Music as Counterargument: BBE collects untraceable Japanese jazz

Jordan Ryan Pedersen surveys the not latest but maybe greatest of Japanese jazz.
By    October 15, 2019

Pianist Makoto Terashita – featured on two tracks – at a 2007 gig with saxophonist Toru Anbo. (Photo by howdygoto2)

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Jordan Ryan Pedersen was a poseur before it was cool.

Jazz is American music. And as such, its history in Japan has been a fraught one. The Japanese and Filipino musicians who performed on Pacific Ocean liners would dock in San Francisco and Seattle and visit local music shops. The sheet music they bought there taught them the ragtime and foxtrot that they ended up playing for their hotel lobby orchestra gigs. It was an immediate success. By 1924, twenty dance halls had already sprung up around Osaka. Conservative elements in Japanese society weren’t pleased: Osaka officials issued edicts that forced the dance halls to close. Things got worse during World War II: the Hirohito regime ruled that jazz and all non-German western music was “enemy music.” The pendulum naturally swung back after the war: the occupation of Japan meant a lot of American soldiers who wanted to hear the music they listened back in the States.

BBE’s J Jazz Volume 2 – Deep Modern Jazz from Japan 1969-1983J Jazz Volume 1 came out last year; it’s great too – picks up a couple decades after the war, by which point jazz has firmly implanted itself in the foundation of Japanese culture. Jazu kissa cafes dot the island, and Osaka hosted International Jazz Day in 2014. Jazz superfans put all other superfans to shame. Remember the episode of Treme where the Japanese superfan follows Antoine around for the whole day and annoys the shit out of him until the guy buys him a new trombone and shoves a wad of cash in his hand?

The music on J Jazz 2 chronicles a scene wrestling with the concept of “authenticity,” with a critical community – both in America and Japan – who derided it as ersatz chaff. Japanese jazz musicians in the 40s and 50s couldn’t escape being called “the Japanese [insert famous American player.]”

As a counterargument, J Jazz 2 is almost airtight. There are American touchpoints here, to be sure: the Mahavishu/Santana strut of Electro Keyboard Orchestra’s “Mother of the Future,” Nobuo Hara and his famous Sharps and Flats Orchestra’s “Little Giant” has some of the freneticism of Charles Mingus or even Charlie Parker. And throughout, John Coltrane is the rabbi. His compositional acumen, his fearlessness, often just his tone, they all serve as inspirations for the artists that crate diggers Tony Higgins and Mike Peden have assembled here.


But it would be completely unfair to call any of the work here derivative. Miyasaka + 5’s “Animals Garden” – my favorite track here, and the title track from an upcoming reissue by BBE – pays homage to Vince Guaraldi, McCoy Tyner, and Art Blakey, but feels entirely fresh and strange. Plus, jazz is a creole anyway, so trying to pick out precisely where something came from – and whether it is in fact a ripoff – is a fool’s errand.

J Jazz 2 is proof, as if we needed more of it, that music has value if – and only if! – it moves you. I misspoke before: jazz was American music. Now it belongs to whomever wants it.

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