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Introduced to Singapore from as early as the pre-war days, jazz was by no means as popular as it was in the United States of America, where the art form originated.
Here on our sunny shores, it was, in the early days, heard mainly at hotels and dance gatherings, as background and dance music.
One of the most famous hotels with dance gatherings from as early as the 1930s was the Raffles Hotel, which typically featured bands comprised of white musicians. After the war, local bands fronted by musicians such as Gerry Soliano and Don Castillo took over.
It was then that jazz provided the accompaniment to these dances through jazzed up Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes, including those by George Gershwin and Cole Porter, which were played alongside the waltzes, rhumbas, and the tangos.
Apart from the Raffles Hotel, venues such as the Swiss Club and Tanglin Club hosted dance gatherings for the European social elite living in Singapore. Those that catered to the local crowd were places like the Southern Cabaret at the People’s Park Complex, the Carlton (Hotel) Night Club, The Shackle Club along Thomson Road, as well as the New World, Great World, and Happy World cabarets, where Alfredo Libio and his all-star Filipino Swing Band played popular tunes of the day.
Although jazz was popular dance music in the United States of America during the Swing Era in the 1930s and early 1940s, by the late 1940s, the bebop revolution was already on its way—a style of jazz that focused on the music itself, stretching harmonic and rhythmic complexities, rather than on music suitable for dancers.
However, the jazz that was played in the Singapore music scene during this time right up to the late 1950s was still mainly easy listening jazz, suited to be background music, or music to be danced to.
It was a kind of jazz that "didn’t attack the senses," as guitarist/saxophonist Horace Wee recalls.
He adds, “[it was a kind of] watered-down jazz... [People] played standards... in a jazz vein... with a swing beat", so that it was appropriate at cabarets and tea dances.
This was the kind of jazz that was popular with the public, especially with the Asian crowd in Singapore. What the audience wanted was easy listening music that they could dance to, or the music that was featured in the floor performances that the musicians accompanied.
Despite the tastes of the audience in the 1940s and ’50s, the scene still produced talented jazz musicians, which included Gerry Soliano, Leonardo Reyes, Val Ortega and Lionel Buenaventura, all of whom were of Filipino descent and some of whom belonged to the key families that dominated the scene. Within the circle, the more renowned families of jazz musicians at that time were the Solianos, the Ortegas, the Buenaventuras, the Castillos, the Lachicas and the Daroyas. Many of them were related.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s and ’60s—more than a decade after jazz moved away from being dance music in the United States—that it became an art form that was taken up more seriously by some local musicians and presented to the audience.
Among these musicians were Wee, pianist John Lee, trumpeter Olimpio Galaura, pianist Sam Goh, pianist/bassist Ernesto Daroya, pianist Michael Tseng, drummer/conductor Rufino Soliano, and drummer/singer Louis Soliano.
Daroya and Wee would have supper after their gigs, sit along the old Esplanade Park, and listen to the music of Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, and Cannonball Adderley on a three-inch reel recorder to learn from them. And they would listen to the records till the grooves wore out. Other sources of learning included tuning in to The Voice of America with Willis Conover, a weekly jazz programme on short wave radio. This, along with televised jazz programmes, kept the musicians up to date with the latest developments of the art form in the United States.
It was also fortunate that there was a Sunday jazz jam at Orchard Hotel’s the Golden Venus during this time for these musicians to gather, learn from each other, and work on their craft. Here, the musicians could play jazz for its own sake.
They focused on the improvisatory nature of the musical form, and self-expression was key, which meant that each jam session could stretch for hours on end.
According to Wee, these sessions at the Golden Venus drew local and visiting musicians, even those from the British Forces, to get together to jam and hone their craft as serious jazz musicians.
Other musicians that jammed there to earn their chops included Iskandar Ismail, trumpeter/vocalist Tony Castillo, drummer Eddie Fernandez, as well as pianists Simplicius Cheong and Michael Tseng, both of whom left for Australia.
Richard Ortega, who would become the president of the Musicians’ Union of Singapore1, believed that jazz was something that should be listened to, not danced to, as dancing places too many constraints on the music. Other places where the musicians could play serious jazz on a weekly basis included the Dutch Club, the American Club, and the Royal Armed Forces base.
As Louis Soliano explained, theory or lessons taught in the classroom counted for nothing if one did not constantly practice and perform. The jam sessions at places like the Golden Venus, along with the musicians’ own drive to become better, made this generation of jazz men excel in their craft.
Many would admit that Daroya was one of the best of their generation, and would have become even better if not for his untimely demise in 1966 at the age of 30.
Other notable jazz musicians during this period of Singapore's jazz history included Henry Bracken, Tony Danker, pianists Trudy Conner and Eddie Gomez, who played at the Intercontinental Hotel; pianist Benny Kleinman, who played at the Princess Garni where the Knightsbridge is today; and guitarist/saxophonist Dick Abel, who conducted the Malayanaires, the radio orchestra which had drummer Dan Hopkins, pianist Gus Styen, trumpeter Olimpio Galaura, and saxophonists Reynaldo Lachica and Ahmad Jaafar.
Despite the skill and enthusiasm of these musicians, the followers of serious jazz remained small, especially with the local communities.
For most part, many of the audience members would comprise expats with only a handful of locals. Although serious jazz was not fully appreciated by the masses, it was fortunate that when Radio Singapore was established in the 1960s, jazz musicians had the opportunity to record live performances to be broadcast to the public. Musicians that played in these programmes included Daroya, Louis and Rufino Soliano, Wee, and Cheong.
There were also several jazz festivals that were organised during this period. The United States Consulate held one of the first festivals in the 1960s, where Daroya and Wee performed. USIS sponsored a series of jazz concerts throughout the 1960s at the Victoria Memorial Hall (now known as Victoria Concert Hall) and the Victoria Theatre featuring local jazz bands as well.
A number of international acts also made pit-stops in Singapore. In the 1950s, the newly formed Musicians’ Union of Singapore hosted Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden when they performed here; drummer Buddy Rich and the Joey Adam Show were featured at the Victoria Theatre in 1959; while jazz sensation, trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong came in 1964. During his time here, Armstrong was so impressed by Tony Castillo that he arranged for the 16-year-old musician to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in the United States.
In the 1970s, institutions like the National Theatre Trust Records and the American Embassy also invited Count Basie and his orchestra (1971), Duke Ellington and his orchestra (1972), The Charlie Byrd Trio (1975), and the Gil Evans Orchestra (1976) to do concerts.
The ’70s was also when the pop revolution hit Singapore and took over many big live band venues. The Sunday jazz jam sessions at the Golden Venus were cancelled as pop and rock bands became more popular. These pop show bands, like Romy Katindig and the Hi-Chords, the Jubilees, the Brown Boys and D’Starlights, focused on entertainment.
During this time, the government also clamped down on live music due to an association of western music with decadence. Tea dances were regulated due to frequent brawls, and men were banned from sporting long hair.
Entertainment taxes for live bands in nightclubs also soared, and this led many club owners to turn to disco, and eventually to karaoke. Interest in jazz began to dwindle in the public entertainment scene. Live music was relegated mostly to hotel lounges.
Nevertheless, according to Louis Soliano, there were still jam sessions at the Golden Dragon, Ocean Park, Princess Garni and the Jockey Pub, which kept the jazz scene alive as they bridged the eras and set the stage for the next generation of musicians.
For serious jazz cats like him and his peers, the jazz flame will always burn bright.
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.
1The Musicians’ Union of Singapore was established in the 1950s and dissolved in 1978. Members had to be able to read musical notation before they could join. Being a member implied that one was “certified” a professional.
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).
Personal Interviews (May – Jun 2017)
From fresh Mosaic Jazz Fellows alumni to esteemed jazz stalwarts, Jazz in July features daily performances by 43 jazz artists who call Singapore home.