Veteran crooner Frank Bray was one of the stalwarts of Chinatown, a burlesque theater based out of an ex-Buddhist Temple in Hongkou. He's behind its reinvention and rebirth as the Pearl, where you'll be able to catch a vaudeville spectacular this NYE. We talked about revamping a Shanghai classic, and all that jazz.
Can you tell us a bit about the Pearl and your involvement with it? What was it like before as Chinatown, how has it changed now? What happened to the old Chinatown? I heard it used to be a Buddhist temple – is that a true story?
Our venue in Hongkou was originally a branch of the Japanese Nishi Moto temple in Japan and designed by a Japanese architect Okano Shigeto, and it was constructed in 1931. It's an Indian Buddhist architectural style and featured in several publications as one of the major architectural sites of Hongkou district. Chinatown is the reason I came to Shanghai in 2009 to star in their variety show. In decades of performing I rate this experience as one of my best as a performer; we had the benefit of an extremely talented cast who were all creative in their own right. I liken it to the improvisation of Second City or SNL in that with a basic template for the show we would literally create costume and perform acts in a single day adding or taking out numbers depending on that day. It is with out a doubt one of the most wonderful casts I have ever worked with.
The old Chinatown sadly closed with financial problems in 2011 sometime after I had stopped regular performances there. I had always had a tremendous affection for my friend Norman Gosney's '30s design of the interior and the architecture of the building as well as the more local, old-school atmosphere of the neighborhood and Hongkou itself. What an adventure it was to have this be my first home in Shanghai!
When I became aware of the demise of Chinatown I began considering how I might better use the space and created a business proposal with partners to find investors in this process of showing the space I maintained a relationship with the Landlord of the building. After a year and a half of effort and retooling concepts all the pieces magically fell together. I returned to the space to enquirer about producing a one-off show of a play I had written, which then became a totally different production with East West Theater. At that point I decided instead of being open as a regular club why not open this beautiful space as an events venue for corporate events, concerts and theater productions. I then brought in my partner Glenn who had worked the original concept with me and we became The Pearl.
Having been crooning for many a year, can you share any scandalous stories or tidbits? What have been some of the most memorable gigs you've done, for whatever reason? What scurrilous goings on have you spied in the audience?
Ha ha, it is a fact that I have witnessed a lot of life in my tenure as Jazz singer and a Burlesque performer of sorts, both in Shanghai and in my 20 years as a New Yorker before. I have always said the show behind the curtain is way better than the one in front. However, there is an intimacy and closeness that goes on within a cast which it is impossible to understand and or judge if you are not privy to it as an entertainer. I call it love, it is a give and take a level of accessibility deep inside between actors, most people's personal relationships very seldom even access. This craft reveals every bit of you if you allow it and allow your self to become a clear reflection. In my mind it is something which can only really be experienced through effort in the moment and which adjectives always seem to fall short of describing especially to civilians. For myself its best to say if you want those juicy tidbits become a performance artist and earn them or imagine what it must be, this is the fantastic innuendo of the theater.
What's your general impression of Shanghai as a place for a jazz artist to be? What do you think of the jazz scene here, positives and negatives? What other artists here do you admire?
Shanghai may be the last renaissance in art and creativity. There is fertile ground for new ideas concepts, business etc. As much as I have loved living in New York and Europe this is the place from which you can draw your dreams from the ether, the new frontier. Jazz is more alive on a creative level here and for the working artist, than either of these other places. I believe we are on the cusp of a music explosion in Shanghai that will echo around the world. There is so much talent here and a need and hunger for music art and vision from the west.
I'm extremely excited by the efforts of Ren and JZ Fest Sennheisser and there tireless effort to create perfect sound in China this extends in to film Theater productions in addition. There is an Indie spirit and freedom here ironically that is irrepressible, the genie is out of the bottle. Artists I admire, one of the most fantastic to hit the seen in Beijing and Shanghai Is 14 year old jazz pianist ABU. Words do not describe the genius of this kid who plays like a seasoned Bill Evans plus, just a monster on the keys and I cant even fathom what he will become, but am honored to work with his level of talent. Rolf Becker is an amazing band leader composer and arranger. Donald Jackson is one of the best old school bass players around. Oleg another amazing pianist and teacher, Alec Haavic sax maniac, Wilson sax maniac, Johnny Joesph colossal drummer percussionist, Mario Trane guitar. Steve Smith guitar, EJ Parker bass that just scratches the surface of what is going on and the talent.
What's your interpretation of Vaudeville and how’s it going to work for the NYE party? Will there be someone with a long shepherd's crook ready to haul acts off stage?
Vaudeville is classic and just a click away from Burlesque if not the same. We are offering something wonderful and different for New Year's, classy dress, variety, swing, some novelties and a little Vegas baby. The Kick the Gong guys have one of the unique parties in town with a retro swing vibe as well as good late night beats and we are expanding that for this event. I will MC and take the stage for a set to swing in the New Year. In addition we offer the beautiful Pearl experience all three of which I think are a great combination and definitely one of the great bars in town to boot, its a winner, Class begets Class.
And, because it's nearly Christmas, finish the following sentence: All I want for Christmas is...
Ho Ho Ho, I'm a lucky guy I live in one of the most fantastic interesting places in the world I love my work and have a wonderful life here what more could I ask for. All I want for Christmas is, may be corny but, more LOVE and less FEAR in the world,,,, like we have here in Shanghai.