Moonglow In Shanghai, China
|Group of Chinese Give Westerners Directions|
Now we flash forward to 2005. We’re staying at the venerable Peace Hotel in Shanghai, China. The Peace occupies two buildings across Nanjing Road from each other but in the early 1900s the buildings were different hotels, the Cathay and the Palace. The Palace was built in 1906. The Cathay was built in 1929 by Victor Sassoon, a Jew from Great Britain. They sit across from each other on Nanjing Road, a stones throw from the famous Bund, where day or night a cast of thousands promenade and people watch. It’s on the Bund that you’ll discover many Chinese are eager to meet you.
If you’re a westerner you can expect to be approached by Chinese who often ask if they can have their picture taken with you. In one hour on the Bund we posed for twenty-six individual pictures. Everywhere we went in China we found the Chinese to be friendly, outgoing and so eager to be of assistance. As you stroll the Bund you can take in the never ending spectacle on the mighty Huangpu River. Here formidable ocean-going junks, tiny sanpans, enormous barges laden to the gunwales with raw materials and city sight seeing boats vie for space. It’s bumper cars with boats but somehow they seem to avoid crashing.
While the Peace is long in the tooth we wanted to stay here so we can luxuriate in old world charm corralled by forests of mahogany and teak paneling and imagine how it must have been in the old days. It’s easy to do at this hotel.
We found our room to be oversized with a high ceiling, two large beds, and fine old heavy brown furniture. The bath towels were dingy, skimpy, grayish and frayed. The stairs creaked. New hall carpeting was being installed. The breakfast buffet of thirty-five to forty selections of Chinese and Western dishes, as well as eggs cooked to order, was ample and tasty. The service was tainted by servers competing to win the Most Sullen Service award. But the concierge was superb, eager to help with even unusual requests and cashed travelers checks.
We figured that what was good enough for Charlie Chaplin, Bernie Shaw, General Marshall and Noel Coward, who finished his play, Private Lives, here, was good enough for us. The Peace Hotel reeks of history! We’d stay here again in a minute, especially for the jazz.
The Old Jazz Band at the Peace is a six piece group of Chinese men, all over seventy, who’ve been hailed far and wide since 1980. They play nightly in the British style Jazz Bar. We were bent on hearing this group since we’ve read about them for years and especially in the venue Newsweek hailed in 1996 as the world’s best bar.
To get to the bar from the old Peace we had to cross Nanjing Road to the newer building. Crossing this road is a great way to be injured or killed. Vehicles careen around the nearby corner from one direction while others take a bead on you from the straight away in the opposite direction. Now it’s unfair to say that crossing all streets in China is dangerous but one should always exercise caution. If you apply American football strategy in your attempt to cross streets in China you’ll have a better than even chance of reaching the goal line unscathed.
Watch for a group of Chinese pedestrians about to cross. Visualize them as your team. Squiggle your way in to the middle of your team like a fraidy cat quarter back. Your game plan calls for using the locals as your blockers. In the event of a vehicle plowing in to your team this “play” should cushion the impact until you reach the sidewalk.
There it’s everyone for themselves. Many times in China we were forced to do those little mincing steps proficient bull fighters do to avoid being gored, as we dodged cars, bikes and motor scooters on sidewalks. Ole!
As you make your way from one building to the other you’ll be besieged by money changers and hawkers peddling counterfeit Rolex watches and Mount Blanc pens. Never change money anywhere in China except at an approved facility. Don’t make eye contact with these people. Look straight ahead and say no.
It’s certain that if Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Mary Osborne, Win McDonnell, Jack Martz, Artie Shaw, and any of the others of that era had been with us they could have sat in with the band and never missed a beat. Included on the play list was, I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire, Begin The Beguine, Tico Tico, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, There’ll Be Some Changes Made, It’s Only A Paper Moon, Blue Moon, and of course, Moonglow, to name but a few. There was even Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing, not an easy number to perform.
Customers began to dribble in, taking their seats and ordering drinks. Seven Japanese business men in black suits, white shirts, black ties, and black shoes, sat down at a table next to us. One of the men, probably in his early seventies, with a white crew cut and sporting an Irish blackthorn walking stick and was obviously the boss. His henchman lined up on either side of him, three to a side, forming a horseshoe. They never let their eyes off the chief for a second, doting on his every word, mirroring every expression that appeared on his face. He smiled. They smiled. He laughed. They laughed. The leader lifted his baton and all eyes focused on the band.
The group kicked off with Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive and from then on it was pay to play. You’d pick a tune from the play list, summon your waiter, point out the number of the tune you wanted to hear, hand over thirty yuan, nearly four dollars and the waiter took it from there. The waiter took our number and money up to the band leader, and pointed to our table. The leader smiled, gave a little bow our way and the band launched in to Racing With The Moon, Vaughn Monroe’s signature tune.
Now I was raised by a mother who fronted a trio of women musicians who traveled with the Buddy Rogers orchestra in the thirties, before Buddy’s wife, Mary Pickford, told Buddy to disband the band and return to Pickfair or say good bye to her. Since Mary was then the richest woman in the country Buddy did as he was told. He needed to keep his polo ponies fed.
From the womb I’ve been immersed in a lot of great popular music played by the best musicians. I know when musicians are in tune. I know most of the original arrangements of the tunes on the Old Jazz Band play list. I know how the music should sound and the standard tempo for most of the tunes. I can tell you without a doubt that these musicians, as a group, sounded terrible. At any moment one or more of them were out of tune. But they worked hard and give it the old college try. In fact they were so awful it was charming. No. Let’s be fair. In an odd way they were so bad they were great, especially the drummer.
I’d lay odds the drummer had been in a military band earlier in his life. He was made out of hickory and was rigid and loud. No Gene Krupa theatrics for this guy. He was ramrod straight. He played the notes with a great stone face, never changing his expression. He was the spitting image of British novelist, playwright A. Somerset Maughm.
The leader played several instruments including maracas, which he used rather effectively when the band broke in to a spirited, almost in tune, rendition of Tico Tico. Now we all have stereotypes that we cling to and some we don’t know we have until suddenly one smacks us in the face. We weren’t ready for a Chinese band leader in Shanghai who could shake his maracas as well as Tito Puente. We loved it until suddenly the evening took an unexpected turn.
Then the boss sent up another request for Moonglow. And they played it again. I lead Kim on to the floor. The boss was on a roll and sent up yet one more request, for, you guessed it, Moonglow. Now Kim was beginning to look familiar. And you know what that breeds but we gave it one more whirl. The boss sent up more money. The band played Moonglow again. My imagination had Kim looking fatigued. I know I was beat. As much as I liked dancing to Moonglow, I was wishing the sun would come up and the damn moon would set. Then the boss did it again. And that did it for me. I grabbed my wife, erased Kim from my mind and we got out of there but not quite quick enough. The strains of Moonglow followed us out in to the lobby.
Now, as Carly Simon sings Moonglow I try to imagine Kim, but the boss and his henchmen take her place. I wonder if the boss can dance.