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Jazz In Japan

In 1933 the first jazz cafe opened in Japan, and in a context of progressive openness towards the West, jazz has continued to infiltrate the big cities. Today, Japan has one of the most thriving Jazz communities in the world.

To some, ‘Jazz’ and ‘Japan’ may not be two words that you would associate together all too often, however like many corners of the world, jazz is comprehensively accepted as an important art form within their society. The Japanese are both passionate listeners and performers of jazz; The early mass appeal of jazz in Japan gave rise to a number of diligent jazz musicians, in particular Ryoichi Hattori and Koichi Sugii, two composers who created a distinctive kind of Japanese jazz music that set a precedent. Over the decades the genre has continued to evolve to become a revered and valued music form, particularly in places like Osaka and Tokyo. That enthusiasm has become transatlantic, and a Japanese owner now runs the most famous jazz club in the world, the Blue Note in New York.

Identifying the exact origin of the emergence of jazz in Japan is not that straightforward. The increasing number of Japanese citizens traveling to the United States had its role to play, as did overseas trips of both Americans and Filipino jazz bands, with their travels exposing them to this new style, a musical mix of African and American cultures – what the Japanese would call ‘Black music’. American military presence also played a big part, allowing jazz to grow and prosper in cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, and perhaps most pertinently, in Osaka. The city is still at the heart of the movement, nicknamed the “Japanese jazz mecca” by Ryichi Hattori.

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When planning our trip to Japan and Osaka we were looking forward to the record stores and live venues, but the most enjoyable part of experiencing Jazz in Japan was in its bars. More like music library’s than bars, ‘Jazz Bird’ located in the mythical “Jazz Building of Osaka” was a fine example of this.

Nattori-san is the owner – he’s been collecting records and solely running the place for 43 years, rarely ever taking a day off, spending his days with his family and his nights behind the bar, drinking, smoking and talking jazz. Maybe an unhealthy lifestyle for some but he looks a lot younger than many other 72 -year olds.

Having got to Jazz Bird quite late on in the evening there was no one else in there – however there was a cool, quaint atmosphere, and despite the fact we were in complete unknown territory, there was a naturally warm, laid-back air about the place, with an immediate feeling of comfort. While selecting his next record Nattori-san welcomed us in; on came Lionel Hampton’s ‘Buzzing Around Wit The Bee’ and, we slotted seamlessly on our seats next to the bar, embracing and enjoying our first jazz experience in Japan.

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A lack of Japanese on our part didn’t stop Nattori and us enjoying a good conversation, especially when I showed him some of my purchases earlier that day from Bamboo Music, including a favourite recording of his, Cecil Taylor live in Tokyo, 1972. Talking jazz and drinking Japanese whisky with Nattori-san was one of the most enjoyable evenings we spent in Japan, and he fittingly ended with the classic, Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus.

If you’re in Osaka and looking for high quality Jazz records then head straight to Bamboo Music, I picked up some really nice pieces there, especially in the Japanese Jazz section. The wealth of music and history of the genre in that small room is incredible, and the owners’ obvious knowledge and jazz sensibility accumulates in carefully considered stock, making for a very enjoyable afternoon of digging and listening.

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Onto the city of Tokyo and having done our research on the Tokyo Jazz Site we found a very local and special hidden gem in JBS (Jazz, Blues, Soul). Tucked away in the backstreets and up on the 3rd floor you would be forgiven for walking straight past without ever knowing it was there.

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There’s a beautiful simplicity about JBS , owner Kobayashi-san has more than 15,000 records in his tiny bar with no other decor, except the wonderfully sounding handmade speakers. I’d never seen such a personal collection up close before and the thought of how many amazing pieces of music I was surrounded by was quite staggering, sured up by the great George Benson ‘Bad Benson’ LP playing as we strolled in.

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Kobayashi-san, in his early 60’s was a quiet man with a deep knowledge and diligent passion of “Black Music”. He’s written frequently in magazines and journals about the history and sociological impact of Black Music on America and the world. Behind the bar are books with titles like “African-American Slang Dictionary”, “Hip-Hop Beats” and “The Death of Rhythm & Blues” alongside all the jazz disk guides.

JBS is simply a place that is about one thing only: music. You lose a sense of time in there. As we sat and watched Kobayashi put on another great Herbie Hancock album, ‘Cantaloupe Island’, a collaboration with the legendary trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, People just came along, listening to one great album after another.

For this JBS is a music library. Theres no bar, just a few bottles of good whisky and a few cold beers, every drink costs the same and you get access to an incredible collection. In the loud streets of Shibuya JBS was a true place of music sanctuary; one visit simply wasn’t enough.