Veteran drummer Charles Foldesh on favourite venues and changes to Shanghai's jazz scene

'People from completely different backgrounds are blending influences and creating unconventional music'

Photograph: Elsa Bouillot, courtesy Heyday 
For many, Shanghai's live music scene can be described using the following binary: jazz and everything else. At the time of its arrival to Shanghai in the 1930s, the city was a melting pot, more open to foreign influence than any other city in China. This golden era of capital and cultural exchange would secure Shanghai as one of Asia's fastest-growing arts and entertainment centres.

Even today jazz and soul clubs in Shanghai are still crowd favourites and the genre continues to seduce audiences nightly. To get an insider perspective on the city's jazz landscape and how it's changed over the last decade, we talked to Heyday's resident drummer and long-standing musician Charles Foldesh.

How did you end up in China over other places? What motivated you to stay?

While I was at Oberlin College in Ohio, I had a band with my roommate, the trumpet player Theo Croker. We had heard about a venue here in Shanghai that would fly bands out for short residencies. We were fresh out of college so the idea of going to a foreign country and playing with a great band six nights per week sounded pretty awesome. By September of 2007, we were here in Shanghai playing six nights a week at the House of Blues and Jazz.

We played there for four or five months. I was attracted to a number of aspects of living in China, particularly the vibrant music scene, and decided to move back following that contract. Within my first month of being back, my calendar was full and it’s been that way ever since. I’ve been very fortunate here. I love the venues that I play and I like to see the music I play making people feel good – that connection is something special.

Radio Mars Concert
Photograph: courtesy Charles Foldesh

What local artists and acts do you support? Are they part of or outside the jazz universe?

I don’t get the chance to go out and see live music as often as I would like since I’m working most nights, but I’m really digging bassist/vocalist Damien Banzigou’s project, Return to Mongolia. I’m also enjoying hearing guys like guitarist Zhang Xiongguan and trumpeter Li Xiaochuan. The band Noukilla has also been a highlight over the years for me. In general, it’s not as much about what style of music it is, as long as it has a strong cohesive sound, a good groove and emotional substance behind it.

What is your favourite venue to play in Shanghai and what is your favourite venue to be a listener?

Over the years, I’ve played at almost all of the music venues in Shanghai. Although I still play at JZ Club on occasion, I’ve been playing most regularly at Heyday. I’m really enjoying it there because I’m so close to the audience. In many ways, it’s easier to gauge how the music is resonating with them. If I see them smiling and their feet tapping, I know it’s working!

Recently, I played at Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC); I was filling in for Godwin Louis’ drummer who was arriving a day late. That was a great experience. I’ve been to JALC a few times prior to that and it’s a great venue if you want to see world-class, top-notch jazz, so I was thrilled to be performing there. I also like Shake – its live band is always crushing it. I still enjoy hanging at the House of Blues and Jazz from time to time, too. At the end of the day, it’s about the music, the musicians and the audience as opposed to a particular venue for me.

How would you compare the contemporary jazz scene here to other parts of the world? What’s distinctive about Shanghai jazz?

I’ve watched the scene change quite a bit over the years, but it’s never lost the elements that I was initially attracted to. You’ve got a community of musicians from every corner of the planet who are forward-thinking and have a lot of wonderful music to share. They are playing at a very high level and are pushing the boundaries between so-called 'jazz music' and other genres.

People from completely different musical backgrounds are blending their influences and creating very unconventional music. Another great thing not only about Shanghai, but China in general, is the fact that jazz is still appealing to young people. There are a lot of venues here and people still turn up to see real musicians playing real music. It's refreshing.

Read more