Shanghai Blues

In some ways it was an unusual musical event. In 2009, popular young Chinese pianist (a person who plays the piano) Lang Lang joined Herbie Hancock, an African American jazz pianist, and the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall in London to perform (play) Rhapsody in Blue by American composer (a person who writes music) George Gershwin.

Several things set this performance apart (make it unique or unusual). Rhapsody in Blue is the first piece of concert music to blend (mix) classical music and jazz (If you want to know more about jazz and blues, read this blog post that I wrote several months ago). So I suppose it is fitting (appropriate) to have the piano part of Rhapsody played by classical and jazz pianists together, especially since it is usually played by only one pianist.

What makes this performance even more interesting to me is that the story of jazz in China did not begin until 1981, almost exactly one year before Lang Lang was born.  Before then, jazz, which began in America, was virtually (almost) unknown in China.

American jazz was introduced to the Chinese by two other African American jazz musicians, Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell, when they were invited to Shanghai to spend (use time to do something) several days with the teachers and students of the Shanghai Conservatory (school for studying music and other arts) of Music. William Zinsser, who also traveled to Shanghai, tells their story in his book Mitchell and Ruff: An American Profile (an article or book that describes someone) in Jazz.

Zinsser writes that Ruff and Mitchell explained jazz and the blues to their Chinese audience and performed (play their instruments) examples of what they are talking about.

The Chinese musicians in Shanghai had never experienced anything like this. Jazz is not written or planned. It is like an unplanned musical conversation. There is always a theme – like a topic of conversation – but every player has a different idea of what to “say” about it. A piece of jazz develops like an after-dinner conversation where we all talk about the same thing but have different ideas or feelings about it.

“The audience buzzed (made an excited noise) with amazement and pleasure,” writes Zinsser after one number (piece of music) when Ruff told the audience, “That is called Shanghai Blues. We just made it up (created it now).”

One of the older professors got up and asked Mitchell and Ruff if they had a plan when they started to play Shanghai Blues. “No,” said Ruff, “I just started tapping (make a quiet noise by moving your foot up and down) my foot and played the first thought that came into my mind…. And Mitchell heard it. And he answered. And after that we heard and answered, heard and answered, heard and answered.”

The old professor asked if they could ever play the piece again. “No,” said Ruff, “We never can.”

“That is beyond our imagination (we can’t imagine that),” replied the professor. “Our students here play a piece a hundred times, or two hundred times, to get it exactly right. You play something once – something beautiful – and then you just throw it away.” For those of us who enjoy jazz, that is part of its attraction (what makes it interesting) – it’s always new, always different.

If you want to experience part of Mitchell and Ruff’s Shanghai experience, including hearing them create a new jazz piece based on (to use something to develop something new) a song written by one of  the Chinese students, you can do it by viewing this YouTube video.

Thanks to Mitchell and Ruff, and many other American jazz musicians, jazz has traveled around the world and is enjoyed today by people from virtually every country. And musicians like Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock can share the stage (perform together) to create something new.

~ Warren Ediger – creator of Successful English, where you’ll find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.

Photo credit: cover of Mitchell and Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz from

This entry was posted in Life in the United States. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Shanghai Blues

  1. tania says:

    Hi! I admire the Chinese dancers on the ice at the Figure Skating.
    They are amazing with their beautiful grace on any kind of music. They are great!

    Thank you for this nice topic. Music makes us to be nicer. and graceful.

    Best wishes,


  2. tania says:

    Hi! Right now we are 188 000 friends accessing our blog.


    I think WE HAVE TO VOTE.

    Best wishes to you all,


  3. Dan says:


    It would be interesting to hear from one of those students, what went through they mind at the time.
    They should be in their 50s now.

    I am also wondering if, from that first spark came out some good Chinese jazz performer or some sort of Chinese Jazz music?
    Maybe here Betty come in handy, do you know something about Chinese Jazz?
    I personally have never heard about it.

    Thanks Mr. Warren, see you in Narnia…..

  4. Jesus says:


    I´m completely agree with you, and of course I already vote, but ESL Team or the Web Master has to do something to make it happen.
    We need to put a colorful or attractive link in the home page to make all the people go to vote for this Web, if not I think we won´t win. We can have 188.000 friends who visit but if they don´t know about the competition they won´t vote for us!

    ESLPOD TEAM: Please pay attention to this!!…I´m sure you´re are the best, because I´ve learned English thanks to you more that anyone. Let´s do something in order to win!!!

  5. Peter says:

    Thanks betty,
    I m on it ,sis
    I m planing on stuffing my face with popcorn.
    I m planin of watching to movies back to back
    So ,I can eat pop corn to my heart’s content.
    I don’t eat popcorn very often. It is fatening,big time.
    But ,I have gone on diet for quite time so I can wolf down as much as popcorn I want on January the 19.
    Generaly,I m healthy conscieous. subsequently ,I bereft myself of all the scrumptious ,yummy ,unhealthy ,fatening munchies ,and snaks out there.
    But,I have this guilty pleasure that every now and then I sneak a test of a filthy greasy grub:)))
    Don’t judge me sis I m not glutinous ,but this time around I am gonna goarg myself:))))

    It took me two weeks to shed the holiday weight.
    I never learn my lesson:)

  6. Nele says:

    Oh wonderful ESL Pod and Blog. Not only the best possibility to lern and practice english, also the insight and learning about other countries and cultures. Insights in China, Hong Kong, Spain, Iran, Brasil, Norway and so on.
    Thanks Warren, Lucy, Jeff and all the other people here from around the world.

    Yesterday I read a quotation, I try to translate: “… different languages are not different designations of the same thing; these are different views (thinking) of the same thing.”

    Best wishes Nele

  7. sara says:

    thanks Dear Warren,it was something really good to read.

  8. Peter says:

    Again ,this is the black sheep of the blog ,Peter 🙂
    Dear warren
    I didn’t get it
    So wean use number to mean a piec of music
    Can we say say:
    Bettowen’s number

  9. emiliano says:

    Talking about music you may transmit something very special dear Warren, now reading your
    biography I could see your are a musician too.
    Congratulations, your way or writing is really good, nice, heart-full, absolutely good.

    Did you write any books Warren?
    Well, I think you have the gift to make your writing some how great and interesting, like this one
    about Jazz and music.
    To me, I like music also very much, it has the real good feelings of a musician. The one
    you are.

    If you have some books written, please Warren tell us.
    Sure they have to be a pleasure.

    Thank you very much.


  10. emiliano says:

    Warren, see you in Narnia too……
    as it is now at home not in the wardrobe but in the kindle instead.

    Years ago I tried to listened to the audiobooks read by Michael York, very
    very good incredible reader and actor, but I did not have enough patience.

    I´ll try it again after reading the English books as you said in your site.
    Thanks a million Warren.

    By the way Carl Lewis and Tolkien were good friends that I think they
    were professors at Cambridge University at the same time?…I think so, but
    I have to see the Wiki.
    Not now as Wiki is in strike, how big damage if they pass the law to close
    some sites like Wiki or so on.
    I support the wiki protest, of course.

    Sorry Warren, but going to see the wiki I have seen the advice of them and I have
    fallen to the fact of reading the news this morning.
    It could be an absolute tragedy…. Stop it, please.


  11. Peter asks a good question.

    We use a variety of words to talk or write about pieces of music. The word “number” – for example, “the band performed another number” – is used in a way that is similar to “song”, “piece”, or “tune” – informally and not very specific. Sometimes we use “song” and “tune” in more specific ways.

    If I’m talking about what Beethoven (or any other composer) wrote, I’d probably use “work”. It’s a very common word when talking about any kind of art – for example, a painting is a work of art. Or I might use “piece”, or “composition”. Usually, though, I’d be more specific and talk about his “5th symphony” (a work for orchestra), “piano concerto” (a work for orchestra and solo instrument), etc.


  12. Myo ko ko says:

    Hi, Warren
    This is Myo Ko Ko, and I hope, not a black sheep of this blog. 😉
    you know, the country I live in,
    and the way I access the Internet…. huh? you do?!
    In fact, I cannot write any comment about your today’s post.
    you know, in terms of the time I would spent in this beautiful 😉 Internet Cafe’ here in my home sweet home nation 😉 ,
    I can’t just pore over this post online.
    I just skim down your post and take it to my home and
    I’ll thoroughly read yours at home.
    not just my teachers’ blog posts,
    I read my ESL friends’ comments too. but at home, you know.
    This is of course always the way I go with this my favorite blog.
    In any case, thanks to infinity, Warren, for your posts and of course for keeping up this wonderful blog for us.

  13. Betty says:

    Thank you very much indeed, Warren, for this beautiful article about the origin of the piece of music – Shanghai Blues. 🙂

    If I have not read your article and then searched the net about “Shanghai Blues” subsequently, I would not have learned anything about “Shanghai Blues”.

    I googled “Shanghai Blues”, and I received about 117,000,000 results in 0.24 seconds. There are many “Shanghai Blues Chinese Restaurants”, and there is a “Dior Phone Crystal Sapphire Shanghai Blue” which will set you back (cost you) £4,050 (that is about US$6,255 at today’s exchange rate of GBP1=USD1.544).

    Anyway, I guess most Chinese readers find this article very difficult to digest. It took me hours to understand it and I had to spend a lengthy time searching both English and Chinese web pages in order to gain some more background information about Jazz music in China.

    Honestly, I am a music illiterate, and I certainly felt very blue about having to write something about “blues in China”.

    But I am here to train myself to write something when we are given a topic by our teachers.

    So, I am going to continue below.

    Dan, you are right to have guessed I should be old enough to tell our friends something about Chinese Jazz Music.

    But I did not know anything about Chinese or Western music.

    The closest encounter I had with Jazz music was when I had to do a lot of research work about Jazz music in order to help my daughter prepared for her piano exam many years ago.

    The piece was called “Dreamboat” by Pamela Wedgewood in her book “After Hours Book 2 (Piano Solo)”.

    OK, after some search of Chinese websites, I found that they said Jazz music was brought into China long before 1981, might be about a hundred years before that?

    It was famous in the 1920-1930’s in Shanghai. But it was not encouraged by the People’s Republic of China Government (Established on 1st October 1949) who preferred classical music, and thus was forced to go “underground”.

    Jazz emerged again in China from the 1980’s, but due to some reasons (I am not too sure about the reasons), it almost disappeared by the end of 2000.

    My feeling is, now with the help of Lang Lang the famous pianist who plays his piano with such powerful energy, Jazz is going to be successful in China again. I could be wrong, though.

    Thanks again, Warren, for raising this interest topic for us. Tough topic for me, but I enjoyed it.

    Thanks again, Dan, how would you know I would write something about Jazz music in China? I think there was some good Chinese Jazz performer but I will not be able to list them out here due to my limited knowledge about Chinese musicians.

    Perhaps some of our friends here can tell us something about Chinese Jazz Musicians?

    Many thanks to all our friends here who have sent us Good Wishes for our Chinese New Year of Dragon 2012. 🙂

    Thanks Emiliano. Thanks Tania. I cannot list out all my friends’ names here, but you know that no matter how busy I am during the Chinese New Year, I will still be thinking of you all. 😉

    May I wish all of you – the young Chinese English learners – collect many “red packets” and spend them wisely. 😉

    Betty 🙂

  14. Betty says:

    Thanks, Emiliano and Dan for your hints about “Narnia” in Warren’s newest article: A free ticket to Narnia.

    For those of you who did not know what I am talking about, please visit Warren’s website “Successful English”, where you’ll find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.

    Yes, the word “Narnia” brings back a lot of pleasant memory for me. I remember myself sitting in the cinema with my children plus their friends watching the film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

    It was like a stupid movie for me because it was based on a fictitious story, but it was very good fun.

    Thank you again, Warren, you always tell us all the good things that we can get – free.

    I have subscribed to “Brain Pickings” now, thanks to your direction to good websites.

    I have also received a iPhone 4S from my husband who must have been impressed by my studious effort to improve my English.

    My daughters and I had a lot of fun last night talking to “Siri” who lives in our iPhone4S.

    I told him: “You are clever”. He answered: “You are entitled to that opinion”.

    The second time I told him: “You are clever”. He answered: “If you insist”.

    OMG! It is such a cute new addition into my family. Welcome, iPhone4S.

    Thanks a lot, Steve Jobs, you live on in many people’s heart.

    Betty 🙂

  15. emiliano says:


    Betty, an IPhone 4S ?

    It has to be the absolutely gold piece of the last apple´s technology.
    Here in Spain seems like impossible to buy a free one, it must be
    joined to a horrible contract with one of the mobil telephone companies
    that I reject so much.
    Some times I have one in my hands and it is really cute and fascinating
    but it is also very expensive.
    Congratulations Betty it is an absolute good present that sure you
    have receive with great satisfaction.

    Happy new year…

  16. Betty says:

    Hi Emiliano

    Yes, it is correct, an iPhone4S.

    Thank you so much for your kind words.

    My husband and my children kept hearing me talking to myself that I needed an ipod or ipad in order to listen to all the English lessons. Sometimes I also said I needed to be able to access to internet while I was not at home. Of course no one agreed with me and I did not have any of those.

    One day, my husband and my children suddenly presented me with this useful item – something I totally did not expect.

    Yes, I am very happy to have something so clever, a bit too advanced for me, but I shall cope with it.

    I have discovered a lot of thing since I started using this new phone – Jeff and Lucy’s “’s Guide to the TOEFL® Test Podcast” is one of them.

    I have a line rental contract with this phone, but I don’t know how much it is – so far I cannot get any information out of my husband.

    Thanks again, Emiliano, I hope the price of iphone4S will come down more in Spain for you.

    Thanks also for your Chinese New Year Wishes, I am very grateful for your kind consideration.

    Best Regards

    Betty 🙂

Comments are closed.