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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 37 September 9, 2023

Review of Playing Jazz in Socialist Vietnam | Francis R. Bradley

Saturday 9 September 2023



Reviewed by Francis R. Bradley (Pratt Institute)

Playing Jazz in Socialist Vietnam: Quyền Van Minh and Jazz in Hanoi
by Stan BH. Minh Tan-Tangbau

University Press of Mississippi
2021. 320 pp.
(cloth) ISBN 978-1-4968-3633-5;
(paper), ISBN 978-1-4968-3634-2

Stan BH Tan-Tangbau collaborated with saxophonist Quyền Vӑn Minh to write the first major history of jazz in Vietnam. Minh is the central figure in the book’s narrative and he writes autobiographically, while Tan-Tangbau contributes the rich historical context needed to understand the unlikely journey of jazz in Vietnam during and after the Second Indochina War (known in the United States as the Vietnam War). The book is a significant contribution to the growing historiography on jazz in Asia, joining groundbreaking works including E. David Atkins’s Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan (2001), Faresh Fernandes’s Taj Mahal Fox Trot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age (2016), and Eugene Marlow’s Jazz in China: From Dance Hall Music to Individual Freedom of Expression (2018).

But Playing Jazz in Socialist Vietnam is a unique and remarkable accomplishment with few parallels in the history of the music. For one, it contains myriad firsthand accounts penned by Minh himself, as Vietnam’s founding figure in jazz. Jazz as cultural catalyst is front and center in a history that is deftly contextualized by a world that was very much in transition during the latter half of the twentieth century. Tan-Tangbau builds a compelling narrative that tethers the story to legacies of colonialism, postcolonialism and decolonization, and Vietnam’s three-decade war of independence against France and the United States. Minh’s diary-like entries in the book chart his first encounter with jazz—then the music of Vietnam’s American enemy—and how it provided the spark for personal and eventually societal transformations.

Throughout the book, Tan-Tangbau offers a noncanonical history of jazz and how it reached and influenced Vietnam. The author is adept at weaving together strands that are as disparate as they are diverse. Minh tells his story of huddling around a radio as a teenager, fascinated by the music he heard on an American radio broadcast: “I did not even know what language it was. I only focused on the music” (p. 69). The author shows how there was a cultural exchange happening despite the many traumas of the devastating war and how channels of communication defied language barriers to tell a different sort of history of the conflict. In a way, this story serves as an interesting counterpart to artists such as violinist Billy Bang, an American soldier in the war, who reflected on the trauma in the records Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001) and Vietnam: Reflections (2005).

Because Vietnam was tied so closely in with the communist and socialist world at the time, Tan-Tangbau proceeds to build a case for the influence of jazz from its closest allies rather than from the United States. The author states, “Jazz was caught in the ideological struggle between the Eastern socialist world led by the Soviet Union and the Western capitalist world led by the United States” (p. 72). Thus, he argues that many of the roots of Vietnamese jazz may be traced to Poland’s pioneer Krzysztof Komeda Trzciński, but also to Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. However, he also detects indirect American influence in the global tours of the 1950s such as Dizzy Gillespie in the Middle East, Benny Goodman in Southeast Asia and later in the Soviet Union, Dave Brubeck in East Germany and Poland, and Duke Ellington in the Soviet Union, among others. Like the radio waves where the story began, these myriad ephemeral tracings build a picture of a global jazz history never told in this way previously.

The second half of the book then brings the emergence of jazz as an organic Vietnamese art form into full view. The book charts the development of the music, the fusing of the jazz tradition with Vietnamese aesthetics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and its inclusion in the curriculum of the country’s national conservatory under the instruction of Minh himself. Appropriately, the book concludes by considering the music in its contemporary live form, especially at Minh’s club in Hanoi, and what future prospects may hold. Ultimately the greatest strength of the book is the inclusion of Minh’s autobiographical accounts—often harrowing, always perceptive, and occasionally humorous—in illustrating his role in bringing jazz into the national spotlight in Vietnam.

This is a vital, living history where one can feel the reverence that Tan-Tangbau has for the music, while also bringing critical perspectives on its evolution. This book should be of considerable interest to scholars of global jazz history, histories of Asia, and histories of the encounter between the United States and Southeast Asia.

[Reproduced from H-Net under a Creative Commons license]

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