Filipinos and all that jazz
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Filipinos and all that jazz

The fascinating story of how musicians from the country spread the genre throughout Asia has still to be fully told

Filipinos and all that jazz

There's a famous photograph of HM the King playing jazz with a band of enthusiastic musicians. It is from 1963 when His Majesty held regular jam sessions with locally-based and visiting musicians. Perhaps the most famous jazz photo is the one that features Benny Goodman, the clarinet-playing American bandleader, but in the 1963 photo, His Majesty is playing with two Filipino jazz musicians: Angel Pena on upright bass and Bert del Rosario on piano.

I mention these two because musicians from the Philippines were crucial in the spread and development of jazz in Asia, right from the early days of jazz to the present day. And in Thailand, Filipino musicians not only brought Western-style music — two Filipino musicians were part of the first Western-style orchestra formed in Thailand by the Fine Arts Department. Some of them, like bandleader Vic Luna, stayed to run their own big bands in Bangkok (his son Rusty carried on the work as a bass player).

The photograph of those musicians jamming with Thailand's most famous jazz player is just one gem from a fascinating book on jazz, Pinoy Jazz Traditions (Anvil Publishing, 2004) by musician and writer Ritchie C. Quirino, which I've been trying to get my hands on for a decade. The book includes over 100 rare photographs of Filipino jazz musicians.

The book is divided into three sections. "A Taste Of Honey", which traces the beginning of the development of jazz in the Philippines from 1898 when the Americans took over the administration of the country to 1946 when the country gained independence; "Pinoy Jazz Photo Chest" which features photos and artwork; and "One-On-One Interviews", which profiles the major artists and their work.

Academic Stephen Jones's work on the development of popular music in China has given a tantalising snapshot of how jazz was formed in Shanghai during the years when the country was under foreign control. During the early years of jazz, and especially during the 1920s, some 500 jazz clubs existed in Shanghai and many musicians who played in them were Filipinos. They took jazz back to Manila where a bustling music scene was developing, as described by musician Nick Joaquin.

"Filipino jazz bands … spread jazz to other capitals of Southeast Asia … It was our top bands and variety stars who brought jazz all over Asia — Hong Kong, Shanghai, to Tokyo and Harbin, to Singapore and Surabaya. Even the liners that crossed the Pacific moved to the ragtime of Philippines jazz bands," said Joaquin. There is a short section on Shanghai, which describes some of the key players in the city at that time, like the African-American jazz player Buck Clayton; the party would last there until Mao's Red Army marched into the city in 1949, leading to a mass exodus by among others all the Filipinos, like Toots Dila the trombonist from the Shanghai Swing Masters and White Russian jazz musicians.

This section also profiles some of the great Filipino musicians who made a name for themselves, like composer and bandleader Federico Elizalde, who was originally from South America but ended up being a famous bandleader and composer in Britain where he regularly played at the Savoy in London with his band, which led to the popular recording Fred Elizalde's Band At The Savoy. Also in this section is a chapter on the Big Bands of the 1930s, which again were influential on the music scenes in Southeast Asia.

The history section ends with a short article on the history of Filipinos in Louisiana and New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz music.

Documented history indicates that two important Filipino communities existed in the early 19th century at the Manila Village and St Malo Village. It is tantalising to consider that Filipinos may have witnessed the birth of jazz in Louisiana. I hope more research is conducted into these communities so that we can build a more detailed picture about the early days of jazz and some of the less well known communities that may have been part of its early development.

The book has answered many of the questions I had on the role of Filipino musicians in the early days of jazz in Asia but we need to know more. The author should be praised for this ground-breaking book.

The Author's Note in the front of the book mentions that Pinoy Jazz Traditions is an abridged version of an original manuscript, The History Of Jazz In The Philippines, and that budgetary constraints led to the publication of the former. Quirino says that he wishes to see the full history published some day and I would second that. In the story of jazz music and its development in Asia, Filipino musicians have played a key role, from the early days of the genre in the late 19th century right up to the present. It's a story that really should be told.

World Beat pays tribute to the life and work of blues legend BB King following news of his death last week. One of the last great legends of the 50s boom in R&B, the singer and master guitarist — with that unmistakable single bended note (you always know when it's BB King playing), that sobbing pitch from his guitar which he called Lucille — was a major influence on the development of not only blues guitar but also rock guitarists of the 60s and 70s. RIP BB King.

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