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Shanghai Jazz: CoCo Zhao

IT’S 1940 IN GREENWICH VILLAGE. A follow spot cuts a tunnel through the smoky air of a hot little joint where the jazzers are about to get their fix. Lady Day takes the stage and that dulcet, fragile peal oozes and eases its way into the hepcats’ hearts. Except it isn’t 1940, smoking’s been banned indoors for years now, and the joint in question is actually the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre. And that voice is coming from CoCo Zhao, a rising jazz sensation in China and one of the country’s very few openly gay artists.

» EXPRESS: Where did “The Boy Billie Holiday” come from?
» ZHAO: My love for jazz began when I was a boy — 10 years old. I was listening to my parents’ albums and I heard Billie Holiday. I listened to her a lot. And when I started singing, I went back to that sound. When I traveled to Paris for the first time, I sang at a jazz club — what was it called? — Le Petit Monsieur. After the performance, the people who heard me said that I sounded like Billie Holiday. And they — I guess in France — started calling me the “boy” version.

» EXPRESS: You’re quickly becoming an icon in the jazz world.
» ZHAO: I don’t think I’m big at all. Every little life’s detail is in my music. When I feel like singing, I sing. It’s no more than that. I’m glad that people accept me and like my music for what it is.

» EXPRESS: Well, you have certainly carved a niche for your music and your unusual voice.
» ZHAO: That, I think, is the fun part. For this show, my band and I will play some Shanghai songs from the ’20s and ’30s, only translated into jazz. It will be a fusion of old Chinese music rearranged into completely new songs. The originals were destined for this, I think. It’s like how I met my band. My piano player was a classmate of mine, and my drummer is from Cleveland, Ohio. He came to visit China and we met. And he never left! I believe fate brought us together, and this opportunity.

» EXPRESS: What are the challenges you’ve encountered thus far?
» ZHAO: Well, I love jazz because it is spontaneous — like me, like all people. It is not popular music, but it is not about trying to become popular. I think that there is a challenge for artists, any artist. And for me, the challenge is with myself. I want to make more musical creations. Jazz, for me, is about learning how to dig them out.

» Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington; Sat., 8 p.m., $20; 800-551-7328. (Rosslyn)

Written by Express contributor Christopher Correa

Photo courtesy Li Meng Xia