Japanese jazz refers to jazz music played by Japanese musicians, or jazz music that is in some way connected to Japan or Japanese culture. In a broader sense, the concept is often used to refer to the history of jazz in Japan. Japan has, according to some estimates, the largest proportion of jazz fans in the world. Attempts at fusing jazz music with aspects of Japanese culture in the United States are commonly termed Asian-American jazz.
History of jazz in Japan
Early jazz music was popularized in Japan thanks to the overseas trips of both Americans and Filipino jazz bands, the latter having acquainted themselves with the music in their native country through the presence of the American occupying forces. Built around the performances of the Filipinos, local jazz practice began to emerge in Japan in the early 1920s, most notably in the prosperous entertainment districts of Osaka and Kobe. By 1924 the city of Osaka already boasted twenty dance halls, which gave many Japanese-born musicians the first opportunity to play jazz themselves professionally. Trumpeter Fumio Nanri (1910–1975) was the first of these Japanese jazz performers to gain international acclaim for his playing style. In 1929 Nanri traveled to Shanghai, where he played with Teddy Weatherford, and in 1932 he toured in the United States. After his return to Japan, Nanri made several recordings with his Hot Peppers, an American-style swing band.
The "Americanness" and mass appeal of early jazz as dance music gave reason for concern among the conservative Japanese elite, and in 1927 Osaka municipal officials issued ordinances that forced the dance halls to close. A large number of young musicians switched to the jazz scene in Tokyo, where some found employment in the house jazz orchestras of the major recording companies. In the 1930s, popular song composers Ryoichi Hattori and Koichi Sugii tried to overcome jazz music’s controversial qualities by creating a distinctively Japanese kind of jazz music. They reworked ancient Japanese folk or theatre songs with a jazz touch, and in addition wrote new jazz songs that had Japanese thematic content and often closely resembled well-known traditional melodies. In 1933 "Chigusa," Japan’s first jazz café, or jazu kissa, opened in Osaka. Since then, jazz coffeehouses have continuously provided a popular alternative to the dance hall for Japanese jazz devotees, offering the latest jazz records (while occasionally also hosting live performances) to an attentively listening audience.
Hattori's songs, however, flirted with controversy, most notably in his 1940 Shortage Song (タリナイ・ソング Tarinai songu?), which he wrote for Tadaharu Nakano's Rhythm Boys. Satirizing the shortages of food and material then widespread in Japan, the song drew the ire of government censors and was quickly banned. The controversy was among the factors that led to the Rhythm Boys' breakup in 1941.
During World War II, jazz was considered "enemy music" and banned in Japan. However, by then the genre had become far too popular for a complete ban to be successful. Jazz-like songs, sometimes of a strongly patriotic type, continued to be performed, though these songs were usually referred to as "light music." After the war, the Allied Occupation (1945–1952) of Japan provided a new incentive for Japanese jazz musicians to emerge, as the American troops were eager to hear the music they listened to back home. Pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi (born 1929) arrived in Tokyo in 1948, determined to become a professional jazz musician. After having formed the Cozy Quartet she was then noticed by Hampton Hawes, who was stationed in Yokohama with his military band, and brought to the attention of Oscar Peterson. Akiyoshi studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston in 1956, and later achieved world-wide success as a bop pianist and big band leader.
By the end of the 1950s, native jazz practice again flourished in Japan, and in the following decades an active avant-garde and free jazz scene reached its full growth, with a central role for pianist Yosuke Yamashita (born 1942) and his trio. Other Japanese jazz artists who acquired international reputations include Sadao Watanabe (the former soloist of Akiyoshi's Cozy Quartet), Masahiko Satoh, Toru "Tiger" Okoshi and Makoto Ozone. Most of these musicians have toured extensively in the United States and some have moved there permanently for a career in jazz performance or education.
Jazz and Japanese culture
Japanese jazz had frequently been criticized as derivative, or even as an unworthy imitation of U.S. jazz, both by American and Japanese commentators. In response to the belittling attitude of their audience, Japanese jazz artists began adding a "national flavor" to their work in the 1960s. Expatriate Toshiko Akiyoshi drew on Japanese culture in compositions for the big band she co-led with her husband and long-term collaborator Lew Tabackin. On Kogun (1974) they first utilized traditional instruments, such as the tsuzumi, and Long Yellow Road (1975) features an adaptation of a melody from the Japanese tradition of court music ("Children in the Temple Ground"). Inspired by the analogies Akiyoshi presented to him between jazz music and Zen Buddhism, jazz writer William Minor has suggested that a Zen aesthetic can be perceived in the music of Masahiko Satoh and other Japanese jazz artists.
Around the turn of the millennium, Tokyo remained the base for a small but thriving jazz community. Jazz singer and pianist Ayado Chie managed to reach out to a larger audience (both in Japan and internationally) with her emulation of black American vocal jazz. Guitarist Koichi Yabori, known for his Pat Metheny-inspired jazz fusion trio Fragile that was active in the early 1990s, continues to make solo recordings. In 2004, Blue Note Records released an album by the then 17-year-old mainstream and bop pianist Takashi (Matsunaga) featuring his own compositions, Storm Zone. Takashi’s most recent CD is titled Love Makes the Earth Float (2008).
Japanese DJ Nujabes blended jazz with hip-hop, often collaborating with American artists. Active in the late 1990s and 2000s, Nujabes created a style reminiscent of American nu jazz, often with Japanese lyrics.
In 2005 Japanese jazz group Soil & Pimp Sessions released their full length debut Pimp Master, with tracks off the album gaining attention from DJs abroad and they began to receive heavy air-play on Gilles Peterson's Worldwide radio program on BBC Radio 1 in the U.K. This got the album released in Europe on Compost and in UK on Peterson's very own label Brownswood Records and subsequent albums by Soil & Pimp got released on Brownswood making them arguably the most popular Jazz band to ever come out of Japan.
Osaka based quartet Indigo jam unit have released seven original and three cover albums since their debut with the album Demonstration in 2006 and have been described as a tight and energetic mix between a traditional jazz sound and nu jazz with distinctive beats and flowing jazz piano.
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