The sound of America’s 1930s and 1940s is spreading its tentacles across Hanoi
There’s not all that much applause for jazz musicians these days. Seldom adorning the covers of mainstream music magazines, their audience claps politely, looking on in hushed appreciation, their efforts constituting an impressive albeit subtle backdrop. There’s definitely no-one chucking their bra onstage, because this is an art form that is its own reward. All the more impressive, then, that jazz in Hanoi is blossoming at a rate of knots.
Distinctly lacking in the brash neon glow that Ho Chi Minh City has embraced so readily, Hanoi is at its best when it sticks to the basics; a theory which is particularly apt when it comes to nightlife. So if all you need for a rewarding night out is good food, good drinks and some live music, then you’re in luck, because this is an area in which Hanoi excels, and is epitomised in the bustling metropole’s vibrant jazz scene.
Those Crazy Cats…
Once considered nothing short of taboo, ‘foreigner music’ as it was called only 40 years ago is now at the forefront of the live music circuit, with venues dotted all around the more accessible regions of the city. From the more southerly corners of the Old Quarter to the comparative serenity of Tay Ho, both international guests and some of the country’s most revered professional musicians can be found playing on a tiny stage in a dimly lit bar any given night of the week.
One such stage exists on Trang Tien, a small alley behind Hanoi’s majestic copycat Parisian opera house. It is the home of the Binh Minh Jazz Club (1 Ba Trieu, Trang Tien, Hoan Kiem), a hotspot, a hub and an institution. Owned by Quyen Van Minh, one of the country’s most eminent musicians and prominent jazz proponents, the small club is truly a must-do on the Hanoi bucket list, no matter how limited your time may be. Nightly shows begin at around 9pm and finish just before midnight, and feature an ever changing lineup of some of the city’s most gifted musicians and students, often led by Minh and his son Dac.
Travel 20 minutes north to Don’s Tay Ho (27 Quang An, Tay Ho), where another of the country’s luminaries, Manh Nguyen, inspires awe from Wednesday through to Saturday, backed up by an ever-changing lineup of international guests and Manh’s own students from the Vietnamese National Academy of Music. Drenched in red neon lighting, the small rooftop bar boasts one of the most impressive views of West Lake to be found anywhere, soundtracked by the “art of improvisation”, as Manh puts it.
The band for the evening is made up of Australian virtuoso Danny Healy, newcomer to the city Tomas Larsson, pianist Le Minh Duc and 17 year old Le Minh Hieu. Manh tells me that jazz lends itself both culturally and stylistically to Vietnamese tradition, pairing well with Viet-Calypso style music, and the ongoing developmental and improvisational nature of the core genre.
“Right now there are more venues than musicians,” he says, but there is a new generation of young jazz students, two of which are seated with us tonight, that are putting their foot on the gas.
A Growing Presence
A comparison continues to reappear as we talk, that America’s love affair with jazz in the 1930s and 1940s is very much akin to what happened in Vietnam in the late 1990s and 2000s. Like techno or hip hop, jazz is a brand new genre in this country, and as such is only now beginning to take hold. In a state of constant development and improvisation, different styles can be found in venues all across the city including Le Bon (1 Pham Ngu Lao, Hoan Kiem), Bar Betta (34C Cao Ba Quat), Le Club (Sofitel Metropole Legend Hotel), HRC (27/52 To Ngoc Van, Tay Ho), Polite Pub (5 Hang Hanh, Hoan Kiem), Bar +84 (23 Ngo Van So, Hoan Kiem), The Artists (20 Hang Tre, Hoan Kiem) and Le Cabaret Social Club (27 Ly Thuong Kiet, Hoan Kiem). All host weekly performances.
In short, there is not a night of the week when jazz does not eke out of at least one corner of the city, to a growing and incredibly appreciative audience.
Stan Getz once said, “There are four qualities essential to a great jazzman. They are taste, courage, individuality and irreverence.”
Hanoi is a city that can boast all four characteristics, and as its musicians forge their own take on this particular style, it appears that jazz’s transitional nature is very much one that runs throughout the city. — Calum Sutherland