Vancouver drummer finds jazz, musical freedom on rise in China

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Two jazz drum masters, Billy Cobham, left, and Vancouver native Gary Hobbs, break away from the China Drum Summit in Beijing in October to tour the imperial Forbidden City. (Contributed photo)

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Learn more about jazz drummer Gary Hobbs at

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Things ain’t what they used to be in East Asia, and especially in urban centers such as Beijing and Hong Kong, according to jazz drummer Gary Hobbs.

You might actually hear that sly Duke Ellington standard pouring from the doorway of a nightclub or conservatory these days — in a civilization that used to consider jazz music subversive, even pornographic, and definitely anti-communist.

That big red chill is thawing fast, according to Vancouver native Hobbs, 67, who went on his fourth teaching-and-performing junket to China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in late October. The centerpiece of the trip was the third annual China Drum Summit, hosted by the Beijing Contemporary Music Academy.

Hobbs was away for 10 days and was “totally shocked,” he said, at the masses of Chinese music students displaying real talent and fire about this essentially American art form. Hobbs said he found “massive conservatories full of all these brazen virtuosos” who are practicing the instruments with the biggest, boldest voices — brassy saxophones, earth-quaking drums — like their lives depend on it.

It stems from the rising Chinese standard of living, Hobbs surmised, and from the opening-up of a society that was officially closed to outside cultural influences for decades.

“I’m not sure why all of a sudden jazz is cool there,” he said, “but it is urgent.”

Vancouver roots

Hobbs wasn’t urgent about jazz when growing up on West 36th Street in Vancouver. His grandfather and father both played the drums, he said, and his mother and uncles played the piano to accompany silent film screenings — but what Hobbs played at first was football.

It was his buddy, the quarterback of the Fort Vancouver High School team — who also played sax — who suggested that Hobbs take up what the school band needed: drums. It was a short trip from there to Hobbs’ father’s record collection, where he fell in love with the bold sound of swinging big bands. He joined a blues band and played at venues such as Vancouver’s Marshall Community Center, back when it used to have a teen hangout called the Trapadero Club.

“I made up for lost time pretty fast,” Hobbs said. “Music just took over. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, but I loved playing.” Plus there was a little income involved, he said, and it helped him meet girls.

Hobbs’ father, Larry, a Vancouver businessman and Chamber of Commerce official for years, offered advice that businessman-dads aren’t supposed to give their kids: “Play music. You won’t make much money at it, but you’ll be fulfilled.” Hobbs’ mom was also supportive, he said, “by not getting angry while I was beating on drums for eight hours a day.”

Mount Hood Community College and Central Washington University were also supportive by offering financial aid and good music programs. Eventually Hobbs was out on the road for 48 weeks of the year with Stan Kenton and his big band.

Kenton, an innovative pianist and composer, was known for edgier, more experimental material than big bands usually played; he also emphasized jazz education with many visits to colleges and high schools. These seemed to keep Kenton’s musical vision youthful and forward-looking, Hobbs noted.

“Stan wasn’t into nostalgia. It needed to be new, new, new,” Hobbs said. That’s a philosophy Hobbs adopted too, which is why he looks to his students — at the University of Oregon, where he teaches every Thursday, as well as far-flung places like China — to teach him about the future of jazz, he said. He’s composing new material these days and itching to pull together great local players to try mashing up some wildly disparate sounds, he said: a little funk-fusion, a little big-band, a little heavy metal, a little James Taylor.

Some of Hobbs’ purist peers won’t stand for that kind of thing, he noted. It’s an artistic argument that’s been underway since approximately the dawn of time.

“Some guys are really bugged, you know, ‘Yesterday’s music was the best and today’s music is no good,’ ” Hobbs said. “But things always change. Expecting a style to last forever is kind of silly. If it did, we’d still be in caves banging rocks together.”

Fun and freedom

Hobbs’s 10-day October trip was packed full of concerts, classes and one-on-one clinics where he got to be the admired master. But he felt exactly like a nervous young student upon learning that he’d be teaching alongside one of his idols, jazz-fusion legend Billy Cobham, who has drummed for Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and George Benson. “He’s a god to me,” said Hobbs, who started practicing for four hours a day after he heard he’d be meeting Cobham.

The object of his worship turned out to be a fun dude. Joking and trading stories with Cobham while touring China’s imperial palace of old, the Forbidden City, “was a highlight of my life,” Hobbs said.

In China, where culture was long frozen as a matter of national policy, music of all sorts is now catching up as quickly as one of those high-speed bullet trains that crisscrosses the country, Hobbs said. The hottest club in Shanghai is called JZ’s, he said, and it feels like something out of the swinging ’60s: Everybody smokes cigarettes. Everybody stays all night. Everybody is deep into jazz.

“They really dig it, all these skinny young kids,” Hobbs said. “They really come out and support this music.”

What’s hooked them, he said, is what they were denied before: passionate improvisation. Telepathic teamwork. Rhythms that make you want to move and groove.

Freedom.

“They’re into it for the soul of it,” Hobbs said. “The visceral, screaming, sorrow and joy of it.”