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When jazz came to Singapore in the 1930s, it was played predominantly by Caucasian and Filipino émigré musicians through the 1940s and ’50s, mainly in hotels, cabarets and dance halls. Though never a popular genre of music in Singapore, the scene still produced talented jazz musicians, including Gerry Soliano, Leonardo Reyes, Val Ortega and Lionel Buenaventura.
However, it wasn’t until the late 1950s and ’60s that some local musicians took that up more seriously. They would listen to jazz records, meet and learn from the Filipino musicians, even if the majority of Singaporean audience were only interested in listening to dance music or easy listening jazz. Among them were Horace Wee, John Lee, Olimpio Galaura, Sam Goh, Ernesto Daroya, Michael Tseng, Rufino Soliano and Louis Soliano.
From show tunes to serious jams: 1930s-1970s
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In the 1970s, the jazz scene suffered a blow as the government clamped down on live music due to an association of Western music with decadence. Tea dances were regulated due to frequent brawls, entertainment taxes for bands soared, and live music was relegated mostly to hotel lounges. Interest in jazz began to dwindle in the public entertainment scene.
Despite the circumstances, it was during this era that two musicians would come to be giants in the Singapore music scene: Iskandar Ismail and Jeremy Monteiro.
Jamming with the other jazz musicians at the Golden Venus on Orange Grove Road since the early 1970s, Iskandar went to Berklee College of Music in 1976 to study jazz, music arrangement and pop. He came back and became a big proponent of progressive jazz, having been influenced by the sounds of Chick Corea and Gary Burton, infusing funk, R&B and electronic sounds with standard jazz numbers.
"Iskandar was a catalyst in the way we played jazz. The impact that he made was very important," said Monteiro.
Iskandar was part of the Louis Soliano Trio at the Hilton Hotel, along with bassist Eddie Jansen. Other musicians that played in the trio were drummer Frisco Soliano and violinist Julai Tan.
It was also at the Hilton that 17-year-old Monteiro acquainted himself with Louis Soliano and learned from his trio by listening to what they did.
He also earned his chops by jamming at Club 392 and the Jockey Pub alongside the great jazz musicians from the 1960s and ‘70s, which included John Lee, Tony Castillo and Reynaldo Lachica.
Monteiro soon became a key musician in the scene. His debut album Back to Basics (1986), with members of the original Ramsey Lewis Trio, Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums, was the reason he was invited to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1988. He was the first Southeast Asian musician to lead an all-American band at the festival, and it was from this that he earned his title as Singapore’s “King of Swing”.
In the 1980s, the Singapore government started promoting the arts, and the jazz scene benefitted from this in the form of the Singapore International Jazz Festival, which took place from 1982-85.
Although there were international bands from around the world that were featured, including jazz giant Art Pepper, many local musicians played as well, with a mix of the old guard and upcoming artists, including Louis Soliano, Tony Castillo, Reynaldo Lachica, Olimpio Galaura, Billy Martinez, David Ng, Julai Tan, Eddie Jansen, Iskandar Ismail, Richard Ortega, Jeremy Monteiro, Benny Chan and Spencer Goh.
At the 1984 festival, Ismail coordinated a Singapore All-Stars programme, playing a range of jazz music covering 1920s jazz, dixieland, swing, fusion and progressive jazz. The festivals brought jazz and the local jazz cats out of clubs and hotels to a much larger local audience.
Venues that supported jazz during this time included the Tiara Supper Club at the Shangri-La Hotel where The Ortegos, led by Richard Ortega played, and Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec at Tanglin Shopping Centre, which hosted Monteiro’s fusion jazz band Jeramzee (featuring band members Ramli Shariff and Tony Zee) from 1983–84 and ran weekly jam sessions. Both establishments were set up by Singaporean writer Goh Poh Seng.
However, they closed by the mid- and late-1980s, when Singapore went through a recession. The Saxophone Bar at Cuppage Terrace and Somerset's Bar at the Westin Hotel became the only two venues where Singaporeans could listen to straight-ahead jazz.
The Saxophone Bar was a small but popular venue, with the stage on top of the bar, and Monteiro, who played there from 1986-88 recalls that musicians always found it tricky to get on and off the stage.
It was there that Claude Nobs, the Montreux Jazz Festival director, heard Monteiro’s album and invited the band to perform at the festival.
Other musicians that played at the Saxophone Bar included guitarist O’Donel Levy (a.k.a. O.D.) and bassist Eddie Jansen. Many international jazz musicians would also jam there, including drumming legend Dennis Chambers.
Somerset's Bar at the Westin Hotel was known internationally, and travelling musicians would go there to jam. Many Chicago musicians came and brought their brand of happy, swinging jazz to the venue.
Among the musicians that came, many would continue to return to or remain in Singapore, including Eldee Young (1986 to 2000s), as well as guitarist Rick Smith (1991 to present) and bassist Christy Smith (1993 to present).
And some of these musicians would contribute greatly to the development of the jazz scene till today. There was jazz six nights a week at the bar, and Monteiro hosted the jam sessions there every Sunday through the 1980s and ’90s.
All this time, there still weren’t many local jazz musicians. It did not help that in 1985, laws made it easy for foreign musicians to work here, which brought in a lot of Filipino entertainers, and which meant that Singaporean musicians had a harder time finding work. Monteiro observed that local audiences at gigs amounted to only about a fifth of the crowd, mostly under 25 or much older.
It was only in the mid-1990s that the jazz scene started to become more vibrant, and more local musicians were involved. It was then that the Thomson Jazz Band and the National University of Singapore (NUS) Jazz Band developed. For the first time in Singapore, there were opportunities for amateur musicians to encounter jazz. In earlier days, many musicians got into jazz only after turning professional, as public exposure to the genre was limited.
More youth were also exposed to it from the late 1980s and ’90s, as Monteiro gave concerts and talks to over 60 schools and colleges, thereby exposing 80,000–100,000 teens to the genre. This may also have played a part in setting the groundwork for the next generation of audiences and musicians.
Most bands that played in Singapore were small combo bands, but in the 1990s, there were other types of jazz bands that took form, namely the big band, which has its origins in the Swing Era in the 1930s, and the Dixieland, or traditional jazz bands as they were also called, from the 1920s in New Orleans.
The Thomson Jazz Band was founded by Eddie Chan, the chairman of Thomson Community Club in 1994 to fill the gap left behind by the disappearance of bands like the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra. The club held regular practice sessions on Sundays, where Chan himself would join in on the vibraphone. Rick Smith was in fact Chan’s first music teacher. He quips, “Things were more relaxed then. We would have a little lesson and we’d go out and eat laksa.”
The Thomson Swing Band and the Thomson Jive led by Susan Harper and Oto Szekely developed from the original band, and this expanded their reach to new audiences. In 1997, they played their first overseas gig at the Jacaranda Jazz Festival in Perth, Australia.
Under the invitation of Linus Lee, Rick Smith took over the music directorship of NUS Jazz Band in 1995. Smith said, “My espoused goal for the NUS Jazz Band was that it was the most fun band in the CFA [Centre For the Arts]… Pretty soon we had a full band”. As it was an extra curricular band, it was a stress reliever, so it had to be fun, and that got people to join. It grew quickly from a handful of players to a big band.
This band would bring jazz into the consciousness of the younger generation of Singaporeans, and set the stage for the current generation of jazz cats: singers Joanna Dong and Tan Hanjin, pianist Tan Weixiang (who came in as a trombonist!), guitarist Andrew Lim, and trumpeter Dan Wong.
As Smith was an active jazz musician in the scene, and the band leader at Harry’s Bar, he was able to get the NUS Jazz Band to perform in public, as well as get his guest singers from the bar to work with the musicians, giving the students exposure and experience.
A dixieland jazz band called The Singapore Stompers, founded by Marvin Hixson in 1992, started out at a fundraiser event held at the Pine Tree Club. They were such a hit that they continued playing together, spreading the sounds of New Orleans Jazz to Singaporeans. They even recorded an album with Lion Studios called Best of The Singapore Stompers in 1999.
There was also a band that played dixieland jazz at the Compass Rose in The Westin Hotel for Sunday brunch in the late 1990s for a couple of years, which included Tony Castillo, Louis Soliano, Rick Smith, and Leo Fernandiz.
The big bands and the dixieland bands were basically dance bands, and this brought the music back to the dancers, and it was no different with the Thompson Swing Band, the NUS Jazz Band, and the Singapore Stompers. They would on many occasions work with or just play for the various lindy hop communities in Singapore. Jazz bands now would play for dancers, much like how they would in the early years of Singapore’s jazz history, and this played a part in making the music more popular as well.
One of the key jazz venues in the 1990s was Harry’s Bar at Boat Quay, which opened its doors in 1992. They had live performances six days a week. Monteiro led the first band there, with Ignatius Bong, Tamagoh and Rick Smith, playing a mix of straight-ahead jazz, bossa nova, and contemporary jazz.
Monteiro recalls, “He [Jim Gelpi, the manager of Harry’s then, and the man responsible for getting jazz into the venue] gave me the keys to the bar... I would practise in the morning, facing the Singapore river, then lock the club and go to my recording studio”, which was just behind the bar.
When Monteiro left Harry’s in 1993 to go play at The Regent Bar, Smith took over with his band ChromaZone and would stay for the next 17 years, with musicians Billy Martinez, Nick Lim, Mei Sheum, Eddie Layman, and Christy Smith in the line-up.
According to Rick, “My basic concept was I didn’t want to have an entirely expat band, then we are alienated from the local musicians, and I didn’t want to have that kind of attitude. I made a policy of hiring a local piano player.”
There were Sunday jams till the late 1990s, where budding and experienced musicians would go to hone their skills as well. The NUS Jazz Band also played at Harry’s from 1998-99 on Tuesdays, with lindy hoppers joining in.
He added, “We wanted to play serious jazz, but also wanted to be really accessible to people… Our singers were crossovers from jazz to R&B… we range from R&B to straight-ahead blues and jazz.” Rick kept the music fresh by always having overseas guest singers, but at the same time be that constant for both local and visiting guests, ensuring repeat customers.
Their wider repertoire reached a much larger audience. This meant that Harry’s wasn’t a quiet, sit-down-and-listen kind of venue, and this led to some criticism from the aficionados. Perhaps this was what was necessary to sustain jazz venues.
Monteiro started Jeremy’s Jazz and Blues Club, one from 1995–1996, and another 1996–1997, where there was straight-ahead jazz most nights of the week, but “they made more money from coffee than jazz” quipped Rick, despite stellar acts that Monteiro had brought in to play at the club.
Chijmes adopted a similar model of making jazz accessible, by pairing it with F&B. CHIJAZZ, which started in the mid-1990s, was held at the lawn where people could enjoy jazz, food and drinks over the weekend. The festival promoted and showcased many homegrown and locally based musicians, and it was so successful it lasted about a decade.
As the millennium approached, jazz was definitely more commonplace in the Singapore public’s consciousness, with more bands and venues offering the music in a more accessible manner. What started out as a music played and enjoyed mainly by expats—and confined to hotels, dance halls, and cabarets—was being embraced by more Singaporean musicians and audiences alike.
Sinclair Ang is an authentic jazz dance specialist and educator. He has taught and performed internationally for over a decade, and is the founder of Jazz Inc in Singapore, a collective championing authentic jazz dancing through classes and performances. He is also focused on educating the public on the history and evolution of these dances and their music forms. As a vocalist, he leads jazz bands that perform for lindy hoppers.
Yuepeng, Zheng. Swingin’ Round the World: Musical Circuits, Traveling Musicians and Jazz in Singapore (2009).
Dairianathan, Eugene. A Narrative history of Music in Singapore 1819 to the Present (2005).
Lim, Juliana. Singapore International Jazz Festival (1982–1984) (2010).
Personal Interviews with Jeremy Monteiro, Rick Smith and Marv Hixson. (May – Jun 2017)
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