TOKYO — Jazz musicians have often been called “swinging cats.” But Jiken Miyazaki, founder of CafÃ© Samurai, takes it literally. His “jazz kissaten” (coffee shop) is crammed with 5,000 varied maneki neko, traditional lucky statuettes of a smiling feline with a beckoning upraised paw.
“These cats and the music I play have a common spirit of playfulness and welcome,” explains Mr. Miyazaki, a 58-year-old with an untrimmed gray beard who for 29 years has presided over this walk-up refuge from the garish lights of the Shinjuku district. It’s a shrine to jazz, complete with prayer flags, Buddhist scrolls and a “mourning wall” that displays record albums by musicians who have recently died — part of Mr. Miyazaki’s personal collection of more than 3,000 vinyl LPs, the heart of the establishment.
If jazz is America’s gift to the world, Japan is the place that knows how to unwrap it. While serious musicians and devotees fret that traditional, noncommercialized improvisation is becoming as esoteric a taste as it is in the land of its birth, jazz in all its forms still pulses through Tokyo. Sixty years after this vibrant U.S. export began to take hold, it’s piped into hotel lobbies as a marker of elegance and sophistication, blasted from dingy basement dives in unlikely neighborhoods, spun by club DJs and obsessional bar owners and hawked in innumerable specialty record shops. In Tokyo you can hear jazz of stunning, nearly offhand virtuosity played in clubs that range from among the world’s smallest to among its most expensive.
In the words of James Catchpole, a transplanted Brooklyn native who operates the lovingly researched Web site www.tokyojazzsite.com and is planning to catalog the jazz coffee shops in a book, “While New York is the place to go for jazz musicians, when it comes to jazz fans, it just doesn’t get any better than Tokyo.”
The city’s jazz-capital status owes a lot to these coffee shops, unique transcultural institutions — sometimes called kissa for short — that were once ubiquitous throughout the country. Many would qualify as historical monuments by now. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, when American culture was flooding into the country and most Japanese did not have their own record collections or home stereos, these gathering places started by jazz lovers helped to educate a whole generation, including musicians in the making. In many, purchasing a single cup of java brought the privilege of asking owners to spin the latest or more obscure recordings.
“Those places were like our conservatories — all we needed was a bowl of ramen and a request card,” says 66-year-old trumpet great Terumasa Hino, who has returned home after decades in New York.
“Once we served green tea and such, now we added alcohol, but the main draw is still the music and the sound system,” says Yuh Orito, who for 32 years has run the Milestone Jazz Cafe on a corner near Waseda University. Like many, he now sells mint-condition albums and jazz books on the side, but is most devoted to keeping his loyal clientele happy with the selection of coffee and music.
“I have been honored to serve as a cultural gatekeeper,” he says. “I’ll be here every day until my death because I have learned the meaning of true happiness.”
CafÃ© Samurai’s Mr. Miyazaki similarly asserts the power of jazz. “For the price of a drink, people — especially women of late — can come to think deeply about their lives, in a safe place that’s a lot more fun than a library.”
And it seems it was the same for a woman who these days is referred to simply as Masako-san, late founder of the cozy tin-roofed kissa that bears her name. Now in its final days in its original location — a hop out of town but close to a suburban subway stop, in an area once near a U.S. military base — Masako is renowned as a locus of early jazz culture. And while Masako-san died 24 years ago, she remains present in spirit, as well as in portraits and photos that show her beaming beside visiting jazz idols.
“She was a dancer who learned to love the music,” says the shop’s current proprietor, Fukushima Nobuyoshi, 73. “She went to every concert for autographs and became good friends with greats like (the late pianist) Mal Waldron.” Now Mr. Nobuyoshi carries on “this original Japanese invention” with the same reverence. As long as they’re getting a refill every two hours, patrons can enjoy the home atmosphere of cushioned benches, low wooden tables and more than 5,000 CDs and albums.
Narushisu (Narcissus), a shrine to “free jazz” both recorded and live, sits in an unlikely spot, an upper floor in the Kabukicho area, that center for bawdy youth culture and strutting sex workers. For Yuko Kawashima, 65, carrying on the business begun by her mother, no artist is too wild, squawking or obscure to be celebrated. This does not make for large crowds. A long, curved wooden bar dominates this cubbyhole, along with the fierce and sometimes lonely devotion of the proprietor.
If real live swingers are more to your liking, another long-running institution in the Japanese capital is the bar built around weekend jam sessions, open to the public and often going nonstop until 5 a.m., when the subways reopen after taking the night off.
Assuming you can find a place among the six or so tables at Jazz Spot Intro in the college area of Takadanobaba (just getting the basement door open is a challenge, given how many people pack in) you’ll be able to get close indeed to the music: ever-rotating explorations of jazz standards by haphazardly teamed groups of musicians honing their chops out of pure love.
Owner Kuni Mogushi, bald-domed and ever-grinning, likes to point out the lawyers and salarymen who join the music majors on the bandstand. But the quality, and sincerity, of the playing is generally so high that it’s hard to tell them apart. And when one wavering young balladeer blanks out entirely on the lyrics to “My Funny Valentine,” the audience helps her along in harmonious unison. “As you can see, the spirit of this music is thriving,” says Mr. Mogushi, 58. “It’s in our souls as well.”
At Miles’ Cafe in the slightly seedy Ikebukuro district, trumpeter Miles Kobayashi — who renamed himself after Miles Davis, naturally — coolly presides over two ample floors of constant action. The dark lower floor hosts jazz-related “funk” sessions, packed on weekends, that showcase a young generation of Japanese who are not only adept at imitating American dance beats but can have spontaneous fun with it. Upstairs, the space is often reserved for as many as three sessions a night of Mr. Kobayashi’s classes for beginners — where almost anyone can sit in, and anyone can have a listen.
One night’s sampling includes a tap-dancer and assorted trombonists and bassists who have come to Tokyo to hone their craft from high schools all around the country, and even army bands. Impressive young pianist Saori Nishikubo, 24, says he was drawn away from classical training by music “more flexible and expressive.” Jazz, says Kazuya Takeda, 30, an amateur swing violinist from Kochi Prefecture, “has this engine that makes it universal.”
Mr. Kobayashi himself, a self-described “world citizen” just back from a trip to Manhattan, says he plans to repeat his formula with a Miles’ Cafe in America and then Europe. But he may not find as many faithful adherents as right here, where, he says, “people tend to be very diligent.”
Beyond the bright lights of Tokyo’s center, a number of outlying communities can make “jazz town” claims. The most prominent is Yokohama, always in the forefront of foreign influences as Japan’s premier port, and still host to numerous venues. One is simply called Eric Dolphy, after the great American saxophone and clarinet player who died tragically young in 1964.
Another is the Tokyo suburb of Kichioji, along the Chuo railway line — called “the main artery of creative people” around Tokyo by Yoko Une, manager of the Kichioji club Sometime.
Even on a quiet weeknight, there are outstanding acts at her club, another legendary place to down a bowl of spaghetti to brilliant accompaniment. In a break between hour-long sets, sensitive sax man Tatsuya Sato, 51, and guitarist Haru Takeuchi, 54, a former New York sideman to Wayne Shorter, Stanley Turrentine and others, call their music “beyond category” (other than “made in Japan” — and they do describe their just-finished duet as a “Samurai duel”).
At the other end of the Kichioji’s small main street is Aketa No Mise (The Open Store), the minuscule but hopping purview of Shoji Aketagawa, a jazz master and album producer since 1974 whose peculiar specialty is the ocarina, the tiny terra-cotta recorder. Mr. Aketagawa not only solos on the instrument, he also teaches how to make it.
It’s quite a contrast to Tokyo’s Blue Note, a slick showcase with perfect lighting and sound systems that’s halfway between a concert hall and a dinner house. Far larger than the New York club of the same name, it’s also far more expensive, with cover charges that stretch from $70 to $170, not including drinks, for performers who run the spectrum from Latin and Brazilian to a few old-time local luminaries. The Blue Note doesn’t mind being known as the world’s most expensive place to partake of jazz, a musical form of the humblest origins (its roots supposedly lie in New Orleans funeral homes and brothels).
Just a few blocks separate the Blue Note from Body and Soul, a pleasant square room with two long bars, where the music is barely three meters from any drinker and, under the patronage of owner Kyoko Seki for the past 35 years, some of the finest and most serious Japanese musicians regularly pass through.
One caution for hard-core jazzophiles: Japanese musical taste tends to favor the soft, the mellow and the reflective. Jazz also is equated with elegance — the reason why so many advertisements and boutiques play the music in the background. A number of jazz houses, such as Jazz Spot J, stretch the definition to include old-time balladeers and sultry chanteuses. If you want to be sure a club is featuring bebop or more contemporary sounds, check to see that the schedule isn’t dominated by vocalists (who favor softer, “after-dinner” standards).
Oddly enough, the most reliable place to catch the most adventurous jazz could be in a more commodious basement lair, with recording studios attached, known as the Shinjuku Pit Inn — its curious name the result of the owner’s passion for auto racing. Sitting in without prior notice to honor the birthday of a pianist friend, the great trumpeter Mr. Hino says he returned from a lifetime in the U.S. mainly to “help Asians and fight for our originality” by passing down the music in youth and high-school programs.
Judging by the students packed into the Pit Inn’s practice rooms, the tradition here is still alive. There’s even a whole subcategory of “Berklee jazz” in Japan, named after privileged young musicians sent by parents to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“We can afford now to pursue passions like jazz,” says Jazz Spot Intro’s Mr. Mogushi. And like other musicians and fans, he has thoughts about what has made Japan such fertile ground for the growth of the musical form. He’s of the school that it’s a fit with the national character. “Jazz soloing is like zen calligraphy,” he says. “People here know how to work with silence.” Radio DJ Gonzalez Suzuki, who runs periodic youth concerts called Kids Meet Jazz, says the Japanese “identify not just with the U.S. but with people of color.” Hiromitsu Agatsuma, 36, a star with the traditional stringed shamisen who has sat in with jazz groups on trips to America, has a slightly more technical take: “The Japanese scale is pentatonic, just like the blues” — the starting point of most jazz.
As for veteran saxophonist Hiroshi Yaginumi, 60, his feeling is that jazz is simply universal, reflecting “the chaos and freshness of the modern world.”
There’s something fresh and chaotic about the funky Takadanobaba district, with its smattering of hopping hole-in-the-walls like the Jazz Spot Intro, Pignose and the aptly named Hot House. Down in the depths of another office building, barely advertised, this place is the project of an elderly woman in black frock and headband who personally welcomes every guest.
Crammed to the gills with bookshelves, musical instruments, bowls of snacks and stools for seating no more than 10 customers barely an arm’s length from the sounds — in this case, produced by Daisuke Kawai, a 34-year-old musician with dyed blond hair who plays the organ in the tradition of Jimmy Smith — the Hot House is as homey and unassuming as it is quintessential Tokyo. It’s hard to imagine a more intimate setting. Forget New York’s long lines, high cover charges and obstructed seats at the back of the bar. When it comes to the true spirit of jazz, born of deep feeling and informality, Tokyo really does keep it live — and alive.