With the bombs came jazz, and a musical love affair

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HANOI, Vietnam — For many visitors new to Hanoi’s Old Quarter, stumbling upon Minh’s Jazz Club is so unlikely it is almost as if it were fated. This section of the city is a maze of wrecked, meandering roads and narrow French colonial buildings where the streets retain the names of the wares they offer and the families who have lived there for hundreds of years. 

The location of the jazz club is an unlikely intersection of Hang Ma, where they sell spirit money and incense, and Hang May, the place to buy bamboo and rattan furniture.

For club-goers, though, none of that matters as the smog-stained red and orange sunset slips away into dusk because the shops will be closing, and the only sounds will be the drone of motorbikes and tendrils of smoky horn melodies wafting from a softly lit bar.

Quyen Van Minh runs the place. He is easy to spot with his black-and-silver ponytail and jazzman’s goatee lounging in the corner smoking his trademark Marlboro Lights through a wooden filter. For Vietnam’s first jazz star and one of the most eminent musicians in Hanoi, he plays it cool — a grainy nostalgic cool that fell out of favor in American jazz circles decades ago with the advent of rock and roll music.

The cultural changes that brought about jazz music’s decline from mainstream popularity in the West were in part propagated by the same war that exposed Minh to his music.  Ask him how he developed his love for jazz, and his story begins with the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, the “American War.”

“It was music for the U.S. soldiers. I used to listen to it on the radio in secret,” Minh says.

In 1968, Minh, then 12 years old, listened to the BBC and American broadcasting stations on a small Chinese-made transistor radio. It was the height of Operation Rolling Thunder, when the American military tried to make good on former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay’s famous promise to bomb the North “back into the Stone Age.”

As the U.S. dropped bombs on his city, U.S. military radio stations played Charlie Parker, big band swing, and jazz singers. While history’s narrative of the time focuses on the war, Minh’s personal narrative centers around the beginning of his love for jazz, a love that continues passionately today as he tries to develop the jazz music scene in Vietnam.

“When I listened, I tried to remember the songs and play them back on my clarinet. I took notes, wrote down phrases, but I wasn’t fast enough, and soon the songs were gone,” Minh says.

Many jazz greats used the same method of learning songs bit by bit and then playing them back, although they had the advantage of using records. Minh said there were very few Western records in Vietnam at the time, and jazz was considered subversive by the government and society. Minh says his father, though a musician himself, did not support Minh’s interest in jazz.

“My father did not want me to go on listening. I could go to prison. He told me, ‘do not listen,’ but I listened anyway,” says Minh.

In 1972, Minh’s friends traveled to East Germany and Bulgaria and brought back some swing music records.

“There were very few records in Hanoi then,” Minh says. “There was very little information, and we could not find more. The government kept culture under control.”

In 1974, Minh’s father gave him an alto saxophone he had used to play traditional Vietnamese music, but for Minh it soon replaced the clarinet as his primary instrument.

Minh traveled to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) in 1976 to play his first concert there. He received a chilly reception from officials there. 

“At that time, the North and South still did not like each other,” Minh said. “They checked my clarinet case for weapons.”

Minh’s struggle to continue playing the music he loved outlasted the government’s cultural restrictions. Minh says that by 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, he was able to play Western music without fear of censorship. His jazz club opened in Hanoi’s Old Quarter in 1997. Though it has changed location three times, Minh’s goals for the club and the music he plays have stayed the same.

“I need to play jazz standards that are popular. At my club, we have to play standards so we can show Vietnamese people nice melodies,” he says

During performances at the Hanoi Opera House and other venues, Minh says he likes to mix up the musical styles, playing modern jazz, old standards and jazzed-up versions of famous Vietnamese songs.

“But at the club, we play standards,” Minh says. “Some modern jazz, fusion, and free jazz — it’s too crazy. Vietnamese people hear it and do not like it.”

Talking music with the average Hanoian leads one to the same conclusion. Many people here can name plenty of contemporary American artists and musicians — Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Ashlee Simpson, Beyonce Knowles.  But the mention of a jazz musician, even the most famous like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, brings only blank stares.

Minh’s jazz club is a low-traffic place compared to some Old Quarter establishments that are packed wall-to-wall with sweaty foreign visitors. Vietnamese jazz students come to hear the best big band in the country, and tourists come to give their internal organs a rest from the throbbing bass lines that constitute the rest of Hanoi’s music scene. Whether they know it or not, what they will hear is some of the most perfectly executed hard bop jazz, spun from the fingertips of Vietnamese virtuosos who dig it like it’s 1949.

 “Jazz is not popular in Vietnam because for a long time we have had limited access to it. But with the globalization process going on, jazz will be more known, especially by youth,” said Pham Gia Minh, 54, one of Minh’s students for 10 years, in an e-mail interview.

Most of the staff at Minh’s Jazz Club are also students, young musicians and music lovers who have learned about jazz from Minh and the professionals he has hosted in Hanoi. In 2005, pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and singer Nnenna Freelon played a jam session at Minh’s club.

Gia Minh said he was first enticed by the genre when he listened to Nat King Cole, an American jazz pianist.

“How powerful, how deep it was!” Gia Minh said.

By the time Gia Minh began taking lessons from Van Minh, he had solidified his reputation as Vietnam’s preeminent jazz saxophonist.

“Minh is a very good teacher, and his method is based on understanding students trends and capabilities,” Gia Minh said. “He is punctual, precise and pushy when needed, but he always follows fundamental knowledge and basic skills.”

Teaching occupies a large part of Van Minh’s daily schedule, as he teaches private lessons and larger classes at the Hanoi Academy of Music.

“Vietnamese don’t like jazz because it has no words,” Minh said. “But the young generation likes it more.”

In 1999, Minh released his first album, a synthesis of Vietnamese melodies with jazz rhythms and instrumentation. He says he wants to introduce Vietnamese audiences to jazz through familiar melodies based on traditional folk music.

Minh released his latest album this year, entitled “Jazz With Vietnamese Songs.” Previously, he recorded an album, “Father, Son and Jazz,” with his son Quyen Thien Dac a drummer educated at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“I want to show people that Vietnam has good music and good culture,” Minh says. “And I want to develop jazz in Vietnam.”