As Ill come to understand after a short, music-filled trip to Tokyo, this initial foray to Someday was the perfect introduction to jazz in Japans capital city, a place with vibrant networks of both underground basement clubs, which cater to serious music aficionados, and bigger venues such as the Cotton Club and Blue Note, which attract high-profile musicians like Dave Brubeck and Horace Silver. Although cities like New York, Chicago, and New Orleans are rightfully thought of as the worlds preeminent jazz hot spots, the sheer number of Tokyo clubs -- by some estimates, there are more than 100 -- is a testament to Japans continuing fascination with this very American art form. In fact, there are enough opportunities for gigs in this city that a number of American musicians, along with musicians from other countries, have made their home in Tokyo, where they are able to make a living playing jazz, a career that likely would be impossible for them to have elsewhere.
TOKYOS love affair with jazz began in earnest in the period after the Second World War, during the American occupation. With lots of GIs in the country, there was plenty of opportunity for Japanese musicians who had learned how to play jazz to perform, as jazz was the popular music of the time among young American soldiers. A Japanese musician could go to [a U.S.] Army base and make much more money than the average laborer, says Mike Price, an accomplished American musician who came to Tokyo in 1989 on a fellowship and never left. Those musicians, naturally, didnt play jazz just for Americans; as they embraced the music, those artists also performed in front of plenty of native audiences, who were rapt by the novel sounds of jazz that were so different from the traditional Japanese music.
That original exposure Tokyo had to jazz in the 1940s and 1950s created a committed core audience, one whose members, Price says, still show up for live shows, even though many are now in their 70s and 80s. No matter the average age, Price says, Japanese audiences, in general, are extremely knowledgeable and appreciative of the music, which is one of the big reasons he opted to stay in Tokyo rather than return to the States when his fellowship was finished. Its very similar to any Japanese pursuit of a hobby, says Price, who plays regularly in his own quintet and is the only American member in the famed Japanese big band the Sharps and Flats. When they get into it, they get into it deeply. Its not a shallow thing.
These days, the audience for jazz in Japan is graying a bit, which is evident on a visit to almost any jazz club, where the patrons are mainly in their 50s and 60s. But there are exceptions. On another night, I again head underground, this time to the Sometime piano hall in the Kichijoji area of Tokyo. Unlike Someday, Sometime reeks of atmosphere. Tucked away off of a busy pedestrian-only street, the club is a sharp counterpoint to the blaring neon signs that seem omnipresent in Tokyo: Its cozy and dark, with brick walls and exposed steel girders. Descending the stairs into Sometime is like entering a Parisian garret. The tables, many with half-full bottles of Scotch as centerpieces, on this night are populated by baby-faced but chain-smoking and ultraserious young beatniks.
But even their stony, stoic faces betray their pleasure as the piano-drums-and-bass trio is joined by a husky singer with a sultry voice. Once again, theres a lot of talk between songs -- many of which, like Heres That Rainy Day and Lullaby of Broadway, are easily recognized -- but this time, having learned my lesson, I dont try to decipher what the leader is saying thats making everyone crack up. No big deal. Theres plenty of pleasure in sitting back, sipping a cocktail, and listening to some good music.