Japanese jazz

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Japanese jazz is jazz played by Japanese musicians and connected to Japan or Japanese culture. The term often refers to the history of jazz in Japan, which has the largest proportion of jazz fans in the world, according to some estimates. [1] Attempts at fusing jazz with 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. [2] The Hatano Jazz Band is sometimes described as the first Japanese jazz band, [3] having absorbed some music during boat trips to San Francisco, [4] although they were principally a dance band. [5] 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. [6] 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. [7]

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. [8] 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. [9] In 1933 Chigusa, Japan's first jazz cafe, or jazu kissa , opened in Osaka. [10] Since then, jazz coffeehouses have provided a popular alternative to the dance hall, offering the latest jazz records (while occasionally also hosting live performances) to an attentively listening audience. [11]

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. [12] 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." [13] 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 worldwide success as a bop pianist and big band leader. [14]

By the end of the 1950s, native jazz practice again flourished in Japan, and in the following decades an active free jazz scene reached its full growth. Critic Teruto Soejima considered 1969 as a pivotal year for Japanese free jazz, with musicians such as drummer Masahiko Togashi, guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi, pianists Yosuke Yamashita and Masahiko Satoh, saxophonist Kaoru Abe, bassist Motoharu Yoshizawa, and trumpeter Itaru Oki playing a major role. [15] Other Japanese jazz artists who acquired international reputations include Sadao Watanabe (the former soloist of Akiyoshi's Cozy Quartet), Ryo Kawasaki, Teruo Nakamura (musician), 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. [16]

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. [17] 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"). [18] 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. [19]

Recent developments


Around the turn of the millennium, Tokyo remained the base for a small but thriving jazz community. [20] 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. [21] In 2004, Blue Note Records released an album by 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). [22] [23]

In 2005 Japanese jazz group Soil & "Pimp" Sessions released their full-length debut Pimp Master, with tracks of 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 UK. [24] This got the album released in Europe on Compost and in UK on Peterson's Brownswood Recordings and subsequent albums by Soil & Pimp got released on Brownswood, making them arguably the most popular club jazz band to come out of Japan.

Osaka based quartet Indigo jam unit have released eleven original and four cover albums since their debut with the album Demonstration in 2006 [25] [26] [27] [28] 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. [29] After releasing their 11th album Lights in 2015, they announced that they would break up in summer of the following year [30]

Jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara has received worldwide recognition since her debut in 2003 with Another Mind, which was a critical success in North America and in her native Japan, where the album shipped gold (100,000 units) and received the Recording Industry Association of Japan’s (RIAJ) Jazz Album of the Year Award. In 2009, she recorded with pianist Chick Corea Duet, a two-disc live recording of their transcendent, transgenerational and transcultural duo concert in Tokyo. She also appeared on bassist Stanley Clarke’s Heads Up International release, Jazz in the Garden, which also featured former Chick Corea bandmate, drummer Lenny White. [31] In 2011 Hiromi started her piano trio project, THE TRIO PROJECT with Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips and has released four albums under the name of this project. [32] Recently not only does she play with jazz musicians but also she collaborates with notable J-pop musicians and bands and orchestras such as Akiko Yano, DREAMS COME TRUE, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, and New Japan Philharmonic. [33]


Influenced by modern jazz in America that utilizes odd meters and rhythmic and harmonic elements of Hip hop, R&B, and Neo soul, the sound of Japanese jazz has become more musically complicated and diverse. The bands and artists that represent those new sounds includes MEGAPTERAS, Yasei Collective, Shun Ishiwaka(石若駿), Mononkul and Takuya Kuroda. While modern jazz sound is becoming mainstream in the music scene, there are still some jazz musicians who play traditional styles of jazz such as Bebop, Hard bop, and post-bop.

In 2012, jazz pianist Ai Kuwabara, whose style is described as post-Hiromi Uehara, released her first album from here to there. Five years later, she recorded somehow, someday, somewhere, in which Ai collaborated with American jazz drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Will Lee. [34]

Shun Ishiwaka, jazz drummer and composer, has received huge recognition in Japan because of his incomparable technique and cutting-edge sound and been a part of many recordings and projects with notable musicians such as Terumasa Hino, Tokyo New City Orchestra, Taylor McFerrin, and Jason Moran. Shun released his debut album Cleanup in 2015 in which he combined elements of contemporary classical music, hip hop, and straight ahead jazz and this album received "Album of the year new star praise" and “Jazz album of the year 2015” from Japan’s two biggest jazz magazines Jazz Japan and Jazz life respectively. [35] In 2016, Shun had a concert with his own trio having guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel as a guest at Blue Note Tokyo. [36]

Ryu Fukui, a now deceased Jazz pianist who, in life, struggled to achieve recognition outside of Japan, experienced a monumental rise in popularity thanks to streaming platforms like YouTube Music, Spotify, and others. His most notable work, 1976's "Scenery" is now the most widely consumed Japanese Jazz album on YouTube, having accrued nearly 10 million views as of July 2020. This has led to his albums being reprinted for commercial sale, some of which even using the original studio tapes from 1976, and mastered in half speed.

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Hiromi Uehara

Hiromi Uehara, known professionally as Hiromi, is a jazz composer and pianist born in Hamamatsu, Japan. She is known for her virtuosic technique, energetic live performances and blend of musical genres such as stride, post-bop, progressive rock, classical and fusion in her compositions.

Toshiko Akiyoshi

Toshiko Akiyoshi is a Japanese-American jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader.

Sadao Watanabe (musician)

Sadao Watanabe is a Japanese jazz musician who plays alto saxophone, sopranino saxophone, and flute. He is known for his bossa nova recordings, although his work encompasses many styles, with collaborations from musicians all over the world.

Lew Tabackin

Lewis Barry Tabackin is an American jazz tenor saxophonist and flutist. He is married to pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi with whom he has co-led large ensembles since the 1970s.

<i>Toshiko at Mocambo</i> 1954 live album by Toshiko Akiyoshi

Toshiko at Mocambo was recorded by jazz pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi at the Mocambo club in Yokohama, Japan, in the summer of 1954. All four tracks from this recording as well as additional tracks from the same all-night live session with and without Akiyoshi were released on the 3 CD Rockwell – Polydor / Universal album, The Complete Historic Mocambo Session '54 – including, reportedly, a performance of "It's Only a Paper Moon" with Akiyoshi attempting to fill in on bass.

<i>Toshiko and Leon Sash at Newport</i> 1957 live album by Toshiko Akiyoshi / Leon Sash

Toshiko and Leon Sash at Newport is a live album recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 and released on the Verve record label. All 4 Toshiko Akiyoshi tracks are also included on some later re-issues of the Norgran (Verve) recording Toshiko's Piano / Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi.

<i>Long Yellow Road</i> (Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio album) 1961 studio album by Toshiko Akiyoshi

Long Yellow Road and the nearly identical release, Tosiko Akiyosi Recital [sic] is a jazz trio recording made by the pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi in Tokyo in February 1961.

<i>Toshiko–Mariano Quartet (in West Side)</i> 1963 studio album by Toshiko Akiyoshi, Charlie Mariano

Toshiko–Mariano Quartet is a jazz album by pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano and was recorded in Tokyo in 1963 and released on the Nippon Columbia/Takt label. This album is related to the similar RCA Mariano/Akiyoshi release, East and West but is not to be confused with the 1961 Candid recording, The Toshiko–Mariano Quartet.

<i>Toshiko Akiyoshi in Japan</i> 1970 live album by Toshiko Akiyoshi

Toshiko Akiyoshi in Japan is an album by pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, recorded at the Osaka Expo Hall in Osaka, Japan in 1970 and released by Toshiba Records. It is not to be confused with other similarly titled releases by the Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio and the Toshiko Akiyoshi - Lew Tabackin Big Band.

<i>Remembering Bud: Cleopatras Dream</i> 1990 studio album by Toshiko Akiyoshi

Remembering Bud: Cleopatra's Dream is a jazz trio album recorded by pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi in 1990 as a tribute to jazz pianist Bud Powell and released on the Nippon Crown record label in Japan and on the Evidence label in the USA.

<i>Yes, I Have No 4 Beat Today</i> 1995 studio album by Toshiko Akiyoshi

Yes, I Have No 4 Beat Today - Toshiko Akiyoshi with Brazilian Friends is a jazz album recorded by pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi in 1995 and released by Nippon Crown Records.

<i>Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio Live at Blue Note Tokyo 97</i> 1997 live album by Toshiko Akiyoshi

Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio featuring Motohiko Hino - Live at Blue Note Tokyo '97 is a jazz trio album recorded by pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi featuring drummer Motohiko Hino. It was recorded in 1997 in the Tokyo Blue Note club and was released by Nippon Crown Records.

<i>Sketches of Japan</i> 1999 studio album by Toshiko Akiyoshi

Sketches of Japan is an album by jazz pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. It was released in 1999 by Nippon Crown Records.

<i>Best Gold</i> 1998 compilation album by Toshiko Akiyoshi

Best Gold, Toshiko Akiyoshi '89~'96 is a compilation album released by Nippon Crown Records. It contains tracks taken from the first 7 Nippon Crown releases of jazz pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi in small combo settings.

Since her debut recording for Norgran Records in 1954, jazz pianist, composer, arranger and big band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi has recorded continuously – almost exclusively as a leader of small jazz combos and of her big bands – averaging one studio album release per year for well over 50 years. She has also recorded several live albums in solo, small combo and big band settings, including three big band concert videos. Akiyoshi has released multiple albums for Victor / BMG, Nippon Columbia, Toshiba, Discomate, Nippon Crown and other labels in Japan and for Norgran / Verve, RCA, Columbia / Sony, Concord and her own Ascent label in the US. All of her big band recordings and nearly all of her other early works have been re-issued on CDs over the years.

Toshiko Akiyoshi – Lew Tabackin Big Band American big band

The Toshiko Akiyoshi – Lew Tabackin Big Band was a 16 piece jazz big band created by pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and tenor saxophone/flutist Lew Tabackin in Los Angeles in 1973. In 1982 the principals moved from Los Angeles to New York City and re-formed the group with new members under the name, The Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin. Akiyoshi arranged all of the music for the band and composed nearly all of the music recorded by the two groups over a 30-year period. Tabackin served as the bands' featured soloist on tenor saxophone and flute. The two groups recorded 23 albums, toured in North America, Asia and Europe and, after the move to New York, had regular performances at the jazz club Birdland before disbanding in 2003. The bands' recordings received several Grammy nominations and regularly scored high in Down Beat magazine's critics' and readers' polls.

Hope (Toshiko Akiyoshi song)

Hope is a CD single by jazz pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and singer Monday Michiru released in Japan on the Nippon Crown Record label. The instrumental version of the song "Hope" is from the 2006 Akiyoshi album of the same name. The composition "Hope" is the closing section of Akiyoshi's "Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss" suite, first introduced on the 2001 Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra album, Hiroshima - Rising From The Abyss.

Blue Note Tokyo

Blue Note Tokyo is a jazz venue in Aoyama, Tokyo, Japan. It is a branch of Blue Note Jazz Club in New York and located about 400 metres east of the Aoyama Gakuin University. It has been described as Tokyo's best venue for live jazz.

<i>Spectrum</i> (Hiromi album) 2019 studio album by Hiromi

Spectrum is the eleventh studio album by Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara. The album was released by Telarc in Japan on 18 September 2019, with an international release to follow on 9 October 2019. It is her first solo album in 10 years after Place to Be released in 2009 also by Telarc.


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