The Great Wall has been broken down, and Lisa Rich has stepped through.
Such was the effect of a recent trip that found the American singer, along with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and a dance group called Dance Union, taking part in four performances at a theater in Peking. Their visit marked the first such program offered in China since the 1949 revolution.
“It was an amazing and enlightening experience for everyone,” said Rich, a trim brunette who lives in Silver Spring, Md. “We were chosen as official ‘Jazz Ambassadors’ because we all live in the Washington area; Washington and Peking are sister cities and this was part of a cultural exchange.”
Rich, now in Los Angeles for an appearance beginning Tuesday at the Vine St. Bar & Grill, was impressed by the welcome accorded the artists. “The U.S. Ambassador held a reception for us at the Hall of Peace. The mayor of Peking gave us a big banquet on opening night and came to the concert. Every show was sold out, though we hear that the city government handed out most of the tickets to local officials, so there were only a few hundred seats actually on sale, and they were scalped in the parking lot for huge amounts of money. Some of the people who couldn’t get in to hear us were able to meet us at a big party given at the U.S. Embassy by the wife of the ambassador.”
Aware of the necessity to leap over a cultural chasm, Rich conceived the idea--during a TV program--of taking a very basic song, “Frere Jacques,” which she had been taught to sing in Chinese, singing it straight, then subjecting it to several improvised variations. “I did the same thing during the concerts and the audiences really related to it.”
Eager to reach some of her listeners on a more personal level, Rich made friends, on opening night, with Zhong Zilin, a violinist who taught music history at the Peking Conservatory. “He said that jazz was never even mentioned in his courses, and out of a billion people maybe there were a couple of hundred who were even aware of its existence,” Rich said.
Accordingly, an exchange clinic was set up informally: Zhong brought six of the best singers from his college to his house to meet Rich and her pianist, Bob Hallahan. “I tried to explain what jazz is; they had no idea--all they get to do at college is sing Russian and Chinese arias that have the government stamp of approval,” Rich said.
“I gathered that anyone who wanted to be a singer had to take a test; if you didn’t pass the test you might wind up being assigned to become a maid, or whatever else they throw at you. When I heard this, I wept, thinking how lucky I am to be able to hear and perform anything I want.”
The Chinese singers shared their music with Rich. “They sang some of their own folk songs into my tape recorder that were exquisite; they also sang some Russian arias that shook the room--outstanding, and very passionate.”
That jazz seemed totally unfamiliar to the Chinese was no accident. As in the U.S.S.R., the authorities had banned the music as a supposed bourgeois symbol of decadent capitalism until they discovered that it was, instead, a people’s music.
Rich fascinated her listeners at Zhong’s party with her description of life in America, in particular the life of a singer. “I was afraid somebody would censor me, but I was always free to say what I pleased. In other areas, there was less freedom: I would never be allowed to get into a cab alone. They always took me everywhere. During our eight days in Peking, the only time we traveled at all was a two-hour bus trip, when we were taken to see the Great Wall.”
According to such local sources as the Beijing Review, the reception accorded to the all-black Howard University Ensemble, which consisted of 17 undergraduate students, was somewhat cool, receiving only polite applause in a country where the tradition of applauding is very little known. On the other hand, the black dance group was generally well received during “Piano Works,” a ballet that used taped music by Scott Joplin and Fats Waller. Rich feels the orchestra did not extend itself, as she did, to adjust its repertoire to this audience. “They were representing themselves rather than jazz; on one number, they had a guy playing harmonica. They were very good, though, for a college band, and as the nights went on they got better and better.”
Improvisation, employed both by the musicians and Rich, was a major source of mystification. “At Zhong’s party, I tried to explain this, because they were really confused. I said, ‘OK, now here’s a song by one of our most famous composers, George Gershwin.’ And I sang a few bars of ‘Love Is Here to Stay’ about 16 different ways. Each time I did it, they would be agog, and their questions were phenomenal--sometimes unbelievably hip; yet they just couldn’t believe that there would be two ways to sing a song.”
Rich even told the probably apocryphal story of how Louis Armstrong invented scat singing because he dropped the music sheet at a record session and was obliged to proceed ad lib. “They loved it, and laughed; then I tried to show them how you could sing with and without words. When I told them, ‘Let me hear what you like,’ each one of them sang a song.
“It was an overwhelmingly emotional evening, particularly in view of how humble they were and how little they have. If the American jazz people I know, who think they are living in poverty, could see these people, it would come as quite a shock. These are the ones who are supposed to be doing well, yet they don’t have a kitchen, don’t have heat in their homes--and this was late November. This guy had cement floors, and I saw the little bowls where he washed his clothes. He’s the head of the music department, so by their standards he’s a wealthy man. He pays 10 cents a month rent, and I gathered that people who have a good job make about $1,000 a year.”
As is so often the case among artists who go overseas, Rich and her companions were accorded a most atypical treatment. “Every meal was like 20 courses--I actually gained weight!--yet I saw people walking down the street with hunks of meat that were probably going to have to last them a couple of weeks.”
Despite the gained weight, Peking may not have been the most healthy environment; the air was so bad that most people wore gas masks, and Rich saw children with big bonnets covering their heads. “By the last day, I could hardly breathe; I couldn’t inhale and felt as if I were having an asthma attack. It wasn’t easy singing under those conditions.”
Nevertheless, a highlight of the visit was a 5:30 a.m. trip to a park where, Rich says, “before people go to work they attend a Tai Chi class. Here were these 80-year-old women kicking their legs so high you couldn’t believe it and going through these beautiful martial arts routines to Chinese music. They looked fit and incredibly healthy--I just don’t know how they do it.”
Despite the constant pressure of interviews, of television cameras following her when she attempted to go sightseeing, Rich felt that she had an opportunity to touch the reality of life in a country removed by a million psychological miles from her own experience.
“Before we left, I felt we had learned something substantial from one another. I tried to explain the spiritual aspect, that the reason why I sing is because it’s sort of my religion, and they’d say, ‘Spirituality? What is that?’ and I’d talk about God, and again, ‘What is that?’ But it was wonderful sharing these concepts with people who were so unfamiliar with them. I came away with the sense that this incredible trip really touched my music and touched my life like nothing I’d ever known before.”