Jazz is one U.S. product that is thriving in Tokyo


February 23, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Ask singer Mel Torme what his kind did through those grim years from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, when most of America turned its back on jazz. He has a ready answer.

"Jazz never died, it just took a long trip to Japan and Europe."

For most of two decades, it seemed that jazz might never regain a place in its own country against wave after wave of rock. Those were the years when Tokyo's thousands of studious jazz fans, scores of clubs and dozens of concerts and festivals helped keep the music and its U.S. musicians alive.

They also surprised some U.S. visitors. More than a few went home to tell disbelieving friends they had stumbled onto the busiest jazz center in the world.

Japan's ubiquitous espresso houses, dental offices and Chinese restaurants still are more likely to have jazz piped in than any other music. Venerated U.S. jazz clubs still now and then open branches here.

But Tokyo's jazz night life isn't what it used to be. A lot of people who live by it suspect it may never be the same again.

In Roppongi, one of the city's many nightclub districts, "After Six" provided grubstakes to almost-famous U.S. cocktail-jazz pianists for years. It still has the old name, but it became a girlie bar last year. "Body and Soul" has long been home to musicians who might be world celebrities if they were American instead of Japanese. It moved to Aoyama, a district that is becoming a last refuge of sorts for jazz bars from around the city. "Satin Doll" is said to be on the ropes.

"Maybe a few girlies would help us, too," an owner of "Birdland," one of Roppongi's remaining handful of jazz places, said recently.

"It's partly the recession, of course, but there's also something more permanent going on," owner Kyoko Seki said as a trio warmed up at her relocated Body and Soul.

Now approaching 50, she has been part of Tokyo's jazz scene since her teens, when she haunted the studios where her father worked as a producer for Columbia records. When her new location opened in December, U.S. Ambassador Michael H. Armacost brought his wife and his well-known appetite for jazz.

"After World War II, a lot of Japanese worshiped anything American," she said. "In music and night life, jazz and America were synonymous then."

Her eyes turned serious: "In those days, Japanese jazz fans would read everything. They have staying power -- no song is ever the same twice in jazz, and those same people still seem to want to hear all the possible variations."

Tsuyoshi Yamamoto, the owner of one of Japan's best-known pony tails, cut short a warm-up that sounded like equal parts of Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck, separated by outcroppings of Chicago blues.

He joined Ms. Seki's table and the conversation: "In the '50s and '60s, a lot of jazz people got rich enough to own their own houses. Today, I don't think about what kind of living I can make. I do it because I love the music and the lifestyle."

His lifestyle, and the mischievous wit that permeates his music, showed in the calculated chaos of what he called, "my conservative outfit." The blazer was deep red, the necktie narrow and brown, the shirt a bold print. A five-pointed metal star the size of a sheriff's badge was pinned to his lapel. A gas cigarette lighter dangled from a cord around his neck.

The lighter, a convenience more than an affectation, is always there. For most gigs, it accompanies an open-necked shirt and rumpled slacks.

Fans in that big generation that grew up on jazz after the post-World War II baby boom are middle-aged now. Ms. Seki and Mr. Yamamoto said they see no sign of anyone to replace that generation as it gets too old for nightclubbing.

"Yes, younger people do come in," she said, looking around at early arrivals in their 20s who had picked off half a dozen of the choicest tables. "I'm lucky. When magazines and TV start to push a new singer, her promoter usually will want to be able to say she has worked Body and Soul."

"But the singer is what these young people are here for," Ms. Seki said.

"The jazz is what I'm here for, and the same is true of the middle-aged customers. It's part of their lives. The younger people, once they've checked out the latest singer, they may not come again until there's another new voice they want to sample."

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