By Rick Charette
Photos by Department of Cultural Affairs, Taipei City Government, Samil Kuo, Yenyi Lin

If you know this island’s music scene, you already know where ground zero is for Taiwan jazz. If you’re new to the scene, we’re here to tell you where this sacred ground is to be found.

The music started playing at Blue Note Taipei (台北藍調) way back in 1974. Never missing
a beat, the bands play on today at Taiwan’s premier jazz nightspot. The island’s best talent flock to play here — both Taiwanese and expatriate alike — and Blue Note Taipei has long been noteworthy for bringing in elite talent from overseas. On a recent quiet late afternoon, TAIPEI sat down for a chat with the current owner, Huang Xinzhe (黃信哲), who goes by the nickname A-zhe (阿哲), and who took the reins from retiring founder Cai Hui-yang (蔡輝陽) not long ago.

Blue Note Taipei

Photo Credit: Yenyi Lin

The neon-lit entrance has become an iconic symbol of live jazz in Taipei.

The work of a pioneer

The story of Blue Note Taipei begins with the founder Cai Hui-yang. “Blue Note Taipei started small in a small space by Yongkang Park in 1974, primarily selling jazz and blues records and musical instruments,” says A-zhe. Founder Cai Hui-yang soon decided a bigger space and new direction was needed, so a move was made in 1978, first to another spot and then to the current location. His nickname “Cai Ba (蔡爸)” means “Daddy Cai”; A-zhe can’t recall when everyone started using this affectionate diminutive.

The venue is in an old, compact commercial building on the corner of busy Roosevelt and Shida Roads, in an area always pulsing at night, home to a popular night market and many bars, pubs, and eateries. “For the longest time we were a combo operation, originally still selling music and instruments and also operating as a restaurant, café, tea shop, music venue and bar — even as a classroom, with jazz lessons given in the afternoons,” A-zhe recalls.

“Cai Ba was a player, and would hit the stage himself many a night, especially through the early and middle years,” says A-zhe. Gradually, to simplify their days, Cai Ba and his wife Cai Ma (蔡媽, Mama Cai) ended up concentrating on the live music. A-zhe says of this time of change, “We continue with the shortened hours today, 8 p.m. to midnight, as well as a simple menu and drinks list.”

One misconception many people have about the club is that it was named after New York’s famed Blue Note Jazz Club. “Not so,” says A-zhe. “They opened in 1981, so we’re the elder. Our name in fact honors Blue Note Records (an iconic American jazz record label founded in 1939).” Another common misconception is that the “blue” in the name “means we offer both jazz and blues. Jazz and blues are cousins, but we’re about jazz here, though blues sneaks in.”


Days of obscurity to icon status

When Blue Note Taipei was born, jazz was more than “exotic” in Taiwan. It was almost completely unknown. There were only three TV channels then, which concentrated on mainstream music. Western music on local radio stations was also almost invariably mainstream. Besides, during the martial law period, few people could travel overseas, and many people in Taipei, including A-zhe, were exposed to jazz through American servicemen stationed in Taiwan. He originally worked in a retail operation, where his boss frequently played jazz. “I was intrigued, enjoying the unusual pacing and rhythms,” he says.

“Blue Note Taipei was one of the few places you can find real jazz music back then,” A-zhe recalls. “Though there was only a small, loyal clientele who enjoyed it like I do.” After martial law ended in 1987, things started to pick up, as more people started studying and traveling overseas and brought new interests back.

In truth, says A-zhe, Blue Note Taipei has not faltered since that time. The club does not have to do much in the way of self-promotion, though it has a website that is effective. The number of local music lovers with a keen ear for jazz has grown of its own accord, and though other live-music night spots have come and gone, either dedicated to jazz or frequently booking jazz ensembles, since the early days, Blue Note Taipei has enjoyed a reputation as the No. 1 place to go, in Taipei and across the island.

“The reality is that people come looking for us,” he states. “Both players and music fans. We don’t have to go out to convince anybody to give us a try. And beyond the local population — we see both loyal clientele who’ve been coming for decades as well as a constant stream of new, mostly young faces — about a third of our audience each night are tourists. Many expatriates come in regularly, sitting in for a few hours before heading out to spots open into the wee hours, and we get tourists from all around the world too. Generally, they’re music-lovers that have actively checked the local jazz scene and the best places to go online.”

One thing that A-zhe and his sister Huang Den (黃丹), who goes by her English name Carter, co-manage the joint and find highly complimentary is that they have numerous foreign music lovers who make a point of coming each time they’re in Taiwan, and have established personal friendships with them.

A-zhe (left) and his sister Carter (right) are co-managing Blue Note Taipei after taking over the business from Cai Ba, the founder of the establishment.

A-zhe came to Blue Note Taipei in 2001. “Carter had already been working here as a bartender for a long time. She’d been working elsewhere. Since her boss and Cai Ba were friends, Cai Ba, after being introduced, asked if she’d like to help nights with bartending. Intrigued, she gave it a shot, and fell in love with the music.” A-zhe originally came to Blue Note Taipei simply to explore the music, and eventually Cai Ba asked him to join the management team.

When Cai Ba and Cai Ma decided to retire a few years ago, they found they couldn’t bear to sell or consider closing the place, “so in the end you could say we ‘inherited’ it. The relationship Carter and I have with them is not that of bosses/juniors, or simply friends — it’s more like parents and children.” A-zhe and Carter both have a deep passion for music. “All types,” Carter says, “but yes indeed, mostly jazz.”

Nowadays, Blue Note Taipei still looks like how it was when Cai Ba started it. The neon lights at the entrance, a wall of jazz records and a small stage with a grand piano have become the features of Blue Note Taipei. “We want to keep it original,” says A-zhe. “For Cai Ba and our guests who have been here to enjoy jazz for decades.''

The Blue Note Taipei Stage: Drawing in the best local and overseas talent

As with its patrons, being the “jazz mecca” in Taiwan means Blue Note Taipei does not need to scout for talent. The talent comes to the club, eager for the Blue Note Taipei stage. During the week, a different group is booked each night, constantly opening up opportunities to new talent. On weekends the same established groups — i.e., Taiwan’s home-grown and expatriate best — are generally given the stage.

KU Quartet performs at Blue Note Taipei every Saturday. They are led by Japanese pianist Kaoru Uno and Taiwanese saxophonist Cheng-yu Lee (李承育). Another steady source of new young talent is the music programs at Taiwan post-secondary institutions. “We have usually long known the instructors and they vouch for quality,” says A-zhe. “Uno and Lee, for example, are known for teaching jazz in Taipei for almost 20 years. Musicians like them bring more players to us, and we believe this is how jazz can be passed on. More importantly, performances at Blue Note Taipei can always be with high quality.”


Photo Credit: Yenyi Lin

The KU Quartet performs at Blue Note Taipei every Saturday night, letting jazz fans enjoy professional music every weekend.

One of the examples is Taipei Youth Jazz Orchestra , the youth band instructed by Uno. Lee teaches jazz at Fu Jen Catholic University Music Department and their Fu Jen Jazz Ensemble is also a rising student band. Both of the young bands are performing at Blue Note Taipei nowadays.

Foreign talent for the most part contact Blue Note Taipei directly through the website, or sometimes through Taiwan jazz musicians whom they have a relationship with. Often these individuals are experienced and have played or studied music overseas for years. Among the biggest names that have come from overseas are Ralph Lalama, Jerry Weldon, and Hideo Oyama. Other more recent visits especially remembered by A-zhe and Carter are Polish jazz pianist Roman Wróblewski and Henk Kraaijeveld, a versatile Dutch jazz vocalist/songwriter who loves improvisation.

“We’ll also commonly get overseas groups booked in the Taipei Jazz Festival and Taichung Jazz Festival wanting to swing by for sessions here,” Carter adds. “They’ll contact us in advance for a booking. One example is the SJZ Collective from San Jose, California, which played at the 2018 Taichung Jazz Festival. They then came back again during a 2019 Asia tour.” Individual players will do the same. They won’t just show up unannounced; invariably they know someone who’s on stage that night and have set things up ahead. Some artists have played at the festivals more than once, and have made repeat appearances here as well. We’ve become friends with a number.”


Photo Credit: Department of Cultural Affairs | Taipei City Government

Taipei Jazz Festival is an outdoor event showcasing famous jazz musicians and bands, regularly attracting a packed audience.

Pilgrimage destinations for music lovers

Asked what places are must-visit spots for folks from overseas looking to explore the local music scene — specifically jazz — A-zhe has a precise answer: “First, visit Blue Note Taipei — multiple times. After this, must-have experiences are Sappho Live Jazz, the Taipei Jazz Festival, and the Taichung Jazz Festival.”

Sappho is Taipei’s only other music club dedicated to live jazz and is known for the casual atmosphere and professional jazz performances. After operating about 15 years on Anhe Road, it’s just moved to a place near MRT Zhongshan Elementary School Station. The Taipei Jazz Festival has been running annually since 2007, with large-scale outdoor concerts by top-notch local and overseas jazz bands staged in Daan Park. The annual Taichung Jazz Festival is held in the city of Taichung, on the west coast about 90 minutes by vehicle from Taipei.

To experience Blue Note Taipei is to experience a living piece of Taiwan’s modern history — and some great artistry. See you there!

2020 Taipei Jazz Festival upcoming performances:
10/16 - 10/18 6:40pm - 8:30pm at Zhongcheng Park
10/23 - 10/25 at Daan Park, with four concerts each day

This article is reproduced under the permission of TAIPEI. Original content can be found at the website of Taipei Travel Net.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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