The musician’s hands dance across the keyboard, fingers moving so fast they blur in the dim evening light. Pounding out electric notes, so passionately played it seems to be coming directly from his heart. Manh (Mike) Nguyen is one of Vietnam’s best known jazz musicians and seeing him play, it is clear that his reputation for raw, passionate music is well deserved.
On a hot, stormy evening a few weeks back, I joined some friends for dinner and music on Don’s rooftop in Tay Ho. We had expected a quiet Wednesday evening and gentle background jazz. Instead we found a packed rooftop, excellent food and a level of music that would knock the socks off the most seasoned enthusiast. As the threat of the storm faded and the smooth beats of the opening set echoed the distant flashes of lightning, we were soon enveloped in the universal charms of jazz.
Famed Swedish jazz pianist Hakan Rydin describes jazz’s universal quality as the “here-and-now-thing”. The easy improvisation and adjustment that connects people to the present even when they’re listening or playing songs written 80 years ago. Jazz may have officially started in the US at the beginning of the 20th century, but these days it wears a timeless and international style like no other genre. Although there are certain distinguishing features associated with particular areas (Swedish jazz is known for incorporating local folklore), the essence of the music erases boundaries. Every time a piece of jazz is played, it bears the mark of the individual musician and it is this individualism, the personal sounds and improvisation, which draw a global connection. And that’s the greatest thing about jazz — it’s fluid, it changes, and, as trombonist J. J. Johnson said, “it won’t stay put and it never will”.
“Hanoi has a growing jazz scene,” says Rydin, who has helped forge strong bonds between the Hanoi and Swedish jazz communities. “There are some very good musicians.”
Steeped in Time
Although the current-day jazz scene is still in its infancy, the genre is not new to the city. On sunny weekends a little under a century ago, French and Vietnamese would gather at the bandstand on Avenue Domine (now Le Lai) near the lake to hear the brass band perform the greatest hits of the day. The bright brassy sounds of the jazz age were sweeping the globe, and Vietnam was not to be left behind. Jazz bars sprung up throughout the country and in both Hanoi and Saigon, nightclubs would be packed with Vietnamese and French patrons, swinging into the early hours. Like the pop music of today, jazz attracted a younger crowd who connected to the upbeat tempos and dance styles.
With the departure of the French and the turbulence that followed, jazz took a backseat. It wasn’t until Quyen Van Minh opened his jazz club in 1998 in the Old Quarter that those brassy notes were once again played nightly in the city. The past few years have seen a resurgence in jazz throughout the country, with both Hanoi and Saigon boasting some world-class, home-grown talent.
“The opening of the jazz department within the Conservatory of Music was a big step forward,” says Long Nguyen, one of the country’s best known saxophone players. Along with Manh Nguyen, Long is co-organiser of the Jump for Jazz concert series, which performs at venues across the city. With jazz taking a mostly-unknown backseat to commercial pop in Vietnam, the Jump for Jazz initiative aims to introduce jazz to Hanoi audiences and give them the opportunity to hear some great live music. “It’s hard to sell jazz tickets,” says Manh, “and we’re hoping these concerts will show people that it’s worth paying for. Not just something played in hotel lobbies.”
Forging an Identity
The next big challenge for the Hanoi jazz community is to create a sound unique to Vietnam.
“Like jazz musicians all over the world, the Hanoi musicians are looking for their musical heritage: how to combine traditional Vietnamese music and jazz,” says Rydin.
“That is the dream,” adds Manh, “to create our own unique sound.”
Despite this, both Manh and Long feel that when they play a piece of music — no matter where it was originally composed — their interpretation makes it take on a unique identity, thus becoming Vietnamese.
Back at Don’s, a young jazz student sits behind a drum kit; although to describe him as sitting is simplifying it somewhat. Hands flying, legs bouncing, he is a force of energy lost in the beat of his music.
“I’m sorry, I don’t even know what I was doing just then,” he says after a solid 10-minute drum solo. “I just get so caught up in it, it was probably terrible.” He looks embarrassed. We assure him it wasn’t. It was Led Zeppelin-esque drummer passion right up here on this warm Hanoi evening.
The young man, who occasionally plays with the student band Up, explains that he is just in Hanoi for the summer and will soon return to Sweden, where he is finishing a master’s degree in music with a focus on jazz. “But I want to come back to Hanoi as soon as possible,” he says, grinning. “My place is here. When I’m home playing my drums, I’m where I belong.”
Catch Some Jazz
For a cosy, traditional style jazz club, complete with black and white checkered floor, wicker basket chairs and walls lined with photos of the patron and his saxophone, head to Minh’s Jazz Club (1 Trang Tien, Hoan Kiem; minhjazzvietnam.com). Heating up around 9pm every evening, the band usually plays two sets until around 11pm.
The sweet notes of jazz can be heard Wednesday to Saturday on the rooftop of Don’s Tay Ho (16 Quang An, Tay Ho; dons-bistro.com). From 8.30pm onwards get ready to get your socks knocked off by Manh Nguyen on keyboard and his student band Up, featuring some of Hanoi’s best and brightest up-and-coming talent.
Keep your eyes peeled for pop-up concerts and events organised around the city by visiting musicians, the university, embassies and the team at Jump for Jazz.