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The String of Pearls band plays big-band swing, cool jazz, upbeat songs, and dance music for all ages. Enjoy us live on the West Coast and on album wherever you are.

Zhuozhou, China, 2002
Photo by Lori Eanes of San Francisco

China Friendship Tours

The String of Pearls band has made three performing tours to China. Each began with a concert in the capital city, Beijing, and continued for two-three weeks to other parts of the country. All told, the Pearls have made 23 appearances in 9 cities, and appeared twice on Chinese television.

Our musical program for these tours displayed the rich tradition of American swing, popular song, and jazz. And because cultural exchange is a two-way street, we also included three Chinese numbers and invited Chinese musicians to perform with us.

These tours have been enthusiastically received by Chinese audiences. As cultural ambassadors, we worked to increase understanding and friendship between the world's most powerful nation (USA) and the world's most populous nation (China). Details of our three tours follow.

1) 2002 tour--Beijing, Tianjin, and Zhuozhou

2) 2001 tour--Beijing west up the Silk Road

3) 1999 tour--Beijing south to Henan Province

2002 US-China Friendship Tour

From article in the Jazz Buff, newsletter of the Palo Alto Jazz Alliance, published April/May 2002.


After two previous China tours, our String of Pearls band was prepared for surprises. But this was over the top: Fuse jazz with Chinese opera! That is, join a Peking Opera singer and traditional instrumentalists in performing an opera tune.

Gulp. It was the day before our band's much-advertised February 13 concert at Beijing's Ethnic Cultural Palace Theatre. There was no chart for the new piece--just an enthusiastic singer (the beautiful Li Hongmei) with a scratchy cassette tape of a different rendition.

We quickly figured out that the tune, "Susanqijie," was based on the Eb major pentatonic scale, with occasional added notes. But we would not encounter the Chinese instrumentalists until the dress rehearsal next day.

Overnight, Pearls leader Don Conway devised a workable roadmap. The Chinese musicians would launch the piece and establish the tempo. Our rhythm section would join in, adding a latin pulse. Then, one by one, our guitarist, each of the four horns, and vocalist Connie Anne (scatting) would improvise solos. Finally, the entire ensemble, Chinese and American, would support the opera singer in her reprise.

The plan was cheerfully adopted by the Chinese musicians, now including a woman with a traditional jinghu (a 2-string violin) and man with danpi (drum) and gong. Our improv East-West ensemble rehearsed the number once through, and performed that evening for an audience of about 2000. Only time will tell where the musical handshake of that evening will lead!

When String of Pearls launched our "US-China Friendship Tours" in 1999, we imagined ourselves as musical ambassadors, taking jazz, swing, and the Great American Songbook to long-isolated China. However, we soon realized that diplomacy is a two-way street.

To our program of core Western numbers like "Two O'Clock Jump," "Oy Como Va," and "I've Got the World on a String," we added two popular Chinese ballads: one to be sung by local talent, and the other by Connie Anne in recently acquired Mandarin Chinese. And for our next-to-last number, we inserted the Chinese patriotic anthem, "Da Zhongguo" (Great China), which never failed to inspire rhythmic clapping on 1 and 3. The Chinese inclusions were hugely appreciated by our audiences not only for their intrinsic popularity, but also as recognition that they too bring something of value to the musical conversation.

The String of Pearls musicians continued in that spirit throughout our three-week, seven-performance tour. A talented and adventurous group, the touring Pearls were--in addition to Don Conway (alto sax, and vocals) and Connie Anne (vocals and piano): 1991 tour veterans Saul Kaye (guitar) and Adam Goodhue (drums); plus newcomers Lance Goerner (trumpet), Gary Flores (tenor sax), Rob Ewing (trombone), and Alex Smith (bass).

When not concertizing, Pearls musicians jammed with Beijing's leading jazz trio and with a Colombian salsa group, acquired Chinese instruments and recordings, and exchanged e-mail addresses with musicians and music students wherever we went.

Our Chinese hosts treated our concerts as important cultural events. In Tianjin, the show was delayed until the mayor and his entourage got there. In Zhuozhou, we were greeted by the cultural commissar. Apparently, that small city had never before been visited by an American band. Word on the street: "They can't be REAL Americans." Well, we were, and a joy and privilege it was. []

By Connie Anne Conway

Photos From 2002 tour
China 2002
Don Conway,
alto sax, with
Alex Smith,
double bass
Connie Anne,
Gary Flores,
tenor sax, with Saul Kaye, guitar
Rob Ewing,
trombone, with
Adam Goodhue,
Adam Goodhue,
Gary Flores,
tenor sax
Rob Ewing,
Alex Smith,
double bass
On Stage in Tianjin

Photographer: Lori Eanes of San Francisco


2001 US-China Friendship Tour

The following account of our second China tour was shared with the on-line chat group of the Palo Alto Jazz Alliance, June 25, 2001.

String of Pearls Hits the Silk Road

Don Conway's octet, String of Pearls, took swing and jazz deep into China this spring. Locals said that our Palo-Alto based group was the first American band to venture up the Silk Road.

The 2001 China Musical Friendship Tour began in Beijing, where String of Pearls, including tenor saxman Walter Cross, had earlier won fans (Jazz Buff, June/July 1999). We opened our second tour May 19 with a corporate private party, followed the next two evenings by a public concert and a national television (CCTV) appearance.

We were delighted to be back in China's capital, with its great food, historic architecture, and palpable energy. Our great adventure, though, lay to the east, more than 24 hours by train, in the Yellow River valley and Gobi oases of Gansu province.

There the String of Pearls eight were greeted and treated like the biggest thing since Marco Polo. Our arrival in the provincial capital of Lanzhou was a front-page story. A large photo and article on our concert made the next day's front page. And a photo spread filled a half-page the following day.

Our Silk Road hosts pulled out all the stops. Each of the four Gansu province shows (Lanzhou, Zhangye, Jiuquan, and Jaiyuguan) was a major production, complete with synchronized lights, smoke, and follow spots. Posters announcing our concerts were everywhere. And in Zhangye, a sound truck cruised the city literally drumming up (with a Chinese drum!) interest.

The crowds (averaging 2000 strong) were controlled by ranks of local soldiery. In Jiuquan, though, the excitement infected even the young soldiers, who ripped off their belts--not to discipline the crowd, but to get autographs for themselves (the belt interior being the best writing surface they could muster)!

The youth of our audiences created a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate and teach the new generation about jazz. "Jazz," in China, seems to be perceived as a style, rather than a creative process. We showed jazz in action through solo breaks in many numbers, and most clearly in a climactic round of blues-based improv-including drum "fours"-on "Two O'Clock Jump."

The Pearls-most of whom have teaching experience-also welcomed opportunities to preach the jazz gospel to newspaper reporters, high school journalists, aspiring musicians, and students at a high school in Jiayuguan.

We had performed in the oasis city the previous evening to a crowd of excited teens chanting "I love you." Some 300, it turned out, were students at the city's leading high school. Invited to visit by the principal, we held a seminar with advanced English students, visited classes, and presented an assembly program.

Picture, if you can, an auditorium full of happy Chinese youths, one side clapping the first X .. X .. X. of the clave beat, completed on the other side of the aisle with ..X..X.. Pearls guitarist Saul Kaye, trumpeter Charles Ferris, and drummer Adam Goodhue really had the kids going!

Our cultural sharing was not, however, one way. Aware that to China, the U.S.A. can seem arrogant and "bullying," we went the extra mile. In addition to swing, jazz, and latin tunes, we included four numbers beloved by Chinese. One popular tune showcased each town's favorite local singer. Another featured our talent agent, Jing Qiu Song, on violin. Yours truly sang a ballad in Mandarin Chinese--a feat that took months of study but was hugely applauded. And for our finale, we played a patriotic anthem, "Great China" (Da Zhongguo), which invariably had the audience clapping and singing along.

Only once were we asked about the then-recent airplane collision of a Chinese fighter and American spy plane. Don crafted a thoughtful response, expressing regret but avoiding the blame game. Our interpreter listened politely, and supplied a surprisingly brief reply in Chinese. Later, trombonist Scott Harris--a veteran of Eastern Europe cultural exchanges--asked about it. The translator explained that he had simply replied, "We are musicians, not politicians." Just so! Perhaps our friendly faces, diversity of age and race, and the fact that we were there at all, was the best message.

We hope we also planted some musical seeds. Minimally, some 12,000 curious concertgoers experienced the joy of swing and jazz. Several musicians sought us out for ideas and instruction. Our bassist Mickey McPhillips brought special strings and instruction material to a Chinese bass player who had been in touch. And at our last stop, the Jaiyuguan high school, we left a complete set (the backup copies) of our music charts. One of those students has already e-mailed Saul.

Just maybe--7000-plus miles across the Pacific and up the Silk Road--some 21st century Chinese youths are beginning to explore the creative process that is jazz.

By Connie Anne Conway, June 24, 2001

Photos from May/June 2001 tour
Photographer: Daune Conway Spritzer

  The Pearls with Jaiyuguan High-schoolers


1999 US-China Friendship Tour

Fact Sheet
Narrative account

California Band Returns from 2-Week, 11 Performance Tour of China

WHO: Eight swing/jazz musicians from the greater Bay Area, led by String of Pearls principals Don Conway (leader, alto sax, and vocals) and Connie Anne Conway (piano, vocals) of Palo Alto.

WHAT: Cultural exchange performing tour, featuring USA swing, jazz (USA and latin), and vocals. Also, as goodwill gesture, included two Chinese numbers (notably the very popular "China"), and performed with Chinese musicians.

WHEN: First performance in China was March 6, 1999; final March 17. (Departed U.S. March 4; returned late March 18.)

WHERE: Beijing (national capitol), Zhengzhou (capitol of Henan province), LuoHe (Henan province), and Beijing again.

SPONSORS: Beijing Jin Li Cultural Development Center; Beijing International Cultural Exchange Agency; and Central China International Cultural Corporation.


a) Concert for audience of 1700 in largest hall in Zhengzhou and Henan province. Many students in audience. Mobbed on stage at the end by eager autograph-seekers. (March 12)

b) Concert in Beijing attended by director of Beijing International Jazz Festival and staff from U.S. embassy, among others. (March 16)

MEDIA COVERAGE: Reported in Beijing and Henan newspapers. Also interviewed and/or filmed by China One national television, Hong Kong Phoenix TV, and Henan province TV.


1999 CHINA TOUR: Narrative Account

Adapted with thanks from the June/July issue of Jazz Buff, the newsletter of
the Palo Alto Jazz Alliance.

Chinese "Jazzed" by Palo Alto band:
String of Pearls tour breaks new ground

By Connie Anne Conway

We were on stage in Zhengzhou midway through our two-week tour of mainland China when it happened. As leader Don Conway hit the last note of our encore, a youth darted toward us from stage left. Suddenly, a mob of autograph seekers erupted from the audience of 1700.

In no time the eight musicians of String of Pearls were engulfed by good-natured but insistent fans. All manner of papers were thrust before us—printed programs, music scores, address books, memo pads, calendars—each covering the one beneath it faster than we could sign.

The flood of fleet-footed youngsters was followed by parents with their precious (one-to-a-family), jet-eyed children. A word and a smile from us were received as gratefully as from, say, an astronaut or foreign statesman. Clearly, China was ready for swing and jazz! . . .

The question naturally arises: What attracted our California jazz/swing group? String of Pearls became interested in China through several performances within the local Chinese-American community. "Discovered" at the 1995 Palo Alto Concours d’Elegance by Michael Shen the Redwood City Infinity dealer and San Francisco Jazz Society patron we played first for Shen showroom events and then for more intimate family affairs. Other insider gigs included a Chinese New Year Celebration at the Rincon Center in San Francisco and the Hong Kong Back-to-China celebration at the University of California Berkeley.

Increasingly at home in the culture and intrigued by the prospect of huge and receptive new audiences, we signaled our interest to the cultural consul of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. Within a month (September 1998), an invitation from Beijing arrived by fax.

Six of our band’s eight regular members were able to make the two-week tour: Walter Cross (tenor sax), Wilson Winner (bone), Jim Witzel (guitar), Vern Holme (bass), Don (alto sax and vocals), and myself (piano and vocals). For the two empty chairs we recruited young Turks with great chops and the requisite wanderlust: Josh Schneck (trumpet) of San Francisco and Matt Vander Ende (drummer) of Oakland. Come March 4, ten of us 8 musicians and 2 spouses were airborne.

Spurning advice to stick to Western-named venues and hotels, we stayed exclusively at Chinese hotels and played for predominately Chinese audiences. We also interacted with aspiring local musicians, shared the stage with Chinese acts, and added a popular Chinese tune ("China") to our repertoire. We, and this tune, became the much-cheered grand finale of every show.

Interest in the String of Pearls tour was tremendous. At our first appearance (the Xin Xing Hotel in Beijing), we were interviewed on stage by Hong Kong Phoenix television. Henan province TV showed up for the above-described Zhengzhou concert. Our last concert hall appearance, in Beijing, was filmed by China One TV. Stories also appeared in the press. And everyone from railroad diner attendants to government elders seemed to want to be photographed with us. . . .

Then, there were the audiences--wonderful audiences. Everything we played in our 11 performances, from "Two O’Clock Jump" to "Oye Como Va" to Joe Zawinul’s "Birdland," seemed to work. Local musicians sought us out to ask, "How can I learn jazz?" . . .

Let me end with the encounter that touched me most:

It was our last evening in China, a sing-for-your-supper gig in Beijing’s Song He Hotel, and we were jamming on such Duke Ellington classics as "It Don’t Mean a Thing," "Just Squeeze Me," and "In a Sentimental Mood." At intermission, an 83-year-old couple, faces radiant with joy, approached. Seizing my hand in both of hers, the woman said over and over in rusty English that we made them wonderfully happy. I realized later, counting back the years, that our music must have brought back their youth before the War and the descent of the Bamboo Curtain. We made them feel young again.

We felt pretty terrific, ourselves. To be performing in the world’s most populous country at that brief moment in its history when jazz represents both a renaissance and the wave of the future, was awesome. The gate, we are happy to report, is open.

Photos from 1999 tour

Photo by John Sheretz of Palo Alto
 Click image to view larger image.

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