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U.S. military radio provided the spark that led to a career, and a new Hanoi club.
HANOI, Vietnam — For many visitors new to Hanoi’s Old Quarter, stumbling upon Minh’s Jazz Club is so unlikely it is almost as if it were fated. This section of the city is a maze of wrecked, meandering roads and narrow French colonial buildings where the streets retain the names of the wares they offer and the families who have lived there for hundreds of years.
The location of the jazz club is an unlikely intersection of Hang Ma, where they sell spirit money and incense, and Hang May, the place to buy bamboo and rattan furniture.
For club-goers, though, none of that matters as the smog-stained red and orange sunset slips away into dusk because the shops will be closing, and the only sounds will be the drone of motorbikes and tendrils of smoky horn melodies wafting from a softly lit bar.
Quyen Van Minh runs the place. He is easy to spot with his black-and-silver ponytail and jazzman’s goatee lounging in the corner smoking his trademark Marlboro Lights through a wooden filter. For Vietnam’s first jazz star and one of the most eminent musicians in Hanoi, he plays it cool — a grainy nostalgic cool that fell out of favor in American jazz circles decades ago with the advent of rock and roll music.
The cultural changes that brought about jazz music’s decline from mainstream popularity in the West were in part propagated by the same war that exposed Minh to his music. Ask him how he developed his love for jazz, and his story begins with the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, the “American War.”
“It was music for the U.S. soldiers. I used to listen to it on the radio in secret,” Minh says.
In 1968, Minh, then 12 years old, listened to the BBC and American broadcasting stations on a small Chinese-made transistor radio. It was the height of Operation Rolling Thunder, when the American military tried to make good on former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay’s famous promise to bomb the North “back into the Stone Age.”
As the U.S. dropped bombs on his city, U.S. military radio stations played Charlie Parker, big band swing, and jazz singers. While history’s narrative of the time focuses on the war, Minh’s personal narrative centers around the beginning of his love for jazz, a love that continues passionately today as he tries to develop the jazz music scene in Vietnam.
“When I listened, I tried to remember the songs and play them back on my clarinet. I took notes, wrote down phrases, but I wasn’t fast enough, and soon the songs were gone,” Minh says.