"I want to get back to basics, I want to play saxophone. I've started to love playing straight-ahead again," Sadao Watanabe said over the phone during a break in a gig at a Japanese club. The statement might be a little puzzling to American jazz fans who know Sadao (in Japan "Sadao" is as common a one-name appellation as Miles here or Pele in Brazil)if they know him at allas an alto saxophonist whose albums were fairly successful here in the '80s-90s. What is all this about "getting back"? Where else has he been?
Well, to the International EXPO (what they call World's Fair type events these days) in Spain earlier this summer for one, where he represented the Japanese government with performances he organized featuring an ensemble of 400, mostly teens and pre-teens, from various countries and continents, 300 singing and 100 playing percussion instruments. He started at EXPO 2005 in Japan, where he organized a week of events under the umbrella title "Share the World" and has been bringing the show to annual EXPOs and other international events ever since.
"Share the World" could be Watanabe's motto. Born into an artistic family in Utsunomiya, Japan, Feb. 1st, 1933 (his father was a professional musician who sang and played biwa, a Japanese lute; his older brother Fumio is an actor), as a teenager Watanabe was attracted to jazz, first playing clarinet, then alto sax. In the '50s he was a member of Toshiko Akiyoshi's Cozy Quartet, taking over as leader when she moved to the USA in 1956. He too came to the USA in 1962 to study at Berklee School of Music in Boston.
"When I was at Berklee I had a chance to join Gary McFarland and Chico Hamilton's bands," remembered Sadao. "Before that time I never had eyes for bebop, it was dull to me, but after a while I came to love it and Gary was a big reason for that." It was while touring in the States with McFarland and Hamilton that Sadao first heard bossa nova. "It was very lonely in my hotel rooms and I bought a Jobim album; it made me start to love, besides jazz, Brazilian music." One of Sadao's first hit albums in Japan after he returned, homesick, in 1965, ignited that country's bossa nova craze.
Unlike many jazz musicians from other parts of the world, Sadao did not stay an expatriate in the USA. When he returned to Japan, he said, "Young Japanese musicians asked me to teach them what I had learned studying at Berklee. Gary wanted me to come back and play with him but by that time I was committed to the school." That school was Yamaha Institute of Popular Music. There, as director, Sadao shared his jazz and Brazilian interests, interests that expanded to more of the world in the '70s.
"I visited Kenya in 1972 and began to love the African land and its peoples, whose rhythms and simple sung melodies had a big influence on me. When I was in Tanzania for their 10th Independence Year celebration in Dar Es Salaam, there were so many tribal groups all in one arena singing and drumming different music at the same time, but they each combined and all came together. It was a big happening." That's what ultimately inspired Sadao to put together the groups from around the world for "Share the World" concerts. Recently he's toured and recorded with the Cameroonian bass guitarist-singer Richard Bona and the Senegalese percussionist N'diasse Niang is a member of his working band.
Sadao Watanabe is a revered cultural figure in Japan, the first jazz musician to win his government's Grand Prix Award (1976), the first of many national and regional Japanese honors he's received. He's also had a jazz radio program in Japan for decades, not just spinning records but presenting live performances, many of his own compositions, which run the gamut from bop and swing to bossa nova, jazz-rock and pop. Through the years he's also toured and recorded with a number of Americans, from Chick Corea and Hank Jones to Mike Stern and the Galaxy All-Stars.
But he has a special fondness and longtime musical relationship with the alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano. "Charlie and I go back to 1967," he recalled. "He stayed at my house in Japan for a couple of months and we did tours together all over Japan and recorded too. I learned so much from Charlie. Bird was my idol and Charlie's too, but most of my Bird influence came from Charlie Mariano. We finally got together for a reunion and I recorded our gig in 2005 at the Nagoya Blue Note for my radio show, then put it out as a CD, Sadao and Charlie Again