Real Blues People: Jazz in Japan

Wayne Zade By

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Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan
E. Taylor Atkins
Duke University Press

A recent issue of Jazz Times is devoted to yet another forum on the hoary conundrum of jazz and race. Whose music is jazz and who plays it authentically, African Americans or Caucasians? In discussions such as this, jazz musicians of other races are usually not considered or held to the test of authenticity in their playing. In the Jazz Times feature, no mention is made of Asian jazz musicians or Asian-American jazz musicians, although their achievements in jazz are well enough known and are of increasing social and cultural interest among American musicians. The world beat does go on.

The case of Japanese jazz musicians and the subject of jazz in Japan have been treated over the past 40 or 50 years in America only occasionally in magazine feature stories and in academic theses. Indeed, the foundation of E. Taylor Atkins’ landmark book was his doctoral dissertation in Japanese history at the University of Illinois. But in Blue Nippon, happily Atkins finds a middle style between dull academic obfuscation on the one hand and “jazz buff history,” the gooey nightmare of his dissertation director on the other hand. Blue Nippon is a highly intelligent, eminently readable analysis of the issue of “authentication” for Japanese jazz musicians, written by a scholar whose love of music and the people who play it is obvious.

Atkins explains in his Prelude that he has adhered to one of the basic premises of ethnomusicological research: the understanding of a society or culture through facets of its music, which he identifies as “musical sounds, performance, aesthetics, training, and instrumentation.” Specifically, Atkins argues in this book that “the Japanese fascination with jazz throughout the century has been precisely because the music encapsulated and represented struggles over identity and creativity in a way no other single art has.” Despite the facts that show that jazz is no more popular in Japan than any other form of music and that it accounts for about the same percentage of sales as it does in the U.S. (about 3%), he hopes that one of the outcomes of his book will be “a new outlook on Japan’s seemingly endless debates on modernity and identity as well as a better understanding of how jazz transformed global culture.”

Atkins’ term “the authenticity complex” involves both Japanese jazz musicians’ images of themselves and images held about them by American jazz musicians. The dominant images of both are negative: Japanese jazz musicians are derivative players, they imitate or copy American masters’ styles and do not take the traditions of the music in new directions. To say that a Japanese jazz musician is the Japanese Sonny Rollins (Miyazawa Akira) or the Japanese Gene Krupa (George Kawaguchi) would be considered a left-handed compliment at best. While a Japanese jazz musician might display a certain technical facility reminiscent of an American artist, he or she would only be thought of in terms of that artist, but decidedly lacking the artist’s creative vision, a characteristic so vital in jazz.

Atkins acknowledges that the stereotype of Japan as a “nation of imitators” is rooted deeply in some aspects of Japanese culture, such as the emphasis on conformity, the rigidity of the school system, centuries of “cultural borrowing,” and the apprentice-master tradition, the “primacy of the ‘school’ (iemoto) in Japan’s artistic and musical tradition.” However, Atkins also points out the extremity of the effort to perform a Japanese national style of jazz, “Japanized” jazz, played with Japanese instruments and vaguely owing something to a Zen approach to music, involving a minimalist leaving of space in the music. Atkins regards such efforts only as mixed blessings at best. Ultimately they represent only a fraction of the creative potential he sees and hears in Japanese jazz musicians.

Atkins’ citation of a statement by the pianist Yosuke Yamashita seems to sum up his own position in writing this book. Yamashita has said that he thinks of jazz “as a kind of gift for people living in the twentieth century.” Yamashita has also identified improvisation as the “greatest thing about jazz”: “I could play with musicians of different fields only if their music has a sense of improvisation.” In this regard, Atkins also believes that Amiri Baraka’s term “blues people” could be applied to Japanese jazz musicians in that blues is a way of life or “mode of being” for them too: “Japan’s real blues people live for individual self-expression and the yet unmade and unheard sound.”

It is these people’s stories, gleaned from significant historical moments and told in an evolutionary narrative, that eloquently provide the body and soul of Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan. A sense of chronology is evident in the book, but its six principal chapters revolve around key themes. The cast of characters is huge and contains many names probably “deserving of wider recognition” by American listeners.

This book is highly recommended for readers interested in Japanese history and culture, particularly since World War II, as well as the history and culture of jazz. In the year in which Ken Burns’s Jazz: A Film appeared, a film that neglects to mention many aspects of jazz besides jazz in Japan, Taylor Atkins’ book begins to fill a significant gap in our knowledge of the music.

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