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A Choice of Openness: Michael Pronko on Jazz in Japan

By Published: July 3, 2004
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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