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Swinging to a new tune: Singapore jazz 1990s–2000s

The jazz venues that made the musicians.

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Published: 3 Jul 2019


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Aces and spaces

Jazz is, first and foremost, a social activity that tells stories. Because these stories are new every time, they need a space where they can be meaningfully shared, through conversation and improvisation between musicians in front of a live audience. Throughout history, the story of jazz has had a symbiotic relationship with clubs and establishments, the very spaces that allowed the art and its practitioners to grow.

At the height of the Swing Era in the 1930s and 1940s, when jazz was the popular music of the day, New York City was crawling with clubs where many a jazz giant made a name for themselves—Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at The Royal Roost, and Billie Holiday at Café Society.

The story of jazz in Singapore is no different. In the 1960s–1970s, there were the Golden Venus Club, Tiara Supper Club and Bistro Toulouse-Lautrec, where the first generation of Singapore jazz musicians like Louis Soliano, Tony Castillo, Horace Wee and Ernesto Daroya moved from playing show tunes to exploring serious jazz.

In the 1970s–1990s, the places to be were Club 392, the Jockey Pub and the Saxophone Club, where the likes of Jeremy Monteiro, Stephen Francis, Tony Zee, Eddie Jansen and Ramli Shariff set the stage for the modern jazz scene in Singapore.

From the 1990s–2000s, it was Somerset’s Bar, Harry’s at Boat Quay, Jazz@Southbridge and BluJaz, where a whole new generation of young jazz musicians would find their foundations on which to grow. It was at these venues where musicians came together to learn and grow from playing with each other—their role in the development of the modern jazz scene in Singapore cannot be understated.

Watch: The roots of jazz in Singapore

A glass of jazz pizzazz: Somerset's and Harry's

Pianist Mei Sheum, a prominent member of the new generation of musicians to emerge in the 1990s, was introduced to Somerset’s Bar by fellow music teacher and guitarist Dave Wee. Jazz venues doubled up as networking hotspots, and it was here that Mei met singer-pianist Judy Roberts, who encouraged her to move to Chicago to develop her nous in jazz music.

It was also here, in this charming little establishment tucked away in the Westin Hotel, that many American musicians (mostly from Chicago) had residencies, exposing the Singapore scene to their brand of—as Jeremy Monteiro describes it—“happy jazz”.

Some stayed on and shaped the modern jazz scene in Singapore, the most prominent among them being bassist Christy Smith, who has since become synonymous with Singapore jazz. His already large influence widens by the day, as he continues to mentor aspiring jazz musicians.

On the other side of the Singapore river, Harry’s Quayside Bar at Boat Quay had a similar influence on the cats, with many both playing and witnessing memorable shows at the old haunt. Jazz guitarist Andrew Lim remembers the first time he stumbled upon the music as he was walking by. Lim recalls falling in love with jazz from a very young age, enchanted by Buddy Colette’s flute playing on Club Date, which was broadcasted on the old Radio and Television Singapore.

No Longer a Kampung Harrys Christy Wynton Jeremy

American bassist Christy Smith stayed on in Singapore and mentored many jazz musicians.<br> Left to right: Christy Smith, trumpeter and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Wynton Marsalis, Jeremy Monteiro<br> Image courtesy of Christy Smith

“It blew my mind that the music was played by real musicians here,” he chimes. Lim would later join the National University of Singapore (NUS) Jazz Band (then led by guitarist Rick Smith), while playing gigs at Harry’s on Mondays—when the lindy hoppers would also come out to dance.

Lim would also come into his own as the guitarist for the house band at jam sessions on Sundays. Concurrently at NUS, he would get acquainted with other like-minded friends that make up the most prominent of this generation’s jazz musicians. This included pianists Chok Kerong (though he wasn’t in the NUS Jazz Band) and Tan Weixiang (here on referred to as Wei), who initially played trombone in the NUS Jazz Band.

Chok himself had a baptism of fire, sitting in for a jam session on his first of many trips to Harry’s. Wei took over on piano when the band lacked a pianist at one of the Big Band Mondays sessions at the bar and has stayed on the keyboard ever since. Looking back, Wei reflects that Somerset’s and Harry’s were “influential in shaping the [modern] sound of what we call jazz in Singapore”.

Jazz stomping grounds in the 2000s

For a young nation with a multitude of diverse cultures, young musicians trying to figure out music from a distant American culture had to find a way to get continual live exposure to the art form. While it’s one thing to learn from recordings, jazz was always about the live exchange. It was, and still is, the music behind the moment. This was where visiting jazz artists were crucial in the development of Singapore’s young scene.

Eddie Chan, the owner of Jazz@Southbridge and the founder of Thomson Big Band, understood that. He reached out to musicians from all over the world to play at Jazz@Southbridge, with a stellar line-up eventually making their way to our sunny shores, including saxophonist Bob Reynolds, vibraphonist Dave Samuels and pianist Aaron Goldberg. Chan had a burning desire to get local audiences up to speed with what jazz sounded like, straight from the land where the music was first conceptualised.

According to pianist Aya Sekine, who played at Jazz@Southbridge from 2002–2009 with bassist Eddie Jansen and drummer Tan Boon Ghee, “[Chan] allowed creative things.”

This meant that jazz musicians were able to push for what they wanted to do with the music. Jazz@Southbridge was the definitive meeting point for musicians in the day, and in some ways, fulfilled the function of Somerset’s Jazz Bar while also providing the added emphasis of cultivating the local musicians who found themselves playing there—with pianist Don Gomez, singer Alemay Fernandez and jazz doyen Louis Soliano among them. Both Chok and Wei played a lot at Jazz@Southbridge as well, with the latter actually meeting his wife there.

Harry’s was another such venue that allowed for this constant exposure and exchange. The bar’s manager Jim Gelpi first got live jazz going at the venue, starting with Monteiro’s band in 1991, and ChromaZone (comprised mainly of expat musicians like Christy Smith, drummer Eddie Layman, and guitarist Rick Smith at the start with a few local jazz cats, including pianists Mei and Nick Lim) from 1993–2010. Both Christy and Rick also roped in many expatriate musicians to hold residencies at the bar.

No Longer a Kampung Harrys 02

Where paths collide: Harry's Quayside Bar<br> Left to right: Christy Smith, manager Margaret Cunningham, Marcus Printep (Jazz at Lincoln Center), drummer Eddie Layman, Wes Anderson (Jazz at Lincoln Center), pianist Nick Lim, guitarist Rick Smith and Walter Blanding (Jazz at Lincoln Center)<br> Image courtesy of Christy Smith

Mei, who played at Harry’s from 1993–1996, was one of the musicians to have benefited the most from playing with the plethora of different musicians that passed by. Mei recalls,

That exchange when we sit in on the bandstand is important, it’s something you don’t get in the classroom setting...If I were to play in a club, I’ll probably play a lot looser, and be more adventurous. That’s when you hear the stuff going on.

Bar Stop, which sat along Devonshire Road from the mid-2000s–2010, also had management that allowed its musicians free reign. Mei and Lim played there for a few years, alongside singers Alemay Fernandez and Melissa Tham, as well as singer-pianist Michelle Poh. The bar drew the after-work crowd, which swung by for happy hour drinks and some jazz. “That place reminded me of Southbridge, but with more local musicians and local audience members,” quips Mei.

Another important venue for the jazz scene in Singapore was BluJaz, which introduced live music from 2006, with Sekine in charge of programming.

Saxophonist Greg Lyons’ Omniform, which included saxophonist Tim O’Dwyer, Chok, drummer Darren Moore and bassist Marcus Dengate, was the resident band at BluJaz every Monday, when the venue first made a big push for live music. BluJaz would continue to be an important venue for the growth of the local scene for the next 13 years, offering a place for musicians to play all the way till early-2019 when their public entertainment licence was cancelled.

Up till then, it was the one of the last standing jazz bars in Singapore, as most other venues ceased operations by 2010, in part due to the financial crisis of 2009, coupled with the advent of online entertainment.

There were many other venues that offered jazz throughout this era as well, many of them in hotels, including Bar and Billiard Room at the Raffles Hotel, where Mei (and on occasion, Sekine) played with veteran bassist Billie Martinez and singer-trumpeter Tony Costillo.

There was also Quarubar at Dempsey Hill, where O’Dwyer led a resident band that included Andrew Lim and drummer Darryl Ervin. Swing at Cuppage Terrace was also a popular venue where the late legendary guitarist Paul Ponnudorai held court (Chok fondly remembers jamming there with him).

Live jazz also echoed out of many a restaurant, a prime example being The Ship Restaurant & Bar, where singer-pianist Stephen Francis played with saxophonist Stephen Rufus. Francis would also run a nine-piece band at the Bellini Grande, serving up popular jazz tunes a la Michael Bublé before moving on to a smaller combo that included Soliano at the Bellini Room from the mid–2000s on to the end of the decade.

Watch: How today's jazz scene came to be

Right place, right time

The musicians were playing everywhere because there were so many venues that wanted live jazz but not enough musicians to go around from the mid-2000s–2010. Wei felt that he and his peers were in the right place at the right time—when jazz wasn’t all that developed in Singapore, and where the level of musicianship wasn’t very high. He felt that they filled a gap in the demand, and so got a lot of work, which in turn made them better musicians through constant performance practice. Many of his friends and peers from university went on to decide to become professional musicians, including singer-guitarist Tan Hanjin; drummers Soh Wen Ming and Tan Boon Ghee; pianist and bassist Joshua Wan; bassist Colin Yong; and guitarist Sebastian Ho.

Chok, on the other hand, did not actively pursue the path of a professional musician but still felt drawn to the music. He was often present in the scene to learn and grow, and somewhere along the way, started to be invited for gigs because people liked what they heard. Chok felt that his presence on the bandstand contributed heavily to him becoming a better player. He likes to play for singers in particular, many of whom he feels he can learn a lot from. Chok believes that performance “teaches people to meet in the middle, to listen to people.”

Lim feels that most of what he learnt came from the many mentors he has had the privilege of working under throughout his career. “(Mentors) put their popularity on the line to tell you the truth, and that means something.” He cites gigs at Harry’s with Christy Smith shouting instructions on the bandstand as one of the biggest learning experiences for him.

Wei also believes that Smith is one of the main influences on the sound of jazz in Singapore, not just due to his ability to refine musical aspects on and off the bandstand, but also his emphasis on the history and meaning of the music. Smith remembers the hunger that Wei and Chok had when they were first starting out, and that drove him to share everything he knew with them. Because of Smith’s reputation as a jazz mentor, the more experienced musicians like Monteiro and Tamagoh always turned to him for the lowdown on up-and-coming jazz cats.

No Longer a Kampung Harrys 01

Christy Smith with jazz cats of the 2000s at Harry's Quayside Bar<br> Left to right: Christy Smith, late keyboardist Michael Stanton, keyboardist-vocalist Ernesta Dunbar, guitarist Rick Smith and drummer Eddie Layman<br> Image courtesy of Christy Smith

Singapore's first jazz degree programme

Back when Lim started learning jazz in the early-2000s, he would write to the university library with requests for jazz books, as resources were otherwise limited. Like Lim, Chok relied a lot of self-directed learning, listening to CDs and jamming with friends. On hindsight, Lim believed it was a good thing that there was so much variance, as it contributed to the development of distinctly unique voices.

Wei belonged to the set that jammed together in NUS, but cites playing with Victor Gaskin as the most essential part of his development. Gaskin himself had played with many of the jazz greats such as Cannonball Adderly, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Buddy Colette. He had come to Singapore in the twilight of his career to retire, playing a regular gig at the Four Seasons.

In the years that Wei played and stayed with Gaskin, he uncovered what jazz actually meant to him and the baggage that comes with being a jazz musician. He feels that the bulk of his learning didn’t come from music lessons, but informal chats about the music with experienced veterans.

Eventually Wei, Chok and Lim all made their way to the USA to formally study the music. Having polished their musicianship, they came back with a wealth of experience and became teachers at LASALLE College of the Arts, which started the first dedicated jazz degree programme in Singapore, set up by O’Dwyer, back in 2004. Christy Smith has also since taken up a teaching position there. He quips,

The urgency has hit the new generation; they are coming up faster. Understanding the underlying principles of growth within themselves, they’re influencing their friends and people who’ve been wanting to share this have been put into play...This sharing is becoming more abundant.

The jazz programme has had a huge impact on the scene-at-large. Young musicians now have the infrastructure and resources in place to learn, while top professional musicians in the scene have both employment and mentoring opportunities.

Lim believes that who you study with is more important than the programme itself, because jazz is about the individual. Though these days, the institutions are probably the best place to meet these individuals.

Sekine feels that having practitioners in these institutions not only validates the musicians’ value, but also allows the mentors to inculcate the social aspect of jazz to the students, by helping them develop social musical competency through playing with each other.

O’Dwyer believes that this funneling of talent into programmes allows teaching practitioners to earmark and further push the exceptional students, many of whom are poised for long and successful careers in jazz.

Watch: The places that have shaped Singapore's jazz cats

Internationalisation of the scene

According to O’Dwyer, the Singapore jazz scene when he arrived in 2000 was dominated by people aspiring to play American jazz. He feels that the scene here is still developing and that it’s significantly more difficult to pursue your own path, because the listening crowd here are not used to hearing original music and are generally not willing to pay to listen to it. “Jazz from Singapore should also start to confidently reflect the rich cultural heritage from here as well,” he adds.

Christy Smith echoes this sentiment. “It’s taking a while to take hold here, because it’s a young country, but the root of music and art is already here, so in that respect, growth is a matter of time.”

“When you have exposure, then you have growth. In 25 years, you see that efficiency and the beauty of the music that they possess and share is astounding and inspirational. And I get to watch it… It’s starting to be a meeting place, and the discussion of the music is prevalent,” he surmises.

As one of those who had his beginnings in the 2000s, Wei sums it up perfectly. “What my generation represented was an internationalisation of the scene. We were a kampung for a long time. Now we are a stepping stone to an even better future.”

No Longer a Kampung Harrys Blujaz

Jazz cats of the 2000s at Harry's Quayside Bar<br> Left to right, front row: Chok Kerong, vocalist Dawn Ho<br> Middle row: Vocalist Richard Jackson, vocalist Alemay Fernandez, pianist Aya Sekine, Tim O'Dwyer<br> Back row: Christy Smith, saxophonist Nicole Duffel and Andrew Lim are, respectively, first, second and fourth from the left.<br> Image courtesy of Christy Smith

Chok Kerong is a Mosaic Associate Artist.

This is the last part of our series on Singapore’s jazz cats, chronicling the developments of the scene.

Sources

Personal Interviews (Jun – Jul 2019)
Andrew Lim
Chok Kerong
Christy Smith
Tan Weixiang


Contributed by:

Sinclair Ang

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 his band The Rhythmakers, which specialises in traditional jazz and swing-era tunes, performing mainly as a dance band for lindy hoppers.


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