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Charles J Greenberg, Jazz Ambassador in China 2014-2019

This written account is also spoken during the video. Recorded and presented for International Jazz Day 2023 by Michele DE GASTYNE

My name is Charles Greenberg. I am an advocate for Value Creative Education with an organization called CEIN, Creative Educators International Network.

My best friend in high school recommended I take a social studies elective called American History Through Jazz Music. Most students took this class because there were no exams. The class was experiential, and most class time was spent with the lights off listening to music coming from a reel-to-reel tape deck and speakers. The teacher, Glenn Pribek, played drums and was intent to introduce students to jazz performances that commanded listening: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and many others. Sometimes Mr. Pribek would say nothing, sometimes he would tell a story. There were also field trips that required parental permission forms. The two field trips for that class, to me, were unforgettable.

The class met Mr. Pribek at the local commuter rail station late on a Friday afternoon. We purchased a round-trip ticket to New York City. After arrival, we headed by subway to Greenwich Village, to the Village Gate jazz club. The band playing was the Charlie Mingus Quintet, and our teacher was our chaperone and told the waitresses we were certainly old enough to be there. This was the first time I saw live jazz, in close seating proximity to the creative, collective genius of this ensemble, and they were playing tunes that jazz aficionados can find on the Mingus albums Changes I & II. We stayed for two sets, did not return home until way after midnight, and I left forever changed.

Towards the end of the fall semester, Mr. Pribek again sent the parental permission slips home. This time the destination was the Village Vanguard, and the group scheduled to play was the McCoy Tyner Quintet. We were seated stage-right, under dozens of portraits, and Mr. Pribek was busy during breaks telling stories. McCoy’s group played two sets that you would hear on his album Atlantis. Compared to the Village Gate field trip, we were even closer to the bandstand. We emerged out of the Vanguard to a light snow, and we walked from 11th Street to 34th St., because we were collectively energized by the performance. Like the second dose of a vaccine, this second field trip accelerated my shift in musical taste toward the polyrhythms, improvisation, and vibrations of jazz. I never forgot my debt of gratitude to social studies teacher Glenn for his consideration and wisdom to deliver an alternative musical landscape to impressionable students. As a drummer, Glenn featured Elvin Jones quite often in our class.

Over the next 40 years, I was not always conscious of this cultural immersion debt of gratitude I owed to the first teacher that exposed me to jazz music. I did become personal friends with several notable jazz musicians, including the trombone player and composer Robin Eubanks.

In early 2013, I saw an advertisement seeking a founding library director for a new American university in mainland China. It seemed different but intriguing. After a few days of thinking about this founding librarian position, I realized the only way to satisfy my curiosity would be to apply for this position. In the early spring of 2013, I was being interviewed over Skype by the American Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Wenzhou-Kean University in Wenzhou, China. I felt satisfied and qualified after this conversation, but a couple weeks later I received an email from the Vice Chancellor informing me that my qualifications were excellent, but someone else was ideal. I appreciated that consideration of a personal rejection. Life moved on.

In early July I received another email from the Vice Chancellor in Wenzhou. Apparently, the highest ranked candidate withdrew their application. Would I be interested in a finalist interview at the American campus in New Jersey? Why not? The interview went well, and by late September I received an offer to become the Founding University Librarian, a new cultural immersion.

I arrived in Wenzhou in early December and began my library position. Oh, yes, I also began to learn how to live in a different culture, where I would be on display every day as a transplanted American, not a tourist. One advantage I discovered was that I filled a minor celebrity role as an accomplished English speaker at a moment in China where English language learning was in demand from native English speakers. However rudimentary my knowledge of Chinese language was, I was sought out to be a featured figure for English practice in tea houses, English speech competitions, and eventually part of the audience at Wenzhou’s central public library, the picture you see here, which held popular English programming on Saturday mornings. I met the bilingual Chinese Librarian that arranged English programming, and her English name, Shelley, was the same as my daughter’s name, easy to remember.

I was fortunate to have a university-sponsored virtual private network or VPN, so as I grew accustomed to my living setting, I could also access jazz music in many varieties. After politely observing the Saturday Library English program during the winter and early spring, I had an epiphany. Why not create a history of American Jazz music that I could present at the public library and repeat for students on my own academic campus? I would dedicate this curriculum to my original jazz mentor, Glenn Pribek. YouTube is a rich source of recordings of live performances by many world-class jazz performers, just like those performances I experienced. YouTube is blocked in China, but there are also internet tools that can allow anyone with access to download YouTube videos, and I presented Shelley at the Public Library a proposal for a series of 12 workshops to chronologically present the history of American jazz, starting from slavery of African Americans up to the present. I prepared my first jazz lecture with embedded videos that I downloaded. I never charged for any of these activities, and being in a non-profit educational venue, I felt this was fair use. I posted announcements on Chinese social media. Because I had aligned my presentation with the Library English programming, I did not have to be concerned with having a translator. They were expecting English.

I also received approval to offer the same lectures to my university students in the evening. Following my university publicity, several faculty colleagues began to attend presentations at the public library. One of the information technology IT staff sat next to me on the work bus that we take home, and he offered to introduce me to a middle school music teacher he knew. A couple of months later, I was able to present “What is Jazz Music?” at that Middle School, and one of the Vice-Principals served as my translator.

I joined my Chinese University campus during their 2nd year of operation, As a new young campus, there were limited prescribed ways for the university to engage with the community. My natural interest in bringing jazz to a curious public served the University’s interest. Then in the same month I started the public library presentations, and the Vice-Chancellor who had hired me announced he was retiring and heading back to America. For the next six months, I became the ranking American manager on campus. In this temporary leadership role, I continued to produce monthly jazz history presentations. It actually took the rest of 2014 and all of 2015 to complete my promised 12 programs on the history of American Jazz music. The picture on the left you see is the audience at that final event in the history, and they were all very excited to take a picture with me. The picture on the right is Shelley presenting me with the award for my activity. .

Privately, my public library contact told me that the Library wanted to pause offering jazz programming. I think some of you in the audience know the connection the history of jazz has to freedom and social justice. I did not directly address social justice in my lectures, but it would be impossible to ignore limitations that jazz artists faced, even in America. People heard my lectures.

I reflected on this predicament and decided to seek other city venues, and after finding a venue called the “Watch Cafe”, I presented lectures on women in Jazz, Blues and Jazz, Brazilian Jazz, and notable performers such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The Watch Cafe was owned and operated by a professional photographer that loved jazz music. I also found a local teach whose picture you see on the right that volunteered to play saxophone at an event I produced. The Watch Cafe changed locations twice during the next four years, and during one period of transition, I found a different venue that had a wonderful name, Creative Living Art, a performance space integrated with interior design showrooms. That was their business. You can see some of the activities that I did there. I also did a presentation on Brazilian jazz at a bookstore that had a performance space.

When my position ended in China in mid-2019, I had one month to plan, pack, and depart, yet I also found time to present my final jazz history program on the Modern Jazz Saxophone, at the new and spacious Watch Cafe location in June 2019, completing five years of jazz history programming in Wenzhou and joyfully repaying my debt of gratitude to Glenn, my original jazz teacher.

I returned to the United States and soon found employment. I will never forget the opportunity I had to be an ambassador for the history of American jazz for five years in the Chinese city of Wenzhou. Jazz is a perfect example of thinking global and acting local.

Thank you very much for your attention.


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