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"Thousands of Bouquets": An Interview with Gary Burton on Jazz and Japan

Wayne Zade By

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...Not all that long since World War II had ended... It was not yet that common for major jazz artists to go to Japan regularly... When we arrived at the airport, there were hundreds and hundreds of people, and it was almost midnight.
This article was originally published at All About Jazz in May 2000 as part of a "Jazz and Japan" interview series.

All About Jazz: What do you remember about your first trip to play in Japan?

Gary Burton: I was 19 years old, playing with George Shearing. We spent five weeks in Japan playing in about five different cities. I had a lot of days off, so I explored Tokyo, Osaka, etc., and began to learn about Japan. I hadn't read or studied much about Japan before I went there—just read some tourist books, nothing serious. I spent a lot of time just taking the subway and walking around.

I didn't really encounter any major problems with the language. If you're there, staying in hotels, that kind of thing, and you have a promoter and a company that's responsible for getting you to and from the gig, etc., everyone involved speaks English. If you go into stores, like department stores, there are always English-speaking people who rush up to interpret for you. I've never found communicating in Japan much of a problem. The taxi drivers tend not to know English, so you're always careful to have addresses and directions, your destination, written down to show to them. And by hanging out, you pick up a little Japanese too. I had a little phrase book that I reviewed before the first time I went to Japan, just to learn some basic words.

My theory, and it's worked pretty well in most languages, is that if you learn about 50 words—what, when, why, where, how; how to count from one to ten; hot-cold, right-left; stop-go—combining those key words with pointing, you don't make sentences but you can communicate essentials. You can't carry on a coversation, but you can sort of function. I've gone over to Japan many times now, but I've only gotten very little more adept at communicating. I'm always with English-speaking people, including Makoto Ozone or Tiger Okoshi, or other Japanese musicians I often play with.

AAJ: What impressions about Japan did you receive from other American jazz musicians who had travelled there to play before you did?

GB: Everyone always loves playing in Japan. The public is very respectful, and everyone takes wonderful care of you. There is such a commitment to treating guests well. You never have to pick up an instrument case or your luggage, or anything of that kind. That's all done for you. You never have to tip anyone, as you do in the rest of the world. People seem always around, ready to run any errand for you, get you anything you even casually mention, that you might want or be interested in. It just suddenly appears, or someone is quickly sent off to track it down. You would never think of asking a promoter in the States for assistance like that!

For example, I noticed a kind of stopwatch that is made by Seiko, very clever. And I thought, "Oh, it would be great to have one of those." I mentioned it to Chick [Corea] and he thought he'd like one too. So I asked somebody, "Do you know where these are sold? What kind of store would you go to?" And he said, "We'll find out." Of course within an hour, they called back. They had sent someone out who bought two of the watches and would have them to our rooms right away. That is typical of the Japanese.

Yet a more interesting point about this whole topic is the change that has gone on in Japan over the past few decades. The first time I went, in 1963, that was not all that long since World War II had ended. It was not yet that common for major jazz artists to go to Japan regularly. It was still a real special event. I was there with George Shearing, as I've mentioned. When we arrived at the airport, there were hundreds and hundreds of people, and it was almost midnight. It was like the Boston Red Sox coming home after winning the pennant with the fans out to welcome them! Here we are, getting off after a 30 hour trip in a prop plane, or whatever it was at that time, exhausted from travelling, and there were just huge crowds, with floodlights lighting up the tarmac. It took us hours to get out of the airport because of having to be interviewed and pictures having to be taken. Fans were running around, and there were thousands of bouquets of flowers handed to us. When we played our concerts, there were hundreds and hundreds of autograph seekers at the end, almost pop group style, causing crowd problems. For jazz musicians!

But with each decade that has passed, that kind of attention has declined. As it has become more and more common for American jazz musicians to tour Japan, it's no longer a rare event—we all go there every year now. In Japan now, there are clubs that are open all year round, with major artists every week, like the Blue Note clubs. Major festivals, that sort of thing. So the Japanese audiences, as with the ones in Europe too, have become less starstruck by the phenomenon of American musicians showing up. The musicians now are treated increasingly more typically as they would be by audiences anywhere. But underlying this there is still just a basic hospitality ethic in the Japanese people. It has less to do with musicians now; it just has to do with anyone.

It's instilled in their culture that any guest should be treated well, that they should be waited on hand and foot. In fact, some musicians have this startling discovery, which is that they decide to stay on in Japan, and rent an apartment and try to live there, or they marry a Japanese person and decide to live there. Then, of course, the situation immediately reverses. Now they're no longer guests, they're foreign immigrants—gaijin. They're not that welcome anymore. The Japanese love having you as a guest, but they're really not thrilled with the idea of you actually living there and taking a place in their neighborhood and taking their jobs and that sort of thing. The American musicians who have done this have told me that it's been an uphill battle to get respect, to be taken seriously. They often feel like they're being snubbed or treated rudely: something the Japanese would never do to a guest. So it's a matter of status, and this would be not just to musicians but to all foreign visitors. This surprises people because the Japanese are so great to you when you're visiting. You can't believe that they could turn around 180 degrees.

AAJ: Have you performed primarily in Tokyo, or in other cities or towns as well?

GB: On that first visit, I was primarily in Tokyo, but also five other cities for a day or two each. Over the years, I have been pretty much all over Japan, and probably have seen more of it than most Japanese musicians. That's what the Japanese musicians have always told me. They say, "Oh, you've been to Niigata?" "You've been to Sendai?" "You've played in Okayama?" It's more common for the typical jazz musician in Japan to stay based in Tokyo. Or based in Osaka. When American jazz musicians come over, the promoters will look for dates wherever they can find them and will tour you around the country. Over the course of nearly 40 years of touring there, I've really been pretty much everywhere.
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