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Todd Barkan: Continuation and Augmentation

By Published: December 23, 2009
AAJ: What do you think it is about jazz that appeals to Japanese audiences?

From left: Grady Tate, Freddy Cole, Todd Barkan

TB: From only the strictly statistical point of view, straight-ahead jazz accounts for just about two per cent of the record buying public, whether it is in the Japanese or U.S. or the European marketplace, but the worldwide jazz audience is a much more profound and widespread phenomenon than that—reaching people of all ages and persuasions.

The Japanese jazz audience is as dedicated and passionate as any jazz audience has ever been in the history of our music. For many, many years, jazz musicians such as Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
and even Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
would make a considerable amount of their income in Japan. The Japanese paid well, they paid all expenses—they had to: if they wanted you to come over there, they picked up your airline and hotel bills. So the Japanese quickly established themselves as a legitimate—no, not just legitimate, but passionate and important and vital—ongoing jazz market, supporters of the culture of jazz.

As a producer of jazz recordings, I'm even aware of the passion that Japanese jazz fans have just regarding certain songs. I don't find that in the American jazz market at all, it doesn't exist. There are no devotees in the States for "My Foolish Heart" or people who love "Autumn Leaves" and have every recording ever made of it. Or "Angel Eyes." There are certain songs, and of course in that culture there is a certain partiality to minor keys. Minor keys are part of what their passion is about. That's not saying they don't like songs in major keys, but there's a predilection among Japanese listeners for songs in minor keys. Minor keys seem to strike more emotional resonance overall. That's a very pronounced element of the Japanese jazz listener's profile.

AAJ: As an instrument, the piano seems particularly favored by Japanese listeners—piano trios, in fact.

TB: By far the most popular format for Japanese jazz recordings, for what Japanese fans will buy and support, is piano trio recordings. It comes, over the years I think, from great love for artists like Kenny Drew
Kenny Drew
Kenny Drew
1928 - 1993
piano
and his trio, Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
and his trio, Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal
b.1930
piano
and his trio. These groups had that emotional resonance with the Japanese jazz fans and popular music fans. It's the pristine nature of it, the classic dimensions of the piano, bass, and drums, in perfect balance and harmony with each other.

AAJ: It's like a string quartet in classical music.

TB: Right. It's the jazz version of a string quartet.

Then the second most popular format is the tenor saxophone with piano trio. But that doesn't really factor in the popularity of someone like Miles Davis, who defies all categories.

AAJ: Sure, or Art Blakey, whom you mentioned earlier.

TB: Or Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Now Art Blakey brings up an important part of the story. Art Blakey was one of the first jazz artists to become extremely popular, even on billboards, all throughout the Japanese scene. Papa-san was an icon, a folk hero, of pop star magnitude in Japan. He played everywhere, little clubs, big halls, all over that country, regularly. I became more aware of his status when I used to book him two weeks on his way to Japan, or two weeks on his way home from Japan, at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. Even in the '70s his tours there were still going on, and they started in the '50s.

What happened after World War II is that in the rehabilitation of the Japanese state, or in the very transitory period of Occupation by the American government, the Japanese got on their feet again very quickly and developed a wonderful "new" culture. Two things, two American elements, really took root: baseball and jazz [bebop]. The Japanese adopted these things as their own. And American songs. The Great American Songbook, which had been popular, even before the war, became even more popular. All things American became more popular. But baseball and bebop, and hard bop eventually with Art Blakey, became exceptionally popular. That is what we are still experiencing today, a continuation and augmentation of that popularity.

Now it's true that the Japanese jazz market has "grayed," a lot like the American jazz market has. Many older listeners have continued to support the music, whereas it has been more of a challenge to reach out to and significantly develop a really large number and percentage of younger listeners. I disagree with recent articles in the press—Terry Teachout did something recently in the Wall Street Journal and there have been several others. I profoundly disagree with these articles on "the death of jazz." I think in many important ways the actual audience for real jazz is growing and more and more younger people are growing to appreciate jazz. I saw that great young audience when I was working at the original Keystone Korner in San Francisco and now I see it even more at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola and the other concert venues at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Twenty-year-olds screaming to Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
b.1926
drums
' drum solos, and (to) Charles McPherson
Charles McPherson
Charles McPherson
b.1939
sax, alto
's alto saxophone cadenzas.

The overriding reality operative here is that we have an entire "civilization" suffering from Attention Deficiency Disorder Syndrome, which makes it extremely difficult for any of us to concentrate on (anything) for more than a few moments.

It's just hard because of all the "background noise" there is in the culture—all the environmental buzz that we have to cut through. It's the cacophony of everyday modern life, the ADD/ADHD that our universal culture suffers from, the sensory bombardment. It's harder to cut through that media haze, for anything to be heard, much less some quality jazz. Anything of quality has a much harder time getting through. There is just more crap disseminated more effectively than there's ever been.

It's hard to know whom to "consult" with, if you're a jazz fan. Jazz critical writing doesn't pay very well, and as a result, writers are struggling to even make a living. So jazz doesn't always attract the highest level writers, the most discerning writers. There are a lot of writers who write about jazz who for whatever reasons just wind up writing little "puff pieces" or short little advertising blurbs instead of any incisive journalism or cogent analysis.


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