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A Choice of Openness: Michael Pronko on Jazz in Japan

By Published: July 3, 2004

Jazz is free, open, wild within restrained limits. It has the right balance of incredible unpredictability and careful, crafted control that fits with Japanese sensibilities.

AAJ: How would you describe your background in jazz? How did you first get interested in the music?
MP: My father loved jazz and had huge numbers of records. We went to every jazz show in Kansas City. He enjoyed going to the record store and filling up a grocery bag with records and bringing them home to listen to one by one. He also loved to play the music loud. As kids, we'd parade around the house with the music on. I fell asleep most nights with the music coming up the staircase, until I was old enough to have a radio with a turn-off sleep function of my own. I was never a jazz nut exclusively, and maybe still am not. I like all kinds of music, maybe also because my father played a lot of different kinds of music in addition to jazz. Music was always OK. My parents drove me down to the huge auditorium when I was 14 or so to see groups like Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Later, my father lent me his driver's license when I had a beard at 18, still too young to go into blues clubs where the age limit was 21.
AAJ: Do you play an instrument? Are you a jazz musician yourself?
MP: I play the piano and guitar. I played in jazz bands in high school, and rock bands, too. But I was never especially good. I could improvise well, and shoot through chord changes, but never practiced enough. I still play piano but mostly to figure out chord changes or just to amuse myself. My wife bought me some headphones for the electric piano.

AAJ: As you look back now, what is most important to you in your educational background?

MP: I studied philosophy, education and comparative literature. I also write fiction, essays, and academic articles. So, maybe I'm a writer first. Studying literature, though, was helpful in learning about structure, genre, historical approaches, theory and practice, and other issues that I think are the patterns into which jazz writing falls. And I have lived in Japan for many years teaching English.

AAJ: What led you to Japan, and how long did that take?

MP: It's a long story, but at college I studied philosophy and felt it was kind of narrow, all analytic, British stuff, nothing juicy. So, I lit out with a kind of Hemingway-novelist-romantic travel ideal for a couple years. That wore thin, and it's boring to have no money, so I became a teacher, picking up an M.A. at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. I taught in China for two years, then came to Japan for three, teaching English here in Tokyo. I went back to the University of Wisconsin—Madison to study Comp Lit, but I didn't finish the PhD due to, well, my desire to write, and the hassles of PC academia and tuition money. I dropped out and wrote two novels (unpublished still) and did research for a CD ROM on nuclear proliferation. Then, went to study Chinese for a year, then back to Japan to this current job teaching literature, composition, film and English.

AAJ: How long have you studied the Japanese language?

MP: I've studied Japanese off and on. I'm not that fluent, or not as fluent as I'd like to be. But, for work purposes, I can read everything I need to, if slowly, and musicians are generally easy to talk with. I took some classes there and here, and just have read a lot in Japanese to keep up with stuff in the Japanese jazz press, of which there is a lot.

AAJ: Were you writing about jazz in the U.S. before you moved to Japan?

MP: No, not really. I wrote a lot of other stuff, fiction mainly, and creative non-fiction. Also, academic essays on literature and things.

AAJ: What were your initial impressions of jazz in Japan?

MP: Well, initial impressions are determined by initial prejudices. At the time, I lived here before, I felt like Japanese jazz, music in general of all types, was fairly derivative. Rock and popular music still is, though I'd have to say that there are melodies, chord progressions, arrangements in popular music that I can readily identify as having a Japanese style, moreso than with jazz. All music in Japan is starting to have more of its own flavor, or maybe the whole world is losing its flavor so you don't notice? It depends on how, and why, you compare.

AAJ: How did you encounter the music when you came to Japan?

MP: I went out a lot, and at that time, there were tremendous CD rental places. You could rent CDs, then make cassette tapes for yourself. I have boxes full of cassettes at my sister's and my parents' place. I went out often, but not all that often. Without knowing enough Japanese, it's hard to find places and to know the musicians.

AAJ: Did you find it hard to become acquainted with Japanese jazz musicians? How did you go about doing this?

MP: I would just talk to musicians. Clubs are reasonably informal, and the players sometimes hang out, and like to talk with people, at least to get them to come to the next gig. I don't really hang out with them that much otherwise. I'm just too busy, and they don't have that many off nights themselves, and when they do, they've got stuff they want to do. But they are interested in foreign perspectives, and many have been to the States and are more worldly than a lot of other kinds of people. There is also a kind of closeted feel to how they react to "outsiders," and I'm a triple outsider—foreigner, critic, academic—and also, this seems funny, but, a short-timer, meaning, I might get up and leave any time, go back "home" or whatever. Japanese have a longer time frame for friendships and acquaintanceships.

AAJ: What was/is your sense of the roots of jazz in Japan? How far back can you trace them, and how did you learn about the origins?

MP: There are a lot of re-issues of CDs, but these tend to be out in limited numbers and not so easy to get ahold of. You have to be at that particular shop which stocks it during those particular couple weeks while it's still in stock, or you don't get anything. A lot of the re-issues are interesting from an historical point of view, but don't really swing. Partly it's the recording conditions then, but also the idea of recording then, kind of formal and stuffy. Also, Japanese jazz music then was probably considered more live music, not something that needed to be recorded or bought and sold in that form.

I've read some articles in the Japanese press. There is a real sense of tradition, and a backward looking view that privileges the past, in all sorts of odd ways. So, you'll find articles like on the jazz scene in Tokyo in the 60s or something. Older musicians in interviews, too, tend to talk about the past. But all of those things seem suspiciously revisionist in odd ways to me. Taylor Atkins ' Blue Nippon book, of course, goes into more depth than most books on this topic. There are a couple books I have in Japanese that have information.

AAJ: In his book Atkins examines the issue of authenticity as a creative tension in the lives of Japanese jazz musicians. What do you understand by his use of this term, and do you agree that this "anxiety of influence" is common in jazz musicians there?

MP: What creative person doesn't suffer from the anxiety of influence? Authenticity, when you take it as an artistic or life value, becomes very consuming. It's hard to handle, a tool at times, an obsession, a measure, a guide, a mantra. I'm not sure that Japanese musicians have this anxious tension over authenticity any more than anyone else does. They are aware of where jazz comes from, and there's a lot of ambivalence about their relation to American culture. Unquestionably, they have a love-hate relationship with America. But they also see jazz as a form, a style, a pattern. So, I think it's somewhat overstated in Atkins' book. Or, rather, it USED to be a central issue, but times have changed. Younger players in the States learn their licks from recordings, the same as musicians in Japan do. A lot of players go to study in the States, at Berklee or wherever. And there's a lot of democracy in jazz. If you're good, you're good; it doesn't matter where you come from. It would be the same as asking whether Japanese novels are authentic because the novel form was developed in England and France, or are Kurasawa's films really authentic because film is a medium developed in France and America.

This is an important question in one sense, but my impression of Japanese jazz musicians is that they select jazz from among a number of alternative forms of creative expression. Many of them are very talented in a number of areas, and they choose jazz for the feeling of freedom and being in the moment that improvisation allows. So they are trying to escape from the anxiety of influence from Japanese traditional culture, and they might not be so ready to accept anxiety about the power of influence from another culture. It's an escape from other tensions, maybe only the lesser of two evils, but it's a choice of openness, rather than an embarrassment.

Charles McPherson said to me when I interviewed him that he felt it a great honor to be performing in the tradition of bop, not a limitation in any way. I think many Japanese musicians have this same sense of privilege to be able to work in jazz. This feeling of gratitude maybe is more common than fear over not being authentic. Also, there's an important sense of respect which operates and determines a lot of attitudes. They respect America, black culture, values like freedom and having a good time, the hard work and dedication it takes to become a jazz musician. So, authenticity is maybe less the issue than respect, gratefulness, humility. It's easy to confuse Japanese expressions of humility with anxiety. There's a very different sense of hierarchy, too, and not the same rebellious spirit against the hierarchy, either. This is kind of a long answer, because I'm not so sure.

AAJ: Do you find Japanese jazz musicians bringing a knowledge of their country's musical or cultural traditions to their playing of jazz? What forms might these incorporations take? Can you name some musicians actively involved in "Japanese jazz"?

MP: Tricky issue. I think that Japanese jazz draws from Japanese traditions in a lot of ways. The arts are not so distinct traditionally in Japan. So, a poet was also a painter and a designer of teacups and a builder of houses and whatever else. Of course, that doesn't mean people didn't specialize. They did, even moreso maybe than in the States; but they have a sense of different arts. I think that there are aesthetic concepts like "wabi" and "sabi" and "yugen" which influence, if only unconsciously, Japanese jazz musicians. I'm working on an article where I classify Japanese jazz styles according to religious patterns, Shinto or Buddhist, popular Buddhism or refined, esoteric Buddhism. I've been working on this for a while, but it's not so fully developed. Still, the idea of Shinto and street festivals is a raucous, joyous, drunken celebration. Esoteric Buddhism would lead to refined, sophisticated working with tones. Zen would lead to the feeling of being in the moment, extended, intense improvisations.

It's rare that Japanese jazz musicians work directly with Japanese musical forms. Yosuke Yamashita has a wonderful CD of Japanese melodies: "Sakura" is the name. There's a group of foreign musicians here, Candela is one, who combine shakuhachi with Latin rhythms and jazz arrangement. Mike Price, a trumpeter who lives here, has done that kind of mixing in the past. But there are not so many who try to mix it at that level.

I think the kind of training from martial arts is drawn on for inspiration, as are other meditative types of arts, even if a lot of musicians would not admit to that. They might not admit it because they would not want to openly reveal the sources of their inspiration, nor pay disrespect to the jazz tradition. They would not have to explain it to each other, but would not want to appear to be foolish to a foreigner. Japanese jazz now seems to me just to mean jazz made primarily by Japanese-born nationals, and not much more.

AAJ: When you moved to Japan, what American players were visiting the country then?

MP: There's a steady stream. Not always whom you'd expect. I could probably dig up from a couple promoters their old lists of whom they were promoting.

AAJ: What reactions have Japanese jazz musicians had to the visits by American jazz players?

MP: If they have an off night, they go. Mostly, though, they're too busy to get out and get there. They have a very broad sense of the range of musicians, but it's not always expansive. They are obsessed with jazz, for sure, so they often have listened through the whole catalogue of one favorite player. I see them out at shows of serious players, taking it all in. They sometimes let their influences be determined by artistic factors, like who can really do this kind of sound, or that type of rhythm, or this famous CD, or that great song's chord progressions, rather than have a sense of just, oh, that's interesting. They don't always seem to admit to listening to, or they simply don't listen to, other types of music—African, blues, rock, R&B, gospel, whatever. They're more clicked into classical music, maybe. I'm always a little surprised how much they stick just to jazz. But again, I talk to them at jazz clubs, so maybe they don't let on, or think I'm a jazz snob or something.

AAJ: In the U.S., we sometimes picture Japanese jazz fans as fanatics, scrupulous collectors and purveyors of nearly every jazz album ever made. What do you think explains this intensity?

MP: This view is completely and entirely accurate. The Japanese listeners are fanatical. One guy I met at a club carries around a photograph of his record collection! Some jazz coffee shops allow you to choose the stylus you want to go with your requested record, and which speakers you like. I ran into one of the security guards from my college at a jazz coffee shop one day, and since then, we stop and chat about jazz. He reads my articles religiously and always has a small radio playing at his spot at the front gate, asking me where I've been that evening when I come back in or go out.

They have the best jazz press, if not always a critical one, in the world. One article I loved had a complete view of the Hammond B-3 organ. All the different makes, models, kinds, accompanying speakers, functions, interior photo shots, diagrams with explanations, the players, the albums, the history, EVERYTHING. And that's just the Hammond B-3!

Some Japanese fans are constantly disappointed with my knowledge, always mentioning people and albums and details that I don't know. I'm constantly embarrassed in these conversations. The liner notes on CDs are the most extensive I've ever seen. I learn an incredible amount from these additional notes, all sorts of facts and figures and lyrics and specifics on who's playing what on which track. It gets exhausting. But, they are never vituperative about it all, nor are they judgmental in an American argumentative way.

There are a couple of terms: kuwashii, which means to have intimate knowledge about something, and otaku, which is kind of like "nerd" with the sense of being obsessive. They are very aware of their fanaticism. Those terms could be negative, but really have a kind of respect in them. Why? Japanese are obsessive about a lot of things, compulsive too in a way that can drive you crazy. I don't know, really. They get a sense of identity from it. It's an escape, so why not make the escape complete? There's a sense of devotion, too, a kind of spiritual interest. It's hard to spend money on big houses or cars, so jazz fits into a smaller space, a frame of reference that is livable. But it's also interesting. It's not an embarrassment to be obsessed here; rather it's quite accepted.

There are fans of everything else—animation, actresses, travel, cars, whatever. It's also a kind of bulwark against being ripped off by the incredible consumer culture here which just inundates every available public space with advertising and crap to buy. Being interested in a lot of things is a waste of money, and a sign of bad taste. Japanese are also very literate, in the broadest sense of that word; maybe I mean very well read. It's a culture that rests on reading. They read all the time, so jazz is the kind of area that is augmented by reading, and is a kind of reading of texts, one huge intertextuality, if you will, that is appealing to the sophisticated urban consumer mindset. Also, jazz is free, open, wild within restrained limits. It has the right balance of incredible unpredictability, and careful, crafted control that fits with Japanese sensibilities. Jazz is rarely overstated, so it fits in with a kind of subtle set of aesthetic values, but is complicated enough to be infinite and unfinishable.

AAJ: When did you become involved in writing about jazz in Japan, and how did you get the jobs?

MP: I wrote about jazz for Tokyo Q, then the editors of the Japan Times asked me to do a column, then some other reviews, then the other online magazine Jjazz asked me to write for them. I know people here and there, and no one else knew jazz nor wrote. Just a few chance collocations of conditions. The usual.

AAJ: Do you have a sense of your jazz readership in Japan? How is this conveyed to you?

MP: Not really. I know about who reads the newspaper in general. Even the English press here is read at least half by Japanese who read English. I get e-mail from people. I talk with people at clubs. Now my column in Jjazz is translated into Japanese, so that really changes the readership. I have to write for the narrow jazz-savvy readership, but I try to keep things general enough to pull in a few unsuspecting potential converts as well. Musicians tell me they read my stuff, which is nice. They can't really say it's bad, of course, but they generally understand the balance of having to explain things like who John Coltrane is with the need to really say something insightful about the music. Call this the "anxiety of readership."

AAJ: Is jazz still so popular in Japan, or is it giving way to newer, younger music—punk, rap, techno, whatever?

MP: That depends on what you mean by popular. I think it's more popular here than in the States, maybe similar to the feeling about jazz in Europe. It's one of the big ironies, that America's original cultural form is more popular outside the country than in. I think in Japan there's a reduction maybe from the popularity of jazz in the 60s or 70s maybe, and the bubble years of the 90s just had money for everything consumable of any sort.

Younger music is immensely popular, of course. My students, who maybe are not a fair cross section, seem to know about jazz, if not to be really sure. One of the bands on campus had a Soulive number worked out at one of their music club performances. I was impressed. The dance society here always has jazz music to dance to. Medeski, Martin and Wood's CD The Dropper , right after it came out last year, was one that I remember being surprised by. Students ask to come with me to clubs, and I've gone out with as many as 20 to clubs. (The drinking laws here are not strict, so even 18 year olds would not be hassled.).

Jazz seems to be popular, and as available and popular as in other countries, maybe moreso generally.

AAJ: How have economic problems affected the jazz world in Japan?

MP: Badly, but not terribly badly. The bubble years were a high time for everyone. But generally, jazz has survived better than a lot of things have. It's not necessarily the first thing to suffer. But it's been affected with the closing of clubs. Still, new clubs have opened, but small ones have a hard time staying open on a small economic framework. Club owners always complain, and producers, too, but they're business people, so of course they complain about money.

On the other hand, in the last couple years, several new clubs have opened, and CD shops have expanded. So, the jazz world is hardly insulated, but it is also entrenched into the economic side of the culture. Some Japanese musicians return here, not just because they can't cut it in the States, but because they can support themselves here. There are many jazz and music schools. The situation is such that not making a massive profit is OK. The values of getting a small return on an investment and doing something for love are important economic and psychological principles that really operate still here.

AAJ: What do you see in the future for jazz in Japan?

MP: It's not going to stop or decrease. I think it will continue to be more appealing, but that's good and bad. I find that musicians are better able to balance accessible, fun sounds with solid, well-developed technique than in the past. They know they have to compete, and yet don't feel they need to drop their standards to do so. You hear things like Latin, or soul-jazz, or big, funky bands more now than in the past, I think. They use a lot of e-mail newsletters, web sites, and things to keep themselves up and running economically. But, I think that jazz is firmly ensconced here, and young people show up at clubs when they can. One club in town has a no-cover-charge night, and it was packed with students.

Jazz seems secure, in a sense, but it has to change. Jazz that is too snotty to explain itself, or loses touch with what people like to listen to in certain doses but not be smacked in the face with, has receded, in a sense. I guess I mean certain types of very free jazz, but not only that. Jazz that is too intellectual, or enjoyable only in an educated way, or that is too far removed from the emotional roots, or has a form that is not organic enough maybe will not maintain its listenership. There is also jazz that is very rarefied and appeals to the sophisticated listener, and it should be supported and developed. It would be sad if certain avenues of jazz that need to be explored were not followed along to their logical conclusions. So, maybe jazz is buckling in to the marketplace at the same time it is expanding in the marketplace and getting more listeners so that more varied and challenging forms are possible.


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