Zhuozhou, China, 2002
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.
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
From article in the Jazz Buff, newsletter of the Palo
Alto Jazz Alliance, published April/May 2002.
PEARLS JAM with CHINESE OPERA on 3rd US-CHINA FRIENDSHIP TOUR
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
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
alto sax, with
tenor sax, with Saul Kaye, guitar
Stage in Tianjin
Photographer: Lori Eanes of San Francisco
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
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
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
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
||The Pearls with
US-China Friendship TourWHO: 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
California Band Returns from 2-Week, 11 Performance Tour of China
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.
CHINA TOUR: Narrative AccountAdapted with thanks from
the June/July issue of Jazz Buff, the newsletter of
the Palo Alto Jazz Alliance.
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
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
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,