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Jazz in Japan

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The club is dark, cramped and smoky, and other than the music radiating from the bandstand, silence is the only thing that can be heard. It’s so quiet, you might wonder whether the audience is enjoying themselves. But immediately following the last note of the set, they jump up and break into a roar of excitement and applause.

Then, it begins: everyone, as if on cue, bursts into an in sync rhythmic applause in steady quarter notes which get faster and faster. This is their way of urging us to play one more song. A standing ovation! The clapping dies down, we play the last song, then the whole cycle happens again.

Believe it or not, this is the scene in a jazz club in…Japan. Yes, Japan. Jazz is very popular in Japan and has many die-hard fans who support the music any chance they have. No wonder Japan is one of my favorite and most frequent stops in all of my world travels.

Jazz came to Japan in the 1920s via the American military stationed there. This new American sound became popular and spread from Osaka to Tokyo and other big cities. As the popularity of the music grew, so did the number of jazz musicians and jazz clubs. I can safely say that today, there are more jazz clubs in Tokyo than in New York. Alongside the large commercialized clubs such as the Blue Note, Cotton Club and Billboard, there are hundreds of small clubs that truly capture the atmosphere and spirit of the speakeasy jazz clubs that were so popular in New York in the 1920s.


Japanese audiences have a deep respect and passion for the music and the musicians. There are always more than a handful of audience members who are hardcore jazz fans. These fans know all of the great recordings—and many have seen all of the great players, since American jazz musicians have been touring in Japan since the 1960s. The reverence for jazz musicians is felt even from non-jazz fans. When they find out you’re a jazz musician, they have an immediate look of admiration and amazement—quite different from the reaction you receive in North America!

The main reason jazz continues to thrive in Japan is the fact that there are so many great Japanese jazz musicians who are almost disciple-like in the way they keep the music alive. Thanks to luminaries such as Toshiko Akiyoshi, Sadao Watanabe, Terumasa Hino, Makoto Ozone and Junko Onishim, the level of the music has reached great heights. All of these great musicians are fortunately still alive and playing.

I had the great fortune of doing a three-week tour in October with the wonderful pianist, Ms Junko Onishi. She is one of the first Japanese jazz musicians to make a successful career in New York City, and today there are hundreds of Japanese jazz musicians who have followed her example.

Given the ties between jazz and Japan, it’s obvious why Japan is a popular destination for jazz musicians. If you’re ever in Japan, search out the “speakeasies” and really get the Japanese jazz experience!

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