Beijing Bebop

The backing band is playing Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," but it's clear this isn't the saxophonist's first time around the block. He takes the song's familiar form and makes it something all his own, like a cab driver who knows the destination but chooses to take the scenic route.

I'm in the audience of Beijing's CD Jazz Cafe with no voice recorder, notepad or even a pen. Being a reporter, that's like leaving home with no clothes on.

After a long week of editorial meetings, interviews and briefings, I've been looking forward to an easy evening of music and contemplation.

Instead, I end up in a deep discussion about John Coltrane’s “Naima” with Du Yinjiao, the saxophonist of the four-piece ensemble.

Du has a lot to say. In conversation, he speaks fluidly and with conviction, using his hands as if molding his phrases into something tangible.

In a highly structured society where people are not always free to voice their honest opinions, Du, 43, chooses to express himself through the wild chords of jazz. “It has influenced all aspects of my life,” he says. “You learn not to think, you just feel it come naturally.”

For Du, there was no choice when it came to playing the saxophone. He was meant for the instrument, but not in any metaphysical sense regarding fate or destiny - the People’s Liberation Army decided he would be a musician when he was fresh out of high school and made him learn the instrument.

So he learned.

Du listened to any saxophone player he could find, soaking up knowledge and perfecting his technique along the way. While listening to Voice of America in the late 1980’s, he had his first encounter with jazz music.

“My superior officer scolded me at first,” Du says. “’How can you listen to that bourgeois music!’ he would say. But I told him how jazz was the music of the oppressed in America, and he liked that very much.”

Du leads a structured military life. He wakes up every day at 6:30 a.m. and runs for an hour. Then he showers, eats breakfast, and practices the saxophone until 11:30. Some days he will teach students. Some travel 10 hours by bus for one lesson. Other days, he leads a PLA jazz ensemble.

But the rigid environment of that ensemble can be stifling, says Du, and so a few nights out of the week, he plays old-school bebop at the CD Jazz Cafe, the oldest jazz club in Beijing. His repertoire pulls from the classics like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

“Within the structure of a standard, you are free to express something totally new and spontaneous,” he says. “It’s like looking at the same thing from different angles. With other styles of music, you often get caught up playing in a pattern.”

Playing live has afforded him the opportunity to visit 22 countries around the world.

“I like the less-developed countries more, like the African countries” Du says. “They still have their uniqueness.”

“I think the worst thing would be for everybody to be wearing blue jeans and drinking Pepsi.”

I look sheepishly at the dirty jeans I'm wearing and ask something about cultural imperialism. The spontaneous conversation begins to sound more like an interview, and I find myself falling into a pattern of my own: that of a news reporter.

Du plays along for a few minutes, then abruptly changes key.

“I don’t want to talk about these political things anymore,” he says, with a laugh. “All I want to do is play jazz.”