All that Jazz

Published on 22 December 2015

There is no shortage of good jazz music in Singapore, but why aren’t more people listening?

BY MELANIE LEE

When people fall in love with jazz, they fall hard. Take pianist Jeremy Monteiro, Singapore’s godfather of jazz, for instance. “I just knew I wanted to be a professional jazz musician when I was 14,” recounts the Cultural Medallion recipient. Similarly, singer Rani Singam, who listened to jazz as a teen, recalls connecting to this music “at a very deep and instinctive level”.

As such, the jazz community in Singapore (around 100 or so musicians) is a close-knit bunch who often get together to collaborate during concerts, album recordings or jam sessions at jazz clubs. However, for most of them, there’s this palpable frustration that their love for this genre of music goes seemingly unrequited by the general public. For one, live jazz bars such as Jazz@Southbridge have closed in recent years due to poor crowds.

Photo: National Gallery Singapore

JAZZY BLUES

The jazz scene is made up overwhelmingly of musicians, and not enough audience. That’s our fundamental struggle,” observes singer Joanna Dong, who has made it a personal mission to bring jazz to Mandarin-speaking audiences.

It’s a strange situation given that the local jazz scene includes some of the most talented local musicians. Monteiro has been featured at the Montreux International Jazz Festival and recently performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Jazz pianist Chok Kerong held a well-received two-day concert, Eleven, at Esplanade Recital Studio a few months ago featuring an 11-piece ensemble playing his original compositions.

For singer Alemay Fernandez, she feels that jazz in Singapore is inaccurately perceived as ‘old people’s music’. “When I started singing in public venues at 18, people would tell me I was too young to perform such music. But to me, the old jazz standards by Ella Fitzgerald have timeless lyrics which are actually very accessible, and the storytelling in these songs are incredibly rich and personal.”

Dong also feels that jazz’s shrinking audience might also be due to fewer people making it a habit of going to a bar to listen to live music. “The pricey drinks or cover charges create an additional barrier of entry to audiences who are already not exposed to a culture of attending live gigs.”

SOUNDS GOOD

However, things are not all dire. David Smith, the co-organiser of the annual Sing Jazz Festival and founder of Sing Jazz Club, believes that jazz is diverse enough to reach a wide spectrum of music lovers with the right kind of exposure. Sing Jazz Festival 2016  has even been themed ‘Music for All’, with world-famous acts such as Joss Stone and the Buena Vista Social Club drawing in the crowds.

Popular homegrown singer Charlie Lim, who performed at 2015’s Sing Jazz Festival, observed that there were a number of young fans who had bought tickets just for his act, but later discovered and enjoyed the music of other artists from Singapore and around the world. “It’s wonderful to see how a festival like this exposes young people to different genres of jazz, and perhaps even gives them options on what music they can ‘grow into’ as their music tastes mature,” says the performer, whose music embraces genres ranging from soul, jazz and folk.

Chok shares similar sentiments. While coaching the National University of Singapore Jazz Band and mentoring as part of the Esplanade’s Mosaic Jazz Fellows, he has come to notice that there is a growing interest in jazz among young musicians. “That can only be a good thing. Even if many of them don’t go into jazz full-time, there will be that next generation of jazz listeners.”

Sing Jazz 2016 is on from 4-6 March at Marina Bay Sands.

Jazz It Up

Still fuzzy about jazz? Singapore’s most talented jazz musicians fill you in.

Charlie Lim, 27 (Singer)

Performed for 10 years
“Jazz is music steeped in tradition and requires immense technicalities. The more I learn about it, the less I know.”

Chok Kerong, 32 (Hammond, piano, organ)

Performed for 18 years
“Jazz is music built on the foundations created by artists such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.”

Joanna Dong, 34 (Singer)

Performed for 13 years
“Jazz as a genre includes such vastly diverse styles… many bands now also incorporate jazzy chords, or syncopation, or have improvised solos.”

Rani Singam, 44 (Singer)

Performed for 13 years
“Jazz is the perfect combination of adventure and creativity. It puts everyone in a state of suspense — players and listeners alike.”

Alemay Fernandez, 37 (Singer)

Performed for 16 years
“Jazz is one of the purest forms of music. Because it is improvisational, there’s this naked vulnerability in performing jazz that requires 100 per cent honesty and sincerity.”

Jeremy Monteiro, 55 (Pianist)

Performed for 38 years
“Louis Armstrong once said that if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know. Simply put, just feel it. Don’t think it when you listen to jazz. You’ll start to appreciate it because jazz speaks to your heart.”

Swingin’ Spots

Jazz musicians bring on the bebop energy and emotion at these bluesy venues.

SingJazz Club (101 Jalan Sultan)

Located at The Sultan hotel, this ultimate destination for all things jazz features an impressive lineup of Singapore and international acts. Look out for homegrown talents such as Leandra Lane and Michaela Therese.

PHOTO  SingJazz Club

Blu Jaz Cafe (11 Bali Lane)

The beats at this chilled-out watering hole tend to be a little funkier with jazz pianist Aya Sekine as a regular. They also have a weekly jazz jam session that usually takes place on Wednesdays.

PHOTO  Blu Jaz Cafe

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