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On the edge of Hanoi’s old quarter sits the Hanoi Opera House. A relic of French colonialism and an architectural beauty, it presents and accomplishes a perfect draw for tourists — but locals know better. They know what’s behind it.
Quyen Van Minh, a Vietnam War survivor and renowned jazz musician, opened the Binh Minh jazz club in 1997. Although it has relocated twice since its debut, the club found a permanent home on Trang Tien, a small V-shaped alley behind the old opera house and the bustling Hang Ma intersection. The club is well guarded by palm trees, smog-stained neon signs, and a lofty fence line.
“Mr. Minh is known as the ‘Godfather of Jazz’ in Vietnam, simply because of the role he played in pioneering jazz as a respected genre of music in Vietnam under socialist rule, and developing Vietnamese jazz as a genre in its own right,” said Stan BH Tan-Tangbau. Tangbau is an ethnographic researcher, and is completing a book on Minh and the history of jazz in Vietnam.
Minh’s club is reminiscent of a neon-saturated Bossa Nova bar. Framed photos and abstract paintings adorn the walls, while the bar still sells Marlboro Lights — Minh’s favorite. The only sounds to compete with the drone of motorbikes outside are the appreciative murmur of the crowd, and the smoky-horn melodies of the band on stage.
The band is a six-piece ensemble, but usually only four of them stay through the whole set; a five-piece drum set and bass backs the baby grand in front, while the center players do a number on the clarinet and saxophone. The audience is an older crowd. Many have been here before, and are fine with paying the higher rates the bar charges for drinks and smokes as there is no entrance fee.
Minh is easy to spot: His black-and-silver ponytail, jazzman’s goatee, and the cigar clutched between his lips are iconic. He drifts around the room, saying hello to old comrades and bar regulars, his aura cool and cordial. After a few songs, he grabs a saxophone, one of three in rotation, as his piece of choice for the evening.
Minh is Vietnam’s first jazz star, and today one of the most eminent musicians in Hanoi. His grainy, nostalgic cool is a relic of what fell out of favor in American jazz circles decades ago, with the advent of rock and roll music. Jazz in Vietnam today is at the forefront of the live music circuit, with venues located in every major city in the country. Yet until recent years, Vietnam’s relationship with jazz was more complicated than its seventh-chord harmonies.
“Of course, we had jazz in Hanoi from the 1920’s,” said Nguyen Manh, a pianist and professor of Jazz at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. “It was in metropolitan hotels, and back when people watched Charlie Chaplin movies in the theatre. It started in French Hanoi, with French music, but of course it’s not 100 percent jazz.”
While the French first introduced Vietnam to jazz, Manh insists it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that the country saw the introduction of rock-time, brass band jazz. In Vietnam, this conflict is known as the “War of American Aggression,” in which America’s desperate and futile crusade against Communism erupted in senseless genocide. From 1955 to 1975, Vietnam was America’s playground for airstrikes and chemical warfare, creating a strained relationship between Vietnam’s people and American jazz.
“Louis Armstrong soundtracks were always being put on Good Morning Vietnam,” Manh said.
The period brought many firsts to Vietnam, such as shopping malls and saloon life for stationed soldiers, the first inclusion of the press on the frontlines, and the expansion of AFVN (Armed Forces Vietnam Network) radio, boasting they would play “all the hits from back home.” According to historians, B-52 pilots would cut through the air and listen to Bebop jazz while dropping millions of tons of napalm on anything from Viet Cong command posts to villages of women and children.
“Minh’s encounter with jazz and attempt to play began in the late 1960’s, when he first heard jazz on the radio,” Tangbau said. “[He’d] chanced upon an overseas channel, most likely Voice of America’s jazz hour program.”
Minh had his own transistor radio. It was Chinese, one of the thousands sent down by Vietnam’s Communist comrades to the north. He used it to listen to the BBC and American broadcasting stations. He was 12, sitting in secrecy, enjoying jazz hits outside his father’s earshot.
Already adept with the guitar and clarinet, Minh was entranced by the new form of music. “It was something new, strange and mesmerizing for him,” Tangbau said. “He has never heard it before. This is because jazz has simply disappeared from northern Vietnam after the end of the First Indochina War in 1954, [when] the new government set the country on the path of socialist revolution.”
After the U.S. exited Vietnam in 1975, jazz was placed on a nationwide ban by the Vietnamese government, who failed to lift the outdated policy until the installation of the “Doi Moi” economic reforms in 1986. Listening to jazz during this ten-year period was considered subversive to the standing government — a simple playback could mean prison.
“All cultural artifacts associated with the capitalist enemy were banned,” Tangbau said. “There was some jazz that came into Vietnam under French colonial rule, mainly in the European style hotels and lounges. A little bit of jazz was broadcast on radio, and perhaps a little bit of gospel in the churches in the first half of the 20th century. All these disappeared in the north after 1954.” Things were a bit different in the south, at least while the United States occupied that part of the country.
“In the south, under American influence, there was some jazz, although rock’n roll was the more popular genre of the time,” Tangbau said. “There was even a small group of Vietnamese musicians who played jazz in the south. After reunification in 1975, all these disappeared.”
For a few years, jazz all but disappeared from public consciousness in Vietnam. “Those who had the chance to study in Eastern Europe were aware of jazz, but there was just no cultural space for it in Vietnam,” Tangbau said. “It was risky to even try play jazz or bring the genre back.”
However, Minh’s desire to continue playing the music he loved outlasted the government’s restrictions. As the Soviet Union began to crumble in the late 1980’s, Minh and other artists were able to play Western music without fear of censorship.
According to Tangbau, the previously negative perception of jazz shifted when the Vietnam Association of Musicians endorsed two concerts in 1988 and 89, orchestrated almost entirely by Minh. “The 1988 and 1989 concerts really turned things around,” Tangbau said. “Jazz was endorsed by the official musician circle. After 1989, Minh was even invited to teach saxophone and jazz music at the national conservatory.”
The music you hear in Vietnam today differs between North and South Vietnam. Whereas in the South, Ho Chi Minh City embraced American culture with fast-paced Bebop and the swell of jazz bars on every block, northern cities like Hanoi took much longer to embrace anything outside old traditions. “Vietnamese jazz is still on the way to developing its own identity, by combining that with our ‘root’ traditional music,” Manh said. “Many Vietnamese folk songs have been rearranged, also many new compositions using our pentatonic scale.”
Minh was able to transform a prohibited practice, one many associated with pain and suffering, into a new method of healing and growth. His dedication and passion for jazz brought a new, younger wave of jazz musicians in Vietnam, including his own son. The multiple generations of jazz musicians were able to create a sense of community that combines jazz with Vietnamese culture, rather than being pushed to the fringes.
Vietnam’s new push for cross-border education is sending some students to Europe for their educations while bringing foreign instructors to teach at the National Academy of Music in Hanoi. However, according to Manh, as their curriculum catches up with France and America, most students are opting to remain in Vietnam. The Academy began teaching jazz as part of their available curriculum in 1991. According to Manh, jazz curriculum gained significant popularity in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
“So this is one of the biggest schools we have here for jazz — we are the pioneers in the country,” he said. He collaborates with world-class artists and invites many of them to Hanoi for lectures and demonstrations.
“In our [playing] style, we go back to our roots, one that combines western and eastern jazz,” Manh explained. “But for teaching, we try to keep to classical jazz. American jazz has the basics for every student.”
According to Manh, Vietnamese artists wish to explore foreign styles of jazz, a movement which the country has encouraged. In 2005, Vietnam hosted the European Jazz Festival, while in 2017, the San Francisco Jazz Orchestra visited Vietnam to mark the 10th anniversary of Vietnamese and American diplomatic ties.
That same year, under a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, and the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, Grammy Award winner Herbie Hancock visited Vietnam with an eclectic ensemble of legendary jazz artists and musicians from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the University of Southern California. In addition to their performance, the artists spent the following weekend conducting workshops and seminars at the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City conservatories.
Back in Binh Minh, time stands still. Alongside young, curious locals and wandering tourists, Minh and his group of wartime survivors sit close to the stage each night at 9 p.m. sharp, drinking Hanoi beer.
There are no revolutions, no seminars or symposiums, no fear of survival, no culture wars, no airstrikes, no bombs: There are simply good people, good cigars, and good music.
“Jazz is a universal language,” Manh said. “It’s more than the war.”
Words and Photos by Madelyne Ashworth and John Donegan