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A Choice of Openness: Michael Pronko on Jazz in Japan

By Published: July 3, 2004
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.

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