On my second stint in China in the early 2000s I remember walking into the now defunct CD Jazz Café, that was located on west third ring road in Beijing near the diplomatic district in Chaoyang, watching and listening to a Chinese musician on the bandstand playing a killer rendition of Sonny Rollin’s calypso-styled piece, St. Thomas. Even then, you could feel the passion Liu Yuan or Liu Yuar, as his Beijing fans would affectionately call him, had for a music, up until then, he had only heard on cassette tapes and CDs. He was ‘all up in that song’ executing some rhythmically challenging passages, at least for my novice skill-set, I had played saxophone in high school and college, but never advanced far enough to play a Sonny Rollins solo. I was impressed.

Over the years, I struck up what I would like to think was a polite and cordial friendship with Liu Yuan. We were by no means hanging buddies, but he was very nice to me, always greeted me with a knowing smile and acceptance as we chatted about the music. In those early days in Beijing people were so much more accessible than they are today. Liu Yuan let me interview him with the one caveat that it would be a dialogue where he would get to ask me questions as well. I agreed. Of course, like most jazz musicians, Coltrane was a big influence, but I was surprised to hear that he loved the soulful playing of the late Grover Washington Jr. To hear him talk about the way Grover’s playing made him feel was revelatory because he was one of my favorites as well—instant connection. He played for me the videotape of him jamming with Wynton Marsalis when he visited Beijing in 2000. As we watched the video of him on the bandstand trading bars with one of the most famous jazz musicians on the planet he told me how nervous he was, but also how thrilling the encounter was.

Unfortunately, I lost the videotape of this interview, most likely, a casualty of one of my many moving trips globetrotting. The historian in me laments my failure to properly archive that moment. Liu Yuan would eventually open a new club called the East Shore Jazz Club next to Houhai lake in Beijing. He is retired now and out of the limelight, but has spent a career training and mentoring so many other Chinese musicians that he is deserving of the title, ‘father of Chinese Jazz’ and his musical legacy lives on through them. Time, money, and a host of other things conspired against me in making this film, so I was unable to interview Liu Yuan, but wanted to acknowledge his indispensable contribution to Jazz in China and his kindness to me.

–Marketus Presswood, PhD

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