Sugar Blue: I Have a Song for Shanghai

2020-04-23 17:03:00 Source:China Today Author:DENG DI
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GRAMMY award-winning blues harmonica player Sugar Blue made his debut China performance at the Blue Note Beijing in December 2017, kicking off his first tour in China. Blue Note Beijing is the first branch of the famous New York-based jazz club in China. Chinese audiences were amazed by the band’s perfect coordination and Sugar Blue’s stormy playing of the harmonica, which immersed everyone in a blues pilgrimage.

Since then, he and his band have been invited to China twice to perform: in 2018, they went on another tour and in April 2019 they came once again for a special performance at the Blue Note Beijing. In September 2020, they are scheduled to arrive again and are expected to start with a week at the famous Lincoln Jazz Center in Shanghai.

Chinese music fans love his music as much as his personality. He is gentle, polite, and fun. During his performance in Beijing’s Blue Note bar and on the stage of World Music Asia 2018 in Shanghai, OCT-Loft Jazz Festival 2018 in Shenzhen, or the “Chinese Bridge” finals 2019 in Changsha, Sugar Blue was dressed in his usual attire, wearing a black beret and a dark blue shirt, carrying a harmonica slung across his chest, totally immersed in his pure world.


Passion for the Harmonica

Born as James Whiting on December 16, 1949 in New York, Sugar Blue has been playing on stage since the 1960s and is a great singer and composer. Hailed as “one of the most important harmonica players in modern blues” by the Rolling Stone magazine, he is widely acclaimed for his playing skills and striking voice.

Sugar Blue’s love for music comes from his mother, a talented singer and dancer. His mother’s career gave him the opportunity to be surrounded by great musicians since childhood. Till today, he still vividly remembers the first time his mother took him to the Apollo Theater to see Stevie Wonder, then a music prodigy, when they were both around 12 years old. The way Wonder played the harmonica onstage greatly impressed Sugar Blue, who was also learning the instrument at the time, and made him even more determined to spend his life working on his musical dream.

As he was growing up, Ray Charles, the father of soul music, B.B. King of the blues, and especially Sunny Boy Williamson II, the harmonica master of the blues, have all inspired him deeply.

Sugar Blue’s musical career has been quite smooth, in which New York City plays an integral part. Having grown up in New York, Sugar Blue is still reminiscent of the city in the 1960s and 1970s. According to his memory, at that time, the musical atmosphere in New York was very eclectic and diverse. Jazz, blues, pop, rock... Good music and musicians kept coming and everyone played and loved music. Whether in the city center or in the suburbs and the countryside, children were seen playing harmonicas, guitars, drums, or violins. To him, he was lucky to have grown up in New York at that time and made his way into music.

Growing up this way, Sugar Blue gradually formed his own unique musical style. He not only inherited the memorable traditional American blues, performing with famous musicians of various genres, but also promoted his inheritance of blues culture with modern rock, jazz, and other musical elements.

In the past decades, as a blues harmonica musician, he has worked with the Rolling Stones, B.B. King, Willie Dixon, and Bo Diddley. With a successful music career, he has been covered by major media outlets such as Broadway, and won a coveted Grammy award, solidifying his reputation as a legendary blues musician.


A Musician and A Poet

Sugar Blue’s music is poetic. He tries to pour everything that he feels about a song into it. His inspiration comes from people and the things that he comes across in his daily life, involving personal relationships, love, work, and daily struggles.

“Optimist or pessimist? I think I am a little bit of both. Sometimes I’m an optimist and sometimes I am a pessimist. It’s kind of a balance, yin and yang.”

Happily married, he writes songs together with his wife. Some of the musicians that he has worked with and that have mentored him also inspire him a lot. To him, inspiration is like water which flows naturally and can not be forced. He writes about blues mostly.

“A lot of people say that blues is tragic. No, blues is black magic; blues is the truth of life.” He is always intrigued by daily life. In his songs, there are people struggling to make a living, or to keep a house. In his eyes, you can write about the wonderful things that happen to you and you can also write about things that are not so good. He finds inspiration in every experience.

He also draws inspiration from literature. Poets like e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, and Bob Dylan are among his favorites. Besides poetry, Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching from God also influenced him a lot, which is in his eyes “poetry from the first word to the last.”

Anti-war is also one of the themes expressed in his songs. In his eyes, war is one of the most ridiculous things that humans do as “you cannot solve problems by beating someone up.”

New York nourished him when he grew up, while Chicago comforted him when he was an adult. The cities, the people, and his experiences are all important and inspirational to him.


Shanghai and the Sheng

Like many people living outside of China, Sugar Blue’s first impression of this faraway country started with Kungfu movies. While after he set foot on this land for a music tour in 2017, he found out that the country was much more colorful than he had realized.

“There are so many incredible places in China. The mountains, the sea, and the many wonderful cities.” Sugar Blue was fascinated by this old yet modern country. In his eyes, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City are among the most incredible constructions of human history. Those things gave him much inspiration for music. He said he really wanted to have the opportunity to travel through China to experience more and to share his music with all of China.

Among the cities he has been to, Shanghai is his favorite. “I don’t know much about what’s going on out of Shanghai. But in Shanghai, there’s so much music. There’s rock and roll, jazz, hip-hop, traditional Chinese music. I had a wonderful experience,” he said.

“The city itself is so vibrant, so alive. It’s a city that is growing and is on the cutting edge of creativity. The beautiful architecture and the wonderful spirit of the people. People are very friendly and warm. Their English is very good, which is good for me because my mandarin is very bad. My son speaks more mandarin than I do.”

As a harmonica player, he was interested in different musical instruments in China. When he listened to the music of Second-hand Rose, a Chinese rock and roll band, he said he was immediately intrigued by their wonderful instruments which sounded like a trumpet.

Sugar Blue said his instrument, the harmonica, also had a deep connection with China.

“The word Harmonica comes from sheng (Chinese free reed wind instrument consisting of usually 17 bamboo pipes set in a small wind-chest into which a musician blows through a mouthpiece). The most important principal of harmonica comes from sheng, from which the Europeans developed into the harmonica. They have much in common,” said Sugar Blue.

China fascinated Sugar Blue. In his new album “Colors,” which has been released online in March, 2020 in China, Sugar Blue writes a song about Shanghai called Shanghai Sunset, a soulful ode to this vibrant Chinese metropolis to show his special love of it. The song was recorded in Shanghai and Chicago and features Chinese sheng maestro Ling Bo’s playing. Sugar Blue loves this song and cherishes such cooperation with Chinese musicians and hopes to have more in the future.  

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