Stan BH Tan-Tangbau and Quyền Văn Minh
University Press of Mississippi
That an aspiring Vietnamese musician in this day and age can study jazz at conservatoire level in Hanoi, or jam three hundred and sixty-five days a year in a jazz club in the Vietnamese capital, is largely thanks to the lifelong efforts of saxophonist Quyền Văn Minh to promote jazz in his country of birth. Rather than offering a comprehensive history of jazz in Vietnam, Playing Jazz In Socialist Vietnam… provides a vivid portrait of one man’s musical crusade.
Co-written by Quyền and Southeast Asian studies scholar Stan BH Tan-Tangbau, this equal parts interview transcript and third-person narrative charts Quyền’s journey as a musician, as a jazz fan and ultimately as a jazz advocate on a national level. Born in 1954, Quyền’s remarkable story unfolds during The Indochinese Wars and the transitional period of Vietnam’s modern, post-colonial history. It is a story of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds—economic, political and cultural.
But to describe Quyền as a saxophonist is to sell him short. Almost single-handedly Quyền raised the profile of the saxophone in Vietnam from an instrument of light entertainment to one worthy of conservatoire-level study. He took jazz from its outlier status as “music of the enemy” and brought it into the Vietnamese mainstream, both as popular music and as music belonging on the same prestigious stages as classical or traditional music. He was also the first musician to use Vietnamese traditional music as a prism through which jazz could reach new audiences. So, saxophonist, yes, but also a pioneer, an educator and in many ways, a radical.
Then there is Minh’s Jazz Club, the first jazz club in Communist-era Vietnam, which opened its doors in 1997. Quyền ran the club for a quarter of a century before passing the reins over to his son, Quyền Thiện Đắc, a respected saxophonist in his own right, in 2017. There is something wonderfully Quixotic about the travails the elder Quyền overcame to run a jazz club in a country where, by his own admission, jazz has a “minuscule” following.
The first incarnation of Minh’s Jazz Club was forced to close after just three months by a government redevelopment program. Having risen from the ashes, the second version of Minh’s Jazz Club lasted less than a year, forced to close for similar reasons. Undeterred, Quyền upped sticks once again, this third attempt at running a jazz cub in Hanoi’s Old Quarter lasting a full decade before the lease expired and the bulldozers moved in. A fourth rebirth lasted just a few months before Quyền was forced to relocate yet again. Since 2014, home to Minh’s Jazz Club has been at 1 Tràng Tiền, behind the Hanoi Opera House.
As Tan-Tangbau notes: “For those who grew up with the Cold War, who are familiar with the painful experiences during Thời Bao Cấp (the Subsidy Period) and the Indochina wars, who witness the labored process of the Đổi Mới reforms, and who experienced the persistent cultural surveillance in Vietnam before the digital revolution changed the world, the existence and longevity of Minh’s Jazz Club is something hugely significant.”
It is perhaps surprising that Vietnam’s first jazz club should have opened in Hanoi. The country’s partition—following the defeat of the French in 1954—saw foreign music effectively banned in North Vietnam, while in the US-backed South, western popular music thrived. Growing up in 1960s Hanoi, there was practically nowhere for Quyền to see or hear jazz, and as the authors relate, people were afraid to listen to music that met with the Communist government’s disapproval.
A chance exposure, to what the authors assume was probably Willis Conover’s Voice of America program in 1968, lit a fire under Quyền. The music moved him, though he recounts that he did not even know that it was called jazz. Encounters with jazz were rare, but always significant. In 1972, Quyền was able to listen to and painstakingly transcribe a jazz album at a friend’s house. The unnamed album was a prized artifact brought back from a study trip in Eastern Europe.
It was not until after reunification in 1975, on a trip to Saigon, that Quyền purchased his first jazz album. Even then, he simply asked an elderly store owner if he had: ” any music cassette tapes of Black musicians.” Quyề describes the cover of the cassette he purchased as featuring: ” a band of Black musicians with Black lady singing into a microphone.” The jazz-hungry musician transcribed all the songs without knowing who he was listening to, wearing the tape out in the process.
The lack of access to American jazz, especially vinyl, and the restricted orbit in which Vietnamese musicians existed in those times, can be gauged by the fact that Quyền was converted to the soprano saxophone, not by the music of
1926 – 1967