Meet Shanghai's Old Jazz Band

The incredible story of a band with members in their 80s

Zhou Wanrong has been playing trumpet for nearly as long as he can remember. Wearing a white dress shirt with a black bowtie and braces, the leader of the Fairmont Peace Hotel Old Jazz Band sits in a grand leather armchair and smiles amiably as he recounts his youth spent in a Wuhan orphanage following the death of his mother and his father's decision to join the army to fight the Japanese.

'The school I went to was in Wuhan's French Concession and they had a band,' he says, 'so I joined it and learned to play Western songs. When the Japanese came we were allowed to keep playing for a few years, but eventually they banned us so I moved to Shanghai.'

It was in Shanghai that he first met Cao Ziping, now the Old Jazz Band's pianist. Cao, also dressed smartly in the lounge of the Fairmont Peace Hotel, had an interest in music from a young age. 'I remember watching American films in the 1930s and their music left a really big impression on me,' he says. 'I was 16 when I first started playing properly. I saw an advertisement in the paper from a Russian and he taught me to play the piano and accordion.'

Although performance slots were hard to come by initially, with the live music scene in Shanghai dominated by Filipino acts, the two were brought on board by the legendary Jimmy King when he founded his jazz band in 1947. 'As the Japanese got closer, all the foreigners started to leave,' says Zhou, 'so bars had to start using Chinese performers.' Cao adds: 'We helped Jimmy form his band and play the Hawaiian-style music he loved.'

The band broke up when the Communist government came to power in 1949, but with the opening up policies of the '80s, Zhou was asked by the manager of the Fairmont Peace Hotel to form a jazz band once more. They have since gained international fame, playing concerts all over the world.

'One of the most memorable performances has been when we went to Japan for the first time,' says Cao. 'After we finished, this old Japanese woman came up and she was just unbelievably happy. She hugged me and we both cried... it was a bit odd really.' Zhou adds: 'Everyone was crying after that performance, everyone was so moved. It was a real show of friendship between China and Japan after everything that we've lived through.'

The band's reputation is such that in addition to playing around the world, they've performed for celebrities such as Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li. Not that they get nervous playing in front of such names. 'We've been doing this job for too long to get nervous,' laughs Zhou. 'Most bands play a few days a week then have a rest. We once had a day off when we went to Sacramento, but that was just to pack our luggage and to travel there. Otherwise, we've been playing every day since 1980.'

The Old Jazz Band play nightly at the Fairmont Peace Hotel from 7.30-9pm.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Time Out Shanghai