musician. "I said, 'Mom, I've never heard anything so beautiful in my life.'" Weixiang Tan: My journey into jazz is a rather odd one. I was an undergraduate in NUS law school, and joined the university jazz band as a trombonist, because my trombonist friend didn’t want to go alone. We started doing performances at Harry’s along Boat Quay, which then had a great jazz presence. One day, the resident pianist didn’t show, and I volunteered to play piano, without score. That was one of my few moments of bravery! Since that night in 2001, I haven’t quite looked back – it’s been 20 years, but feels like just a short while ago. Siti Nur Iman: I grew up practically idolising Judy Garland and watching old Fred Astaire movie musicals. It really surprised me when I joined NUS Jazz Band in my first year of university to know that for this very reason, I was immediately familiar with the standards! My jazz beginnings are probably a little unconventional, haha! Rit Xu: I grew up in a musical family and started “embellishing written music” when I was 7. My late-father was a professional musician/pianist: he gave me a head start by exposing me to all types of Western-based music – but the music that we called “Jazz” had always been the song in his heart. I remember very clearly as a child hearing him play Dave Grusin’s keyboard solo on the tune “City Lights”– note for note by memory with a touch of rhythmic precision that has forever been etched into my musical consciousness. Later on in life, I heard Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo on “Blue Train” from the John Coltrane’s album of the same title, and that completely sealed the deal for me. Music recommendations for new listeners Monteiro and Tan credits the ease of access to recorded music via streaming platforms as one of the reasons for the resurgence of jazz, especially among the younger audience. In film and television, we also see jazz music and culture featured in popular works such as Disney’s ‘Soul’ and the Academy Awards-winning film 'La La Land'. For those who would like to dip their toes into the world of jazz, here are some recommendations by our musicians: Weixiang Tan: I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Soul’, and it’s the first Disney film I’ve seen that’s so nuanced and reflective. It also describes the world of jazz pretty well – the struggle to make that gig, every musician lives that day, everyday. If you are new to jazz, I heavily recommend setting aside half an hour of alone time, and listen to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, uninterrupted. This album is magical, if you allow it to sweep you away. Siti Nur Iman: I would pick anything off of Cecile McLorin Salvant’s albums – her singing is so beautiful and visceral, I think her music would just about reach anyone. Rit Xu: A jazz piece by the late Louis Armstrong called “Strutting with some Barbecue”. It’s essentially a simple and happy tune to get people cheering and dancing, but through the different renditions and the more I listen to it, I felt this array of mixed emotions listening to the tune – in a good way. It’s such a happy song that it made me weep; does it make sense? You have to listen to believe. Jeremy Monteiro: Our Lion City Youth Jazz Festival on 24 April is a very good entry point. One of the hallmarks of jazz is improvisation, and the other is swing. When you go to a jazz concert, if the band is swinging, you will see the audience swaying from side to side. It's almost magical, like we touched their minds to make them sway from side to side. The feeling of swing is so wonderful. This concert should be accessible to almost everyone, so that’s a good start. Besides, you know, going on your Spotify or YouTube A.I. adventure. Lion City Youth Jazz Festival 2021 Finale Concert: The Count and The Duke, happening on Saturday, 24 April 2021 at Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium. Get tickets on SISTIC. There’s something for everyone in jazz Although once the pop music of the times, the genre is no longer as familiar to the general public with the rise of other genres in popular music. With the unfamiliarity comes misconceptions about jazz music. The musicians also addressed some of the most common assumptions about jazz music. Jeremy Monteiro: One misconception is that jazz is very elitist. I don't think it's true. I think it encompasses a whole range of different people. Jazz had a very poor beginning. It was performed in very, very poor areas in bars in very poor areas in New Orleans, so it did not have a grand or elitist beginning. Sometimes you have to pay a lot of money to watch a jazz performance. But at the same time, you can also watch a jazz show at the Esplanade open air stage or the concourse, and hear very high-quality jazz for free. I think there are a lot of jazz stakeholders in Singapore, they're trying to make it as available as possible. Weixiang Tan: A common misconception is [that] jazz is difficult music. Some of my friends are indifferent to it – ‘I don’t understand this music’. As serious musical art forms go, I think jazz is the most accessible of them all – that is why you still see jazz clubs around the world, patronized by people from all walks of life... It is a microcosm of life – serious, and flippant, sombre and happy all rolled into one. That is why we jazz musicians keep doing what we do – everytime we hit the bandstand, something different is going to happen, and that keeps us alive. "It is a microcosm of life – serious, and flippant, sombre and happy all rolled into one." Siti Nur Iman: As a jazz singer, one of the most common misconceptions I hear from those around me is that scatting is just carelessly singing a bunch of random, silly syllables! The first time someone told me, “How hard can it be?” I was livid! When vocalists scat, we’re doing the exact same thing that instrumentalists do when they improvise. It’s careful and it’s deliberate. It’s also really hard! Rit Xu: I hear this a lot: you must know tons of music and jazz theory in order to play the music. That is simply not true. Listening to the music is the most important thing; it is a simple fact but so often overlooked these days with the inundation of academia jazz that can so easily lead you down to the path of theoretical abyss rather than of the music itself. Whether or not one chooses to pursue further studies in the music is another thing, but in the beginning all you have to do is to listen. Looking forward: A jazz renaissance, music crossovers and more While 2020 may have slowed the momentum of live performance art, there is much to look forward in the jazz scene in the next few years. One common sentiment echoed by the musicians is that there is a new and young generation of jazz musicians who are playing at high levels today, keeping the scene vibrant, fresh and growing. Monteiro, who is the Music Director of Jazz Association (Singapore), confirms that “there are more high-level musicians now in Singapore, than at any point in our history”. Iman, a recent graduate of Esplanade’s Mosaic Jazz Music Fellows in 2019, has "witnessed some spectacular collaborations between veterans and newcomers”. “Some of these young artists can compete with the best in the world, and we should be proud of them,” affirms Tan of the local talents. Another exciting development is the expansion in the variety of jazz performances to attract new audiences. For instance, “Jazz It Up! – A Jazzy Celebration of Chinese Songs 2021 爵士也华彩2021” takes evergreen and modern-classic Chinese songs and puts a jazz spin to them. It is performed by local singers Joanna Dong, Tay Kewei and Marcus Lee, alongside Jazz Association Singapore Orchestra. Jazz It Up! – A Jazzy Celebration of Chinese Songs 2021 爵士也华彩2021, happening on 5 – 6 June 2021 at Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium. Get tickets on SISTIC. Monteiro is also starting a new movement of Symphonic Jazz in Singapore, which is a fusion of jazz music elements and the scale and structure of orchestral music. “I intend to continue over the next five years growing this Symphonic Jazz movement, at first on my own, because I want to have a proof of concept. But after I can do it on my own for one or two years, I will try and see whether more institutions like Yong Siew Toh [Conservatory of Music], Jazz Association (Singapore), SSO (Singapore Symphony Orchestra), SCO (Singapore Chinese Orchestra), Resound Collective, Braddell Heights Symphony [Orchestra] will come together to really build [the movement]. Symphonic Jazz is very famous in the various parts of Europe, but in Asia, it’s only in Japan. So I hope that we can be the next centre for Symphonic Jazz.” he added. With easy access to so many world-class performances right here at home, and a vibrant and progressive jazz music scene, there is no better time to get into jazz than now! Check out the latest jazz events below!
“A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity. It dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.” – Agatha Christie. Gateway Arts Kids Club Storytelling is returning to you LIVE at Gateway Theatre! Join us in-person or online, as we celebrate and look forward to Mother’s Day, with a series of stories about a mother’s love! Register now and enjoy them for FREE!
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