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A Choice of Openness: Michael Pronko on Jazz in Japan

By Published: July 3, 2004
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.

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