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A Choice of Openness: Michael Pronko on Jazz in Japan

Wayne Zade By

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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.
AAJ: How would you describe your background in jazz? How did you first get interested in the music?
MP: My father loved jazz and had huge numbers of records. We went to every jazz show in Kansas City. He enjoyed going to the record store and filling up a grocery bag with records and bringing them home to listen to one by one. He also loved to play the music loud. As kids, we'd parade around the house with the music on. I fell asleep most nights with the music coming up the staircase, until I was old enough to have a radio with a turn-off sleep function of my own. I was never a jazz nut exclusively, and maybe still am not. I like all kinds of music, maybe also because my father played a lot of different kinds of music in addition to jazz. Music was always OK. My parents drove me down to the huge auditorium when I was 14 or so to see groups like Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Later, my father lent me his driver's license when I had a beard at 18, still too young to go into blues clubs where the age limit was 21.
AAJ: Do you play an instrument? Are you a jazz musician yourself?
MP: I play the piano and guitar. I played in jazz bands in high school, and rock bands, too. But I was never especially good. I could improvise well, and shoot through chord changes, but never practiced enough. I still play piano but mostly to figure out chord changes or just to amuse myself. My wife bought me some headphones for the electric piano.

AAJ: As you look back now, what is most important to you in your educational background?

MP: I studied philosophy, education and comparative literature. I also write fiction, essays, and academic articles. So, maybe I'm a writer first. Studying literature, though, was helpful in learning about structure, genre, historical approaches, theory and practice, and other issues that I think are the patterns into which jazz writing falls. And I have lived in Japan for many years teaching English.

AAJ: What led you to Japan, and how long did that take?

MP: It's a long story, but at college I studied philosophy and felt it was kind of narrow, all analytic, British stuff, nothing juicy. So, I lit out with a kind of Hemingway-novelist-romantic travel ideal for a couple years. That wore thin, and it's boring to have no money, so I became a teacher, picking up an M.A. at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. I taught in China for two years, then came to Japan for three, teaching English here in Tokyo. I went back to the University of Wisconsin—Madison to study Comp Lit, but I didn't finish the PhD due to, well, my desire to write, and the hassles of PC academia and tuition money. I dropped out and wrote two novels (unpublished still) and did research for a CD ROM on nuclear proliferation. Then, went to study Chinese for a year, then back to Japan to this current job teaching literature, composition, film and English.

AAJ: How long have you studied the Japanese language?

MP: I've studied Japanese off and on. I'm not that fluent, or not as fluent as I'd like to be. But, for work purposes, I can read everything I need to, if slowly, and musicians are generally easy to talk with. I took some classes there and here, and just have read a lot in Japanese to keep up with stuff in the Japanese jazz press, of which there is a lot.

AAJ: Were you writing about jazz in the U.S. before you moved to Japan?

MP: No, not really. I wrote a lot of other stuff, fiction mainly, and creative non-fiction. Also, academic essays on literature and things.

AAJ: What were your initial impressions of jazz in Japan?

MP: Well, initial impressions are determined by initial prejudices. At the time, I lived here before, I felt like Japanese jazz, music in general of all types, was fairly derivative. Rock and popular music still is, though I'd have to say that there are melodies, chord progressions, arrangements in popular music that I can readily identify as having a Japanese style, moreso than with jazz. All music in Japan is starting to have more of its own flavor, or maybe the whole world is losing its flavor so you don't notice? It depends on how, and why, you compare.

AAJ: How did you encounter the music when you came to Japan?

MP: I went out a lot, and at that time, there were tremendous CD rental places. You could rent CDs, then make cassette tapes for yourself. I have boxes full of cassettes at my sister's and my parents' place. I went out often, but not all that often. Without knowing enough Japanese, it's hard to find places and to know the musicians.

AAJ: Did you find it hard to become acquainted with Japanese jazz musicians? How did you go about doing this?

MP: I would just talk to musicians. Clubs are reasonably informal, and the players sometimes hang out, and like to talk with people, at least to get them to come to the next gig. I don't really hang out with them that much otherwise. I'm just too busy, and they don't have that many off nights themselves, and when they do, they've got stuff they want to do. But they are interested in foreign perspectives, and many have been to the States and are more worldly than a lot of other kinds of people. There is also a kind of closeted feel to how they react to "outsiders," and I'm a triple outsider—foreigner, critic, academic—and also, this seems funny, but, a short-timer, meaning, I might get up and leave any time, go back "home" or whatever. Japanese have a longer time frame for friendships and acquaintanceships.

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