Inside the many rehearsal rooms at Shih Chien University's department of music, international jazz professionals and local amateurs are warming up. Each room hosts a workshop that places emerging Taiwanese jazz musicians - or those interested in the genre - with seasoned professionals from Europe. Hsieh Chi-pin (謝啟彬), the man behind the Taipei International Jazz Festival and Summer Jazz Academy, sits on a small amplifier looking harried. "In the first year it was 75 students …, this year we have almost 95," he said.
But increasing participation in the festival isn't all that's keeping Hsieh busy. In the five years since returning to Taiwan from Brussels, he has lectured extensively on jazz history, brought Jazz Improvisation Ensemble Technique to the course-list at Shih Chien University, played to packed venues across the island and put out two CDs - most recently Mr. BeBu (Mr.比布), which was released Aug. 3 and is named after his son.
Hsieh helped form the Academy because of his own experience as a musician-in-training in Taiwan. "I come from a classical [music] background and I was looking for someone to teach me [John] Coltrane," Hsieh said, referring to one of his jazz heroes. But it was only after graduating from the Chinese Culture University that Hsieh could develop his passion for jazz.
It was then that he went to Belgium to study the genre at the Royal Conservatory of Music. In July 2002, after five years of study, he earned a masters degree and returned to Taiwan, where he has been publicizing jazz.
Part of this campaign is The Duo Project - a new album featuring him and his wife, Chang Kai-ya (張凱雅), and European jazz artists such as John Ruocco, Bart DeNolf and Pino Guarraci. This project incorporates traditional Taiwanese music styles into swing, bop, fusion, funk, and tango
"The compositions are ours," said Hsieh, but "we write about our influences - Belgium and Europe." Songs such as Chang's Ling Long Toy (玲瓏仔) and Hsieh's Penguin Trashcan (企鵝垃圾桶) draw on memories of growing up in southern Taiwan. "But we don't want to be pigeonholed as doing Taiwanese music by Taiwanese musicians," he said.
Avoiding this kind of label was accomplished by adding international performers to the lineup of musicians. Aside from Hsieh and Chang, all the musicians playing on the album are active on the European jazz scene and the work was recorded over a three-day period at a studio in Belgium.
As with many art traditions emanating from the West, jazz requires a core group of enthusiasts who are often educators, musicians or, in the case of Hsieh both, to survive and flourish.
"The idea is to let people see that if you want to learn jazz or play jazz better, there is a discipline or an education system. And we can provide that education system," he said.
Hsieh says that as students develop proficiency in jazz, audiences are sure to start paying attention. "When you use that kind of thing (education) and when you play on stage the audience will see you and say 'you guys are serious,' and you can start … to build up your fan [base] and the audience [will] come to your venues.
"If they know you are playing on a regular basis they won't come," he said. "But if they know it's a one-off concert, the venue will be packed."
It's a problem of which Tsai Huei-yang (蔡輝陽), owner of Blue Note, a jazz club located in Shida, is only too well aware. On a night last week, while a quartet played jazz standards, I asked if events like Hsieh's Taipei International Jazz Festival has increased his clientele. "It's remained pretty constant. But a lot more students are interested in playing at the club," Hsieh said.