Tokyo swing

The sound arrived during the war years, but Japan remains a paradise for jazz lovers, writes Steve McClure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 3:44pm

It's a weeknight and there's a full house at Tokyo jazz club b-Flat. The drinks are flowing, and people are letting their hair down after a busy day at work.

But you can hear a pin drop as veteran American jazzman Lew Tabackin coaxes delicate notes from his flute in the style of the Japanese shakuhachi. The last, fragile sound floats out of the instrument and the room erupts in applause: the jazz fans at b-Flat know quality when they hear it.

Respectful, loyal audiences are a big reason many jazz musicians keep coming back to Japan. Some have even made their home in the country. And although jazz may no longer enjoy the cachet it had when it was something new and foreign, the Japanese jazz scene is alive and well. Fans can enjoy jazz of every stripe and colour at clubs, bars, concerts and festivals, and albums by leading domestic jazz artists can sell up to 100,000 copies.

Japan has been in love with jazz since its heyday here in the 1950s and '60s. Its fans, free of the wartime xenophobia that lumped jazz in with other "harmful" foreign influences, eagerly embraced a musical idiom whose sense of freedom and soul matched the nation's optimism as it rose from the ashes to achieve its amazing economic miracle.

Record collectors, DJs and club people, [audiophiles], live music lovers [and] art music lovers
Hitoshi Namekata, head of classics and jazz, Universal Music Japan

"Jazz was very popular at that time, but its popularity has subsided as pop music has taken over," says Tokyo-based jazz trumpeter and bandleader Mike Price, a Chicago native who first came to Japan in 1976 as a member of Japanese-American pianist-composer Toshiko Akiyoshi's big band. "But there are still a lot of loyal fans, who enjoy jazz of all kinds."

Not a few Japanese got their first dose of jazz from the US armed forces' Far East Network radio station, or in the jazz clubs and bars that sprang up to cater to the US troops stationed at Japanese bases. It didn't take this quintessentially American music long to put down roots in Japan. It became cool for impecunious students and bohemian types to nurse a cup of espresso while listening to Miles, Duke and Mingus in the jazz kissa (coffee shops/bars) that sprang up in cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka.

The jazz kissa is an iconic image of postwar Japan. Haruki Murakami ran a jazz bar before becoming an internationally famous author, and he struck just the right period note in his novel Norwegian Wood by setting some of the its scenes in a jazz bar called New Dug, in Tokyo's gritty Shinjuku district.

Like any good jazz kissa, New Dug has an impressive collection of old and new albums, a great sound system and - most importantly - staff who live and breathe jazz. They love sharing their knowledge of the music with customers.

While there are a few holdout jazz kissa such as New Dug and Old Blind Cat (also in Shinjuku) still around, these days Japanese jazz fans' venues of choice tend towards upscale clubs such as Blue Note Tokyo and Billboard Live. They cater to a different kind of audience compared to hardcore jazz clubs such as b-Flat and Someday.

"Since the 1980s and '90s, many Japanese have become fans because they think jazz is fashionable," says Atsuko Yashima, executive producer of the annual Tokyo Jazz Festival. A night out at Blue Note Tokyo, the Cotton Club or Billboard Live can easily set a couple back by 30,000 yen (HK$2,300).

"Record collectors, DJs and club people, [audiophiles], live music lovers [and] art music lovers" comprise the Japanese fan base, says Hitoshi Namekata, head of classics and jazz at Universal Music Japan. The fans tend to be highly educated too, he says.

"Japanese jazz fans don't like mass-marketed products," says Tomoko Yurugi, co-ordinator of Billboard Live's international artist booking. "They appreciate 'mood'."

Acts that have recently played Billboard Live, located in Tokyo's infamous Roppongi nightlife district, include Larry Coryell, Darryl Jones and Omar Hakim. Yurugi says there's a growing trend for veteran Japanese pop singers such as Akira Fuse, Hiroshi Itsuki and Akiko Wada to get into jazz.

Purists might decry that trend, but it's all good as far as the well-dressed, well-heeled audiences sipping champagne cocktails at Billboard Live and similar venues are concerned. You'd never know that the Japanese economy is going through its second "lost decade" of stagnation.

Tokyo-based fan Bryan Harrell says he prefers smaller clubs to flashy, pricey nightspots. "My two favourite jazz places are b-Flat in Akasaka and Someday in Shinjuku," he says.

"They are fun, casual, about as cheap as they get, and have great music. Of the two, I prefer b-Flat because on one or two nights a month, there is no cover charge. They also have fairly good wine for 4,000 yen a bottle.

"Someday is a slightly larger place with a higher ceiling, and it's good for big-band shows."

Harrell notes that while clubs such as the Blue Note boast bigger-name acts, "the atmosphere is far more structured, and customers are moved in and out during set changes as though they are on the 'jazz ride' at Disneyland".

Although those high-end venues highlight well-known international jazz acts, they also play host to top local players nurtured by Japan's firmly rooted jazz culture. Sax player Sadao Watanabe, trumpeter Terumasa Hino and big-band leader Akiyoshi (who's based in New York) are just some examples.

Trumpeter Price says many younger Japanese musicians get into jazz because they want to explore the full potential of their instrument - rock and pop are just too limiting.

One Japanese jazzer who likes to push the musical envelope is pianist Hiromi Uehara, who performs under her given name only. She has an instantly recognisable style, featuring a dense flurry of notes and chords that recalls Art Tatum, one of her idols.

Uehara honed her chops at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where one of her teachers introduced her to veteran jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. Impressed by what he heard, Jamal put the young pianist in touch with US audiophile label 

Telarc, which released her debut album, Another Mind, in 2003. It won the Recording Industry Association of Japan's foreign jazz album of the year award (because Uehara was signed to an American label) after selling 100,000 copies - more than any other jazz album in Japan in 2003.

Uehara has since made a name for herself on the international jazz scene with her aggressive, but playful, style. In 2011 she shared the Grammy award for best contemporary jazz album as a member of the Stanley Clarke Band.

Another top-flight Japanese female pianist is Junko Onishi, who favours a dense, powerful style that appeals to fans of the hard bop idiom. Out on the avant-garde fringe is female sax player Sachi Hayasaka, whose uncompromisingly edgy music is not for the faint of heart.

Paul Fleisher, an American sax player now based in Osaka, sees a key difference between the jazz scenes in the US and Japan. "In the US, musicians are more inclined to experiment," he says. "Here in Japan, the music centres around Dixie, swing and post-bop."

"It's a small but friendly market," says Tokyo Jazz Festival's Yashima. The festival is anything but small, however. Billed as Japan's biggest jazz festival, it debuted in 2002 at a stadium in a western Tokyo suburb before eventually finding a home at the Tokyo International Forum in the heart of the capital. "We found that the stadium was too big for both the artists and fans," Yashima says, adding that her aim was to create a festival that represented Tokyo, with a sense of being connected to the local community.

Last year's edition of the festival attracted more than 30,000 people and featured artists such as Joe Sample, Bob James and Esperanza Spalding. This year the festival takes place from September 6-8, with acts such as David Sanborn, Steve Gadd and the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club on the bill.

Billboard Live's Yurugi says jazz is becoming more of a niche market in Japan. But a thriving live-music scene, steady CD sales and a plethora of homegrown talent still make Japan a jazz lover's paradise.

Must-visit jazz clubs in Tokyo



What this plain, unadorned venue (think school canteen) lacks in visual charm it more than makes up by showing veteran and upcoming jazz talent appealing to the dedicated fan - no "smooth" jazz here. The ambience is friendly and prices are low. Conveniently located in central Tokyo's Akasaka district.


Another pleasantly unpretentious, affordable club that scores high with fans and players alike. More spacious than b-Flat, Someday is a great place to enjoy big-band jazz. The venue, in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, recently hosted a big band festival featuring the Mike Price Orchestra playing the music of Gerald Wilson, among others.

Cotton Club

This room in the Marunouchi business district has a slicker, more upscale vibe than b-Flat and Someday - and the prices to match. However, the quality of the food and drink is noticeably higher. Performances here range from jazz to rock and pop, and aren't aimed at hardcore jazz purists, but the atmosphere is relaxed and fun.

Body & Soul

Another no-nonsense club that features top Japanese jazz talent. The club dates back to 1974, when owner Kyoko Seki opened the doors of the first Body & Soul in Shinjuku which soon became popular as a place for late-night jam sessions by jazz musicians touring Japan.

Blue Note Tokyo

A great place for a date (if you can afford it), the Blue Note has a more structured, "corporate" feel than the hardcore jazz clubs. The venue features crossover acts such as Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer as well as top jazz acts including the Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band.