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Tokyo Jazz Joints: Capturing An Old Love Story

Ian Patterson By

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It’s fundamentally a project to document these places before they disappear, which is happening. As the project goes on places are closing. —Philip Arneill
Click the Slideshow button above to view the photos.

Could you imagine coffee shops in any North American or European city that played jazz non-stop all day, or bars where, variously, as you quenched your thirst, you heard only Blue Note Records, free-jazz or the music of, say, Miles Davis, according to the bar owner's tastes? Could you imagine such places where speaking is not only frowned upon but is actually banned in reverence to the music? Probably not, on both counts.

In Japan, and especially in Tokyo, however, it's a different story. There, in hundreds of cafés and small, dimly-lit basement bars, Japanese jazz aficionados gather to ritually listen to the music—mostly on vinyl—often referred to as America's greatest contribution to the arts. The hidden world of Tokyo's jazz cafés/bars pre-dates World War II, with many of today's jazz joints having existed for decades.

Gradually and inexorably, however, Tokyo's jazz joints are beginning to disappear. Real estate development is encroaching on old buildings, but more significantly, age is catching up with the owners and their loyal clientele alike. Soon, this most underground of Japanese niche traditions is likely to be a thing of the past.

Two expat residents in Japan, American writer and podcaster James Catchpole, and Irish photographer Philip Arneill have set about documenting Tokyo's jazz joints for posterity. In just over two years they have already photographed over a hundred of these jazz cafés and bars. With steely determination they are on a mission to capture images of as many of remaining venues as time allows.

Their visual documentation of this little known part of Japanese culture helps shed some light on the country's enduring love affair with jazz.

It's a love affair almost as old as jazz itself.

Buried Treasure

"Most people think that jazz came to Japan after WWII with American soldiers, but actually it far predates that," says Catchpole. "Jazz first came to Japan in the 1920s when 78 records were being imported and you had Swing halls in the downtown Ginza area of Tokyo, where people would go swing dancing. This was a time in Japanese history when westernization was encouraged and people were embracing all the fashions and trends of the West. Jazz was considered to be modern culture."

One of the oldest jazz joints, Chigusa, opened its doors to jazz vinyl lovers in Yokohama in 1933. Eighty plus years later, Chigusa is still going, although as Arneill explains, its long history hasn't been without trials.

"Japan changed in the war years when Western music was banned and any shops dealing in Western music were closed. The legend about Chigusa goes that when the authorities were cracking down on degenerate Western art the owner took all his 78 records and buried them in his garden, because otherwise they'd have been destroyed. The story may be apocryphal—no-one really knows—but the fact is that the day the war ended he re-opened his shop and he still had his records."

The original owner of the jazz café Chigusa died in the 1980s, after which family members took it over until 2000, when the café closed, seemingly ending almost seventy years of spinning jazz vinyl. As Arneill explains, however, fate was to intervene.

"Some fans got together, formed a sort of collective and re-opened it. It's now slightly down the street from its original site but it still has all the original fittings and the original speakers. And it still has a vinyl menu. The menus are less common these days."

Joining the Dots

The story of the Tokyo Jazz Joints project goes back to when Catchpole—a twenty-year resident of Japan— discovered the city's jazz joints while studying political science.

"I would go to the local day-time jazz café where this guy had an entire wall of jazz magazines dating back to the late 1950s. I could read Japanese a bit, so I'd go there every day instead of going to the University library. I'd just hang out, have a coffee, read and the next thing you know it's night-time and I'm having some beers. I thought I had found the greatest jazz place in the world. What I didn't realize at the time was that there wasn't just one."

Some of the regulars directed Catchpole to another jazz joint in the vicinity and his nose soon led him to one after another.

"I discovered that these places existed all around the Tokyo metro area. The Tokyo metro area is the world's biggest city. There are thirty three million people and it encompasses a whole range of towns including Yokohama where I live, which has three million people. Nobody knows for sure how many jazz cafés and jazz bars there are. I've been to a hundred and thirty five jazz spots and I believe I'm about half way there."

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