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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.

AAJ: Are the Japanese musicians pretty cool with that, or is there a little bit of resentment on their part?

GB: No resentment. The Japanese musicians seem very happy that the American musicians come over. Because, in fact, we generally don't stay. Now there is a difference in Europe. There's a fair amount of resentment among European musicians of the idea of American musicians taking their jobs. And, of course, there's far more of a tradition of American musicians setting up homes in European cities, and also often filling the jazz festivals, taking the higher-paying jobs in the radio bands and that sort of thing. The local European musicians often speak resentfully—they don't blame the musicians so much; they blame the hiring authorities, the concert promoters, the festival organizers. They say things like, "All the promoters want is the American names. They won't give us a chance. It's our country, and it's our tax money. We should be headlining these festivals, not all these American groups!" I've never heard Japanese musicians express that sort of thing because, for one thing, there's little likelihood that an American musician is going to take away the local gigs. Working in Japan is much more strictly controlled. You can't book yourself on a gig. You can't go to the country without a work permit that's been applied for through the government. Every gig you do has to be approved. In Europe, you can book your own dates. You can stay an extra month or two, and if you can hustle up more work, there are no restrictions. England has restrictions; work permits are required there. The rest of Europe is open territory in that respect.

AAJ: You have played both concert halls and clubs in Japan. Are there differences in the audiences, in the sense of decorum at each?

GB: Oh, absolutely. We often joke around about the Japanese audiences because they're very quiet and when they applaud, it's very polite. They don't stamp their feet and yell and whistle, the way American and European audiences often do. The applause from the Japanese audiences tends to be shorter too. There is the possibility—Chick discovered this and told me about it and I realized it was true—that you can sometimes get a Japanese audience to lose control and become wildly expressive and noisy and whatever. But it's rare that it happens. The Japanese usually stay somewhat formal. They're enjoying it just as much, but again, it's a national cultural thing of decorum. The men are more apt to be wearing a suit and tie and more apt to think of going to a jazz concert as the equivalent of going to a classical concert.

The audiences are a bit looser in clubs, but only to an extent. I've always assumed that part of that is cultural and part is financial. People are paying a fortune to hear American jazz groups in clubs. The last time Chick and I were playing at the Blue Note, it seemed like it was costing something like $100 per person to get in and $20 or $30 for the drink minimum. There's a sense that the audiences are paying for the music practically by the note and they don't want to miss any of it! They don't want to be annoyed by anyone else so even the applause for soloists or between soloists is very brief or abrupt because they don't want to cut into the next soloist's time. Everyone I know says that on the first two or three gigs you play in Japan, you're not used to the level of applause, the lower level of response you get from the audiences. Your instincts keep saying, "Hey, we're not getting through here, they're not into it. We've got to put more energy into it, they're not reacting." But it takes you two or three gigs to adjust to their level of response. As a tour goes on, you stop noticing this because you've gotten used to it. The audiences are just typically less noisy and intense than elsewhere.

AAJ: Were you involved in teaching situations in Japan? And could you describe your experience in teaching Japanese students at Berklee?

GB: At Berklee, the Japanese students are our largest contingent of foreign students. There are between 300 and 400 Japanese students, out of a student body of about 3,000, so about 10 per cent. Thirty five per cent of our students are foreign students, and a big chunk of that, a third of that 35 per cent, is the Japanese students. (The second largest group is Korean students, by the way.) But the figures say more about affluence than they do about the influence of jazz. It's easier for the Japanese to afford a college education in the States than, say, someone from Venezuela or Brazil.

But there is a tradition in Japan of music being taught to everyone in the public schools. And it is highly encouraged. Keep in mind that the Japanese are very big on supporting their own corporations. And Yamaha, for instance, is a big one. So it's in Yamaha's best interests for everyone in Japan to play musical instruments. There are lots of music companies in Japan besides Yamaha—Roland and many others. It seems to me quite natural that the powers-that-be in Japan would strongly encourage a wide study of music in the population because it helps to support these key industries that are part of its economy.

AAJ: And this applies to jazz too?

GB: As in the States, it applies to general music, and a certain number of kids who take music in school in Japan will also get interested in jazz, as they do here. There are a lot of high school and middle school jazz bands in Japan, just as there are here. Certainly also in college and university settings. So, there are also clinics.

AAJ: Is this something that has developed more recently over the years you've been going to Japan?

GB: Yes. It started in Japan in tandem with the movement in the U.S. Clinics and school jazz bands and so on didn't really take off here until the '70s. When I was looking for a school to go to in 1960, there were only two schools in the country where you could study jazz: Berklee and North Texas. By ten years later, there were maybe a couple of hundred. By 20 years later, there were a thousand colleges that had some kind of jazz program. The situation in Japan seemed to mirror that in the States, that is, it went from a bare beginning, probably in the mid-'60s to the '70s, then started to grow rapidly—more teaching, more education. In fact, Yamaha itself started music schools all over Japan that taught kind of a popular music—teaching people how to compose songs, how to play standards, popular songs, and folk music, touches of jazz. Certainly a good introduction into the jazz world, better than, say, a conservatory teaching only Mozart or something.

I will say that the Japanese students, as with all things they study, have a very strong practice ethic. They work hard at their craft, and in that sense, put the typical American students, who can seem pretty lazy, to shame. The Japanese students go to school 11 months a year, six days a week. They're there all day, they put in an eight hour day. So they treat their music the same way; they work very hard at it, and they're very diligent students.

AAJ: In addition to Makoto Ozone and Tiger Okoshi, have you played with other Japanese jazz musicians in Japan?

GB: Of the major players on the Japanese scene, I've played with two brothers—one of them just died recently. The Hino brothers. Terumasa Hino is the trumpet player, a wonderful musician, and he lives in New York. His brother was Motohiko Hino. He passed away—kidney failure? Something happened suddenly. He was in his '40s, probably. He had stayed in Japan and was a wonderful drummer, sort of an Elvin Jones-type stylist, and was probably the #1 jazz drummer in Japan.

And there's Sadao Watanabe, the saxophonist, probably the most famous jazz musician in Japan. He is an old friend of mine and was a fellow student at Berklee, so I've played with him occasionally. Sadao lives in Tokyo, and we don't really stay in touch a lot now, maybe every three or four years at some event in Japan, or he is in Boston to play a gig and stops by at Berklee. I saw him the last time about two or three years ago.

There have been other Japanese musicians I've played with off and on, like at jam sessions at festivals, or a pick-up rhythm section that's played with me at some event. Festivals used to be a bigger thing in Japan than they are now. There was a period from the mid-'70s through the '80s when festivals were very big there. Every summer there was "Live Under the Sky," the Blue Note Festival at Mt. Fuji, and maybe a dozen others in smaller venues in cities around the country. So every summer you'd end up doing a bunch of them. Most of them, because of the economic recession, have lot their big funding that allows them to put on such a big affair. Chick was the music director for one called the Tama Festival, outside of Tokyo. He did that for several years in a row and I was on it several times—huge productions, television, crowds of tens of thousands. But they lost the funding because money became in short supply.

The majority of the jazz promoters in Japan went out of business as well. There were about four long-standing concert promoters in the jazz field in Japan, and one by one they either retired or shut down their businesses or went bankrupt or something during the past decade-long recession that the country has been in. Only the Blue Note clubs have stayed consistently still going. Even one of those was going to close recently, but someone new took it over and reopened it, the one in Fukuoka. But you could say that the glory days of the big-time jazz scene in Japan probably came to an end at the end of the '80s.

It's not all over, but things are now a bit subdued at the moment. And conservative too. You see a lot of reissued recordings. But bear in mind that CDs there cost close to $40. People buy them there in a different way from how Americans buy them. They don't buy CDs on impulse. It's a thing to be selected very carefully and then savored as part of your collection. Here we sample all kinds of things. You find marked down discount versions and you say to yourself, "I'll check this guy out. I've heard things about him, some new guitarist, so let's see what he's into." The Japanese never would buy a recording on that basis. In fact, it's amazing to me. The typical income in the Japanese society is comparable to that in our society. A worker in an auto plant or a clerk in a store or a teacher in a school—they make the same or a little bit less than their American counterparts. And yet, the things they buy—their rent, their food, their concert tickets, their CDs are all dramatically more expensive than they would be in the States. I can't figure it out. And yet they have a high savings rate as well! I don't know how they manage it. A person here making $30,000 a year would have trouble going to $100 concerts or to clubs or buying $40 CDs. Or paying $1500 a month for a one room studio apartment. And yet that's what goes on. It's amazing. It's not only wealthy people who come to jazz concerts in Japan—in fact, it's usually not. It's usually the same old mix of middle class people that show up here in the States. The Japanese jazz listeners just really love the music, and they seem to manage their finances much more carefully, less wastefully than we do.

AAJ: Have you recorded for Japanese companies, or do you have much experience with the record business in Japan?

GB: I don't really know much about the Japanese record industry, but I have recorded a few times for Japanese companies. I've guested on other people's records there once or twice and I've done a couple of one-shot deals. I was in Japan with a bunch of Berklee faculty once and made a deal with JVC to do a Berklee All Stars record; we went into the studio for one day and recorded and so on. I've never been signed as an artist to a Japanese company. But I have recorded in Japan and I've met some of the Japanese record people who are the affiliates of my American companies. The people at MCA-Victor, for example, who were the distributors for GRP and ECM during the years I was on those labels. And I've met Makoto's record people from Verve-Japan. I've never worked for them directly but they show up at gigs that we do, so I've gotten to know them.

AAJ: Can we close with your telling me a bit about your association with Chick Corea? He has played a lot in Japan.

GB: Of all jazz musicians, Chick might almost hold the record for having worked more in Japan than anyone else. He has always been a big star in Japan and used to go there two or three times a year. I would go once a year; he would go two or three times, year after year. He has done everything from symphony concerts to major festival dates where he's been the producer to endless tours with all his bands. He's quite a Japanophile!

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