Swinging Shanghai

On a recent night out in Shanghai, I found myself sandwiched between a busty, two-meter-tall, stiletto-heeled, Victorian-garbed transvestite and a dandy with a top hat singing Sinatra tunes atop a wooden bar. The crowd downed mojitos served in ceramic teapots. Showgirls' feathers flew.

A global economic downturn hasn't yet dampened the spirits of Shanghai's anachronistic jazz scene. In recent months the city's established venues have renovated, expanded or relocated to better digs, while a slew of opulent new clubs and regular performances provide fresh showcases for local and international talent.

One of the most simmering voices in town belongs to Heidi Krenn, an Austrian who studied with Sheila Jordan and Theo Bleckmann in New York on a Fulbright. At Cabaret, a lush Bund bar that opened in December, Krenn interprets the American songbook with alternating vulnerability and defiance; her sincerity and depth of expression radiate. The décor— plush purple curtains, funky light fixtures and buttery leather furniture—matches Krenn's sometimes sensual, sometimes playful mood.

At neighboring Lounge 18 (bund18.com), a lofty space filled with caged candles and Gothic chandeliers, the inimitable vocalist Coco Zhao presents his latest concept: the 4 Play set. Each week his trio— the cheekily named Ménage à Trois—plays with a new guest. Zhao says the gig provides a sneak peek of songs he'll record for album release this summer. Patrons nibble foie gras dumplings and sip ylang-ylang martinis and passion-fruit iced tea.

Not just nightclubs are in on the action. Twocities gallery (twocitiesgallery.com) regularly holds free "twocities in tune" concerts. The New York pianist Steve Sweeting achieves lyrical communion with Chinese artists like vocalist Jasmine Chen and violinist-composer Peng Fei; their music evokes the finest Chinese ink painting, where movement flows seamlessly in one direction. At a performance in late February, the threesome played original works and Brazilian bossa nova alongside jazz standards with Chen's Chinese lyrics. Audience members sipped complimentary wine and tea and smiled when they recognized jazz renderings of traditional Chinese folk songs.

One of the most anticipated new venues in town is Gosney & Kallman's Chinatown, set to open in late March. Norman Gosney, a nightclub designer who founded New York's Slipper Room and designed Area and Danceteria, and Amelia Kallman, an Oxford Shakespearean student turned showgirl, moved from New York to Shanghai in 2007 because "we could see the crash coming and were looking for a market that wasn't already exhausted," says Kallman. Gosney biked around the city for weeks before finding the couple's dream site: a 1930s Buddhist temple designed by a Japanese architect and embellished with Hindu elements. A live jazz band will open for an international troupe of burlesque dancers, and showgirls on stilts will sell gourmet hot dogs to customers in balcony seats. Gosney is the only developer I've ever heard refer to Shanghai's municipal officials as "darlings," but then again there's not much precedent for a foreigner taking over a historical building in China to put on a sexy show, either. Here's a teapot toast to that can-can spirit.