The history of Japanese jazz is about music and a movement, but also about the state of mind of a nation: a bold vision of a better future after World War II, performed on piano, drums and brass. Jazz is a distinctly American art form (in fact, America’s greatest cultural achievement, alongside hip-hop) and a healthy scene had formed in the 1920s and 1930s when American musicians toured. the clubs of Tokyo, Kobe and Osaka. But historically Japan had been an island nation: its policy of sakoku, which for more than two centuries severely limited contact with the outside world, had only ended in the 1850s, and an increasingly nationalistic government, feeling that jazz was diluting Japanese culture, began to crack down. In World War II, “the enemy’s music” was banned.
After the surrender of the country, the occupying forces oversaw radical reforms. American troops brought jazz records with them; Japanese musicians went to work to entertain the troops. There was a proliferation of jazz cat (cafes), a distinctly Japanese phenomenon where the locals could sit and listen to records for as long as they wanted. For some, jazz was the sound of modernity.
In those early postwar years, Japanese musicians basically copied the Americans they admired. “That’s what you do,” says Mike Higgins, co-curator of the J Jazz reissue series. “You start by imitating and then you assimilate and then you innovate.”
Higgins and his fellow curator Mike Peden, both British, are lifelong collectors who have spent a great deal of time tracking records, researching labels, and poring over obi strips (a paper band that wraps Japanese LPs). For the past several years, the pair have worked on Japanese jazz reissues for BBE Records, usually from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, a period of fantastic innovation when a generation of musicians found their own voice. These releases have been part of a broader wave of Japanese jazz of the era reissued for Western ears on labels such as Light in the Attic, Impex, and We Release Jazz.
“It’s humbling that there are so many people obsessed with this kind of music around the world,” says saxophonist Koichi Matsukaze. Matsukaze’s 1976 album At the Room 427 will be reissued as part of the J Jazz Masterclass series this month, and follows the 2018 reissue of his 1978 classic Earth Mother. active. in my music, ”he adds. “All this is my origins.”
To discuss the birth of modern Japanese jazz, Toshiko Akiyoshi provides an important foundation. The pianist was discovered playing at a club in 1952 by touring star Oscar Peterson and would go on to have a brilliant career at home and in the United States. Akiyoshi was the first Japanese artist to break away from simply copying American artists and develop a distinctive sound and identity that incorporated Japanese harmonies and instruments. At 92, she is still active today.
In the late 1960s, the example of Akiyoshi, the eclectic saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, and others prompted young artists to evolve away from the Blue Note knockoff towards free jazz, fusion funk, spiritual, modal, and the bebop. These daring virtuosos introduced rock and electronic elements, or took influences from Afrobeat and flamenco music. The change from mannered game to carefree individualism was reflected in a move away from elegant suits to a more sloppy appearance, and collaboration became important: Take pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, who wrote and recorded with other artists to the point of being almost a guru. figure in the scene.
The technical competence of Japanese recording studios ensured that many of the LPs are among the best-sounding jazz records ever recorded, and while it would be a mistake to apply a binary of “independent goodies, major baddies” (the big record companies produced a lot of extravagant music). Also), the 1970s also saw the rise of smaller private labels in Japan, such as Three Blind Mice, which offered additional opportunities for individualistic artists to record.
“You started to feel like you were moving away from short-form hard-bop numbers towards more open and free music, quite psychedelic actually,” explains Higgins. “They got rid of the suits and just dressed how they wanted to dress. They are influenced by what Miles [Davis] he is doing his electric music, but they are writing more of their own material, improvising more ”.
When asked if he intended to push the boundaries of Japanese jazz on his classic albums First and Mine, two projects released in 1970 that projected this uninhibited new approach to the genre, saxophonist Kohsuke Mine says, “I didn’t think so. absolutely. I think we just recorded what came out naturally at that time. ” However, Matsukaze viewed his music as an active rebellion against his musical ancestors.
“In Japan, there is this culture of elders and subordinates,” he explains. “In the music scene, they’re your superiors saying, ‘Oh, you have to play Charlie Parker.’ I was, at that time, very young and still growing. [musically]; there were student demonstrations and society in Japan was very volatile. That kind of spirit was also in Japanese jazz. I was very anti-establishment. Some people would say, ‘You should touch standards,’ but I hated doing that. I would rebel against that. At that time, I considered myself a stranger. “
Matsukaze’s music epitomizes the power and passion of the time. Full of melodic hooks, springy baselines, and zigzag solos, Earth Mother’s title track kicked off the first compilation of J Jazz, and At the Room 427 goes further back in time. Matsukaze’s debut album was recorded live in November 1975 in front of a small audience in a classroom at Chuo University. In Little Drummer, Matsukaze and his little band fight intensely with their instruments in a way that almost sounds like they are fighting each other. It forms an exciting and improvised composition, like a blindfolded motorist on the road who puts his foot down but never crashes. He may have rejected expectations of playing the classics, but Matsukaze sets himself apart in the Billie Holiday classic Lover Man, as his sensual, elusive saxophone wails guide the band like a burning torch.
The mid-1980s marks the end of the period covered by the J Jazz series. “For me, it becomes less interesting [after that], they’re playing the MOR kind of thing, “says Higgins. “The whole thing about digital technology comes in. The sound of the drums changes, the keyboards change. There is a general sonic tone, that brightness, in all the music that attracts me the least ”.
In the years since, Europe and the US have indulged in a decades-long fascination with Japanese culture that doesn’t seem to be diminishing. The popularity of anime is at an all-time high, while there has been a new interest in the Japanese city pop genre of the late 70s and 80s. Now, it is Japanese jazz that is ready to be excavated.
“A lot of these albums were hardly accessible outside of Japan back then,” explains We Release Jazz’s Stephan Armleder, but the advent of the Internet “gave us this insane access to a gigantic database of music archives: blogs, music boards, messages, YouTube, Discogs. ”.
Putting together a reissue is no easy matter, with rights holders to be tracked down and dust off decades-old contracts – it took Peden and Higgins two years to license each song in the first volume of J Jazz. But it’s worth it for the acts of preservation, like the Tohru Aizawa Quartet’s album Tachibana, reissued in 2018. Higgins believes only about 200 copies were printed and many of them were used by the man who funded the project: the title Tachibana. . – as a kind of business card to promote your hotels. It’s easy to imagine such a record getting lost in time.
Another classic that found new life online is Ryo Fukui’s album Scenery: a 1976 LP release, uploaded in 2015, it has nearly 12 million views on YouTube. The pianist’s performance is smooth and nuanced as he navigates American classics like It Could Happen to You. “Now I just need to become the type of person who organizes fancy dinners,” wrote one commenter on YouTube.
“I’m amazed that all these young jazz fans around the world discovered and really liked Ryo Fukui’s music,” says his widow, Yasuko Fukui, speaking to me from his Slowboat jazz club, which he conducted with Ryo until his death. in 2016. “I am sincerely happy this is happening.”
Living in the northern city of Sapporo, Fukui was focused on honing his craft when a director from Trio Records saw a live performance of the Ryo Fukui Trio while on a business trip. “At first, Ryo didn’t think his skills were good enough to record, so he didn’t say yes quickly,” Yasuko says. “But the director was persistent.” Fukui followed him a year later with the album Mellow Dream, but he spent the rest of his life recording only sporadically. He focused on running the Slowboat club in Sapporo, where he performed up to four times a week. Eventually, fans who knew of her work from YouTube started showing up at the club.
Fukui died in 2016. Two years later, Scenery was reissued on vinyl by We Released Jazz. “Ryo Fukui embodies, for us, the magic of Japanese jazz,” says Armleder. “He combines a true respect for the tradition and history of jazz with a dedication to honing his skills, and adds his own style and passion.”
The popularity of rediscoveries like this one means that the price of original Japanese jazz presses has skyrocketed. Higgins, one of the main figures driving that interest, says that today he cannot afford to build his personal collection, although he points out that the other side is that the value of his collection has exploded. “That’s one of the reasons we want to reissue them,” he says of the rising costs. “It’s nice to have an original copy, but I’ve never subscribed to the idea of sitting in a jazz bunker with my originals. I want people to listen to them. “
These reissues may be printed on new vinyl, but between the beats, you still feel like a change is taking place. It is the sound of catharsis for these musicians, for whom no limit was above the test.
With thanks to Kensuke Hidaka for acting as translator.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism