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Japan's Jazz Coffeeshops


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Michael Molasky, jazz pianist and history professor at the University of Minnesota, spent a year traveling up and down the islands of Japan seeking out the proprietors of jazz coffeeshops. He recounted his discoveries to a UCLA audience at a colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center on October 27 2008.

Japan's first jazz coffeeshop appeared in 1929 when the Blackbird opened across the street from Tokyo University and played “jazz"- which in Japan applied to many genres of western music- for its customers. These ongaku kissa, or music cafes, were designed to introduce Japanese customers to foreign music and continued to play a range of music until the late 1950s, when perceptions of jazz changed.

It was then that an influx of French nouveau films, which used modern jazz as a soundtrack, set the genre apart from popular music. The “modern" jazz coffeeshop appeared, attracting an intellectual crowd that was more underground than mainstream. In 1961, American jazz drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers toured Japan with their album The Freedom Rider. Molasky said it was the first time many Japanese had seen an African American and “after seven years of occupation and massive influx of American culture, in the Japanese imagination, the face of jazz turns black." Intellectuals in Japan followed the American Civil Rights Movement that began in the 1950s. The association of jazz with oppressed African Americans “allowed for an identification with American culture that ideologically [the Japanese] would have otherwise had a hard time pursuing."

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