You’ve probably never seen a concert by Black Cat Band (黑貓樂團), and that’s probably a good thing because the outfit specializes in funeral music.
Founded in 1936, Black Cat Band is the oldest Western-style big band in Taiwan, as well as the first resort for bereaved families in its native Yunlin County. Despite its fame in the region, recruiting new blood has only gotten harder and harder. “Kids these days just don’t want to play in a funeral band,” said community chief Lin Wu-wen (林武文), who manages the shrinking ensemble.
Enter Cheng-yu Lee (李承育), a thirty-something jazz musician from Taipei.
Earlier this year, Lee was commissioned by the Yunlin County Government to live with Black Cat Band in the Haishali (孩沙里) community for a month. His mission: To teach a few jazz tunes and bring some youth appeal to a band made up mostly of elderly farmers’ wives. While Black Cat’s manager Lin was on board with the government project, half the members were not — just 15 signed up for rehearsals.
“Some of the musicians had been performing for 40 years. Learning [jazz] was something they didn’t want and certainly didn’t need,” said Lee to the Taipei Times.
Lee, an engineer-turned-saxophonist, directs the Taipei Jazz Orchestra in his home city of Taipei. For this urbanite, Black Cat Band was like nothing he had seen before.
“I had been taught that the instrument is so important and that protecting the instrument is so important. The very first day, an aunty came into rehearsal with her instrument in a grocery bag,” he said.
“I thought, ‘Oh. Okay. That’s okay. It works,’” he said.
Lee also noticed differences that were tougher for him to reconcile. He pulled out a metronome during rehearsal, but its ticking irritated the ensemble. When he stopped conducting to correct a pitch, members said they always played their marches through to the end.
“After the first rehearsal, I was so frustrated. I also found out that most members cannot read sheet music,” Lee said.
Lee chose three pieces for the band: Louis Armstrong’s Hello Dolly and When the Saints Go Marching In, plus Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man. After Black Cat Band balked at learning to read music on a stave, Lee went home and notated the scores in simplified form. During rehearsal, he played recordings — his favorites of Hello Dolly and jazz standards — and eventually won their interest.
“I thought about it. At first, I wanted to change the way they read music,” he said.
“But everything goes back to the basic, ‘Do I like this music? If I liked it and wanted to perform it, then I would be willing to learn it.’”
Lee’s residency is over, but band manager Lin says that the transition from dirges to jazz will continue, as he works on finding the band new gigs.
“It will take time,” said Lin.
“Slowly, though, some in this generation will change, and they will show the next generation that learning an instrument is not only good for playing at funerals,” he said.