Author Interviews
4:23 am
Sat March 8, 2014

'Night In Shanghai' Dances On The Eve Of Destruction

Originally published on Sat March 8, 2014 10:31 am

A lot of talented jazz musicians in the 1930's couldn't buy a drink in the places they played. They were the African-American musicians who helped create the era's signature sound — but still had to live under the sting of segregation. Unless they went elsewhere.

Author Nicole Mones' new Night in Shanghai centers on classcially trained Baltimore pianist Thomas Greene, who's recruited to play jazz — a music that's new to him — in a new place: not Harlem, or the south side of Chicago, or even Paris, but Shanghai.

Greene finds success in Shanghai's nightlife palaces, but the city — and the world — are on the brink of war. Mones tells NPR's Scott Simon that Greene and the three other major characters are fictional, but everyone else is real. "All the minor characters really lived, and all the events of the novel actually occurred. So at the end of the novel, there is a nonfiction-style epilogue."


Interview Highlights

On why Greene and musicians like him went to Shanghai

They got the respect that they had always deserved, that they always knew they deserved. On the surface, there was playing for an equal wage, and that's a kind of freedom, to be able to play on an equal stage. But more important, I think, than that, was that these were highly trained musicians, and they really deserved a great deal more respect than they got.

But you know something? These jazzmen did much more than just benefit from a well-deserved opportunity. They played a role in the city's modernization, by providing for its soundtrack the American song form, mediated through their sound, through jazz.

On the Japanese invasion and its effects on Shanghai's music scene

The Japanese invasion gave Japan complete control over the city except for one area, and that was the concession, the colony, if you will, that was owned by Britain and America. Frenchtown, the French concession, was not really in that kind of relationship with Japan because by that time, Vichy France was under the thumb of the Nazis. Even though Japan and Germany were not formal allies at the time that Japan conquered Shanghai in 1937, still, Frenchtown was an area that Japan could take complete control of — and they did. And it was the locus of nightlife. So they shut it down, they shut down the jazz clubs, and they replaced them with their own vice zone, the Badlands, which was largely devoted to gambling and also to purveying this new drug called heroin.

On the popularity of nightlife on the eve of war

People were completely involved in dancing the night away. They wanted to dance to music that was exciting, they wanted to lose themselves in pleasure, and all of the industries that supported this ... pleasure, release, escape — it extended so much further than just dance and jazz, but dancing and jazz was at the heart of it.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A lot of talented jazz musicians in the 1930s couldn't buy a drink in the places they played. They were African-American musicians who created the music of their times but still had to live under the sting of segregation. Of course, unless they went somewhere else. Nicole Mones has written a new novel in which a classically trained Baltimore pianist named Thomas Greene is recruited to play jazz, a music that's new to him, in a new place. Not Harlem, or the South Side of Chicago, or even Paris, but Shanghai. He finds success but then World War II begins to grip Shanghai and the world. Nicole Mones's new novel is "Night in Shanghai." And Nicole Mones, who is the author of previous highly acclaimed novels, including "A Cup of Light," joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

NICOLE MONES: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: Is Thomas Greene real? Is he a composite? Is he apocryphal?

MONES: Well, of course, he's a fictional character. And the four main characters at the heart of this book: Thomas Greene, the woman he falls in love with; Song Yi Wa(ph); Lin Ming(ph), his friend and Song's brother; and then David Epstein, his musical partner during the last part of the book after the nightlife is destroyed by the Japanese invasion. Of course, he's fictional and these other three are fictional, but for me part of the excitement of writing this book is that they are the only characters who are fictional. All the minor characters really lived and all the events of the novel actually occurred.

SIMON: So, what did Thomas Greene and other African-American musicians find in Shanghai they didn't at home?

MONES: They got the respect that they had always deserved, that they always knew they deserved. On the surface, there was playing for an equal wage, and that's a kind of freedom, to be able to play on an equal stage. But you know something? These jazzmen did much more than just benefit from a well-deserved opportunity. They played a role in the city's modernization. Jazz was very modern. It was dissonant, it was syncopated, it was naughty. Even just to use lyrics about you and me and love, that went against the mores of the time. It was the equivalent of almost talking dirty. So, jazz left its stamp behind and broadened minds. And even more interesting - jazz was terrifying to the factions struggling for control of China from within China. Both the nationalists and the communists disapproved of jazz and feared it. They thought it would weaken people's resolve to fight off the invasion. And most Americans know, China did ban all Western music for about 30 years, starting in 1949. This is where it started.

SIMON: This sounds all together naive, but sometimes that can be the most serviceable question. How did the Japanese invasion change Shanghai, and the scene you're talking about?

MONES: The Japanese invasion gave Japan complete control over the city except for one area, and that was the concession, the colony, if you will, that was owned by Britain and America. The French concession, Frenchtown, was an area that Japan could take complete control of - and they did and it was the locus of nightlife. So, they shut it down, they shut down the jazz clubs, and they replaced them with their own vice zone, the Badlands, which was largely devoted to gambling and also to purveying this new drug called heroin. This was not an environment conducive to serious music, and also, after the invasion, many of the African-American musicians left.

SIMON: Without, of course, giving away anything, it must be noted when, you know, by the time the novel ends, lives have been, to say the least, shaken, stirred, turned upside down. China's gone off on one path. The world has gone off on its own sad slide. Let's have a party, everyone...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...if I summarized that correctly.

MONES: You have absolutely nailed one of the reasons that during the very painful - and in China frequently violent - ramp-up to World War II people were completely involved in dancing the night away. They wanted to dance to music that was exciting, they wanted to lose themselves in pleasure, and all of the industries that supported this - not just the ballrooms, which were all over the world, but special feature of industries related to that that were next to it in Shanghai would include brothels and gambling halls and opium dens - pleasure, release, escape. It extended so much further than just dance and jazz, but dancing and jazz was at the heart of it.

SIMON: Nicole Mones. Her new novel, "Night in Shanghai." Thanks so much for being with us.

MONES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.