With Jazz season in full swing in Hangzhou post-G20, it’s a delight to experience such a tangible change in the city’s musical scene over such a short time. New independent venues like Loopy, and the nationwide institution of Mao Livehouse are busy bringing new sounds to Hangzhou. While over at no.266 Nanshan Road, Huanglou Jueshi Club (JZ Club) you’ll find a scene that is as traditionally Hangzhounese as the West Lake itself. The JZ Club has been working hard to bring some of the most talented musicians from all over the world to Hangzhou since as far back as we know. It just so happens that one such musician happened to knock on our door. During the summer, we were contacted by New York Jazz drummer Deric Dickens who’s in town until new year 2017, and we couldn’t pass up an invitation to hear his story and how a New York City Jazzer found his way to Hangzhou, China.
Hi, I’m Deric Dickens from New York City via South Georgia by way of Tennessee and I’m a musician/composer/graphic artist/booker/everything as far as indie music goes these days.
How old were you when you decided you wanted to make music more than a hobby?
Probably around middle-school and high-school when I started gigging and making a little money I realised, Oh I can do this!? My Dad was working at a welding company with my uncle at the time, and there were alot of tough guys with Harley’s out front. I got my first job cleaning the bathrooms there every day, and it was horrible… so my Dad said to me, ‘Unless you wanna do this for the rest of your life you should firstly, go to college and secondly, find something that you really love doing’ … so I did!
My goal was to go back to my hometown and be a high-school band director, but everytime I would leave the playing aspect of music I was continually pulled back in some way. Eventually I left because of some issues I had with the education system – It became more about winning (competitions) than teaching.
What brings you to Hangzhou, China?
It was last year sometime. I just came off another tour and I was back in New York during the slow season, when I got a call about doing a residency at the JZ Club in Hangzhou. We’ve been playing Jazz festivals all over China since then (October is Jazz festival season in Hangzhou) as well as teaching improvisation … I’d heard we would be here for the G20 to play for all these international dignitaries, but the government shut down the city so it was really up in the air for a while. In the end it was just us five New Yorkers with a Beijing singer, so it was really exciting to have the chance to do something that not alot of people get to do.
Does your band have much freedom with performance material?
Yea, we got alot of freedom to work and grow as a band. I mean there are some things we have to do and support the singer, but also have the freedom to improvise and try some new and weirder stuff too.
Will you continue working together after the China experience?
Oh Yea! We’re doing an album! It’s already happening, we’ve already talked about it!! Marius Duboule the guitar player is killing. Vocalist Annie Chen is great and does alot of research to bring something special to each show. We have Saxophonist Bryan Qu from Canada, he’s also a New York schooled musician. Many of my albums don’t have bass players on them but Mat Muntz is gonna be working in alot of my bands now – he’s a great player!
Do you plan on making Hangzhou a regular destination?
Absolutely, I think this place is amazing! I love being here. Zhang Zheng (boss/promoter at JZ, Hangzhou) is trying to get involved in more Jazz and music educational programmes, as well as gig and festival slots that are happening especially in the improvised Jazz creativity realm.So yea, I’d love to come back and play again, get involved and be apart of it, or even bring one of my bands back to an indie Jazz festival next year.
What are your first impressions of Hangzhou, firstly as a musician, secondly as a tourist?
I’m really impressed with the club (JZ Club), it sounds great. Actually the sad thing is that I’ve been so busy with the festivals and being in Beijing, that it’s been hard to find time to experience some other stuff in Hangzhou yet like Loopy, and Mao Livehouse, and some of the smaller indie clubs too. Hopefully my time will free up a bit and I’ll check them out soon.
As a tourist, Hangzhou is beautiful and so much nicer than Beijing. The first day I arrived up there it was so smoggy and difficult to see anything.
Any stand out things you didn’t previously know about China?
I did alot of research and I read alot so there wasn’t anything too surprising, but learning some words (in Mandarin) is difficult because pronunciation is everything. Actually, I was surprised in one way because it seems much more liberal than the United States in some ways. I love the overpasses to get over roads because in New York it takes twenty minutes just to turn left with so many pedestrians on the streets.
What other cities have you toured in China? Have there been any standout shows/venues so far?
Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. I haven’t been anywhere more westerly yet, but hopefully next time around!
Are there any Chinese bands/musicians you have performed with or would like to meet?
Last week I played with this really great pop Saxophonist called Wilson Chen. He works with every Chinese pop artist. His drummer didn’t make the train for the headlining show on Saturday, so I got tapped on the shoulder twenty minutes before and got to play with him instead. The bass player in Wilson’s band was great too cos he guided me through the charts and we had a great show.
I would love to meet with Yao Da Jun from the China Academy of Art who is great with sound art, installations and also setting up shows with Wang Changchun.
I would love to hang out or play with Li Jian Hong (Hangzhou noise artist) but he seems to be on holidays at the moment.
Any stand out shows or festivals so far?
The Nine Gates Jazz festival in Beijing was really rockin, but because I’ve been playing almost every night, we haven’t had the chance to see much yet.
How would you describe your recent album with Jarrett Gilgore and ‘Words Are Not Enough’, ‘Streams’?
It was an homage album to the great Saxophonist Jimmy Lyons who died way too young. He was probably as good, if not better than Charlie Parker. He got away from Be-bop, and really started playing some very Avante/Noise music, with interesting instrumentation like the bassoon on some of his stuff. He wrote these really great pieces that were very composed with open spots for free improvisation.
That album did really well. Jarrett’s been a great friend and I’d love to bring him here too. It got recorded really quickly. We’ve both been on other tours since then so we haven’t done much together since.
Do you think China has influenced you musically in any way?
Yes, well things happen very quickly here. I think many Chinese musicians would say they’re not great improvisers, but just by watching the way things get dealt with, they actually seem like great improvisers and work quickly. I love the traditional Chinese music that I’ve heard around the park, and especially love the sound of the micro-tonal stringed instruments. I’ve seen some really interesting traditional musicians playing bluegrass and it’s great to see artists swapping and mixing instruments and being influenced by other styles. Besides that, it’s great to see people using the parks, and just turning up to join in, which wouldn’t be as easy in New York.
What does the Friedrich Hölderlin term ‘Pallaksch! ‘(also one of your song titles) mean to you and how is it represented in terms of your music? … (The poet Paul Celan wrote a poem about Hölderlin, called “Tübingen, January”. It ends with the word Pallaksch — according to C. T. Schwab, Hölderlin’s favourite neologism “which sometimes meant Yes, sometimes No”)
We liked the idea of life and everything being a ‘yes and no’ thing. Holderlin was going crazy so he invented this word that sometimes meant Yes, and sometimes No … I think we kinda live in that world now where there are fewer and fewer fine lines between anything. We just liked this idea of everything and nothing all at once, so we tried to represent that musically.
Do you think less choice helps an artist to focus on whatever they want to achieve?
Yea I think so. I don’t use a tonne of drums. To me, melody is much more important than chops especially in my playing, but as soon as those restrictions take hold of you, the other side takes over and you want it all!
On your record ‘Oh Lovely Appearance’ I noticed the traditional Irish song – ‘As I Went Out For A Ramble’ … Do you think you might be inspired to follow this up with an album of traditional Chinese music?
The funny thing with that album, is that it was all based on Alan Lomax’ recordings. Alot of those recordings came from Georgia and Tennessee. I wrote alot of tunes on that album with my bandmates, and I think the Dickens Campaign is getting ready to record another album like it with an avante vocalist. Yea, I’ve been recording alot of Chinese melodies with my phone recently of these people who sing in the park. That combined with the birds singing, you get some really interesting and complex melodies, so I’ve been writing some of those melodies down.
Favourite Chinese artist?
Probably Wilson Chen who I was so happy to play with. The main difficulty though was when I was researching coming to China finding information on the internet was really hard, maybe because of the language barrier.
How do you think that relationship or access to Chinese music by outsiders could be improved?
Well I guess for me, just by being here is a start, and having a chance to meet these people. Also, my rehearsal space ‘IBeam’ in Brooklyn is a performance place by night. My idea is that Chinese musicians that I’ve met have an open invitation to stay on my couch in New York , plus they’ve got a place to book a show. But it can be hard for people who want to find more information when they don’t have the means to travel here. In America we have Facebook, so I suppose Wechat in China is amazing and kinda does the same thing to help with connecting people.
You mentioned working with some artists on Colombia records before. What can you tell us about that experience?
The girl’s name is Robinella. She was a mix between Jazz and an Americana country artist. I mean, I love her voice. She got a really great deal with Colombia. She was doing really well but went far enough down the hole to realise that’s actually not what she wanted to do. They wanted her next album to be just like the last one and she was smart enough to say ‘No, I’m done!’ I think it’s probably easier for artists now to put out records and gig and do things on their own terms, cos those big corporations just want a hand in everything from ticket sales to merchandise. They had a contract, and after they finished the recording, all the money they had put into it had to be paid back before they got anything else… I mean that’s why these record companies are dying. To be honest… die! I’ve got a knife at my house, I’ll help!
What’s the reality of being an independent artist who relies solely on his income from music?
So yea first it is way better to be independent than to be with a company. Do as much as you can by yourself and with your friends. Honestly, It’s easier to win the lottery than try to be the biggest superstar in the world. It’s better to just go to sleep and be happy with what you do and keep working at it; I mean, I’ll still be paying off my dumb student loans til I’m 78. I’ve also made some really great connections over the years with some instrument companies who I’ve helped with products so I don’t have to buy sticks, and drum heads anymore. I try to keep bills low, but again you have to be happy with your work… and the minute you start thinking, ‘Oh if I do this they’ll like it more, and I’ll get more airplay or whatever … you can’t…it just doesn’t work that way for art and music.’
Favourite Chinese food ?
Muslim beef noodles and broth. I have noodles almost every day. The soup dumplings are great, and I kinda like stomach. Yea I like organs!
Any advice you would offer to artists/musicians/songwriters in Hangzhou/China?
However much research you think you can do on the internet, it won’t be enough… learn Chinese, go to gigs. Get your ass out of your house! … The internet can be very helpful,and it’s very easy to meet people now without ever actually meeting face to face. Just make the time, say yes and go out!
What are your musical aspirations for the coming months?
We’ve a bunch of albums coming out. I’ll be touring with the great Jazz Saxophonist Daniel Carter (Sun Ra, Thurston Moore, Cecil Taylor, Dissipated Face) who actually played with a bunch of punk bands in New York in the 70’s and 80’s like at CBGB’s he was a standard, and also doing a tour with Michael Bates who’s a great bass player. We’ll be in Europe (particularly France, Germany, Belgium) with this group, probably do a Dickens Campaign, and getting more great connections in China. I’m also doing some home-recording at the moment and have a bunch of album ideas lined up with some traditional musicians, and some noise musicians, i wanna try it all!
Thanks very much for your time, Deric.
Sure, no problem. Thanks.
JZ Club Hangzhou
Address: 6 Liuying Rd, WuShan ShangQuan, Shangcheng Qu, Hangzhou Shi, Zhejiang Sheng, China, 310000 … Phone: +86 571 8702 8298
Chinese name: 黄楼爵士音乐俱乐部. Address: 柳营路6号（靠南山路）
More info: Ten Golden Years