SOON after veteran trumpet player Neil Stalnaker arrived in Tokyo from New York in 1998, he stepped forward during a performance to do something hed done countless times before in his career: play a solo. After he finished, Stalnaker -- who had attended the Berklee College of Music, played for the United States Navy Band, and performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland -- waited for the customary round of applause. But it never came; there was just silence. Thinking hed done something terribly wrong, he wanted to slink away, but it was the first song of the gig. I went into such a hole after that, recalls Stalnaker as he sips tea in a busy Shinjuku café.
But he hadnt actually done anything wrong. Its just that Japanese audiences can be quiet and reticent, particularly in comparison with a loud, boisterous crowd of New Yorkers. Jonathan Katz, a Yale-educated musician who has lived and played in Tokyo since 1991 and is the leader of the Tokyo Big Band, had an experience recently that highlighted just how reserved, and polite, a Japanese audience can be. At a gig, this old man came up to me and said, Excuse me, may I ask you, can I whistle? Katz recalls with a laugh.
That cultural disinclination to make a lot of noise at performances is in no way indicative of a lack of appreciation. In fact, the most hard-core Japanese fans are known as jazz maniacs, and they exhibit the sort of encyclopedic knowledge about music that baseball and Star Wars fans have about their respective subjects. Mark Tourian, another American musician who lives in Tokyo, vividly recalls his introduction to the so-called maniacs on his first tour of Japan in 1994. There were guys coming up to me talking about who played third trombone on the 1937 recording of some obscure record, says Tourian, who has toured extensively throughout the world with bands like the Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller orchestras. And some owners of jazz clubs can make even their most committed patrons seem like lackluster fans. The owner of Miles Cafe actually changed his name to Miles and has told people that Miles Davis came to him in a dream and told him to open his club.
But another area in which Japanese audiences are conservative is their tastes in jazz -- they prefer lots of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. I would say without a doubt, the so-called classic blue-note period of jazz of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the straight-ahead sound, is by far the most popular, Tourian says. The vast majority of hard-core listeners -- thats pretty much the only thing they want to hear. In fact, Stalnaker discussed putting out a CD with some Japanese record companies, and they told him it had to include mostly jazz standards, like Autumn Leaves or Stella by Starlight, and that maybe, just maybe, theyd let him put a few original pieces on it. It has to be bass, drums, tenor, and trumpet to fill out that blue-note thing, he says.
NOT that any of the Tokyo-based American musicians interviewed for this story are complaining. Each, in his own way, incorporates his experience living in Japan into his original music. Both Tourian and Katz, for instance, play in the band Candela, which weaves Japanese folk songs into its music and features another American, Bruce Huebner, who is a virtuoso player of a bamboo flute called the shakuhachi, which is a quintessentially Japanese instrument. Price, too, has written music specifically for Japanese instruments and also has incorporated folk songs into original compositions for his quintet and his big band to play. But perhaps more importantly, living in Tokyo -- where there is a sizable demand for live jazz -- has allowed these and other American musicians to actually make a living playing music.