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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."

To the American student's surprise, none of the jazz cafés or jazz bars had a website. "There's a website for everything in Japan. Every random foreigner has a website documenting shopping, or ramen noodles, or tea ceremonies, but nobody was doing a website in English devoted to these jazz joints. I decided to make one," he explains.

Catchpole's initial goal was to share these venues with foreign jazz fans for whom it was a hidden world. "If you don't read Japanese you can't even understand a map how to get there and some of these places are incredibly hard to find. It can be bewildering; the visual aspect of Tokyo can be really overwhelming. I spent a lot of time hunting out these places."

At first, Catchpole's website was little more than a blog or directory, recording each jazz joint as he discovered it, giving directions on how to get there and the type of jazz it played. The current expanded website project and international photographic exhibition that is Tokyo Jazz Joints really took off when Catchpole met Arneill at one of the photographer's exhibitions.

Arneill had previously documented Japanese rockabillies and, in a series of spectacular photographs, the jazz dance scene in Tokyo. It was at a major exhibition of the latter that the two met. Arneill offered to accompany Catchpole to take photographs of Tokyo's jazz joints and offer a visual dimension to Catchpole's existing website, an offer that Catchpole leapt upon.

"I had been waiting for someone to say that for eight years so I was very excited to have someone like Philip with a proper camera and the proper skills."

For Arneill, the motivation was simple. "It's fundamentally a project to document these places before they disappear, which is happening. As the project goes on places are closing."

Tea with your Coltrane?

For those who haven't experienced one of Tokyo/Japan's jazz joints they can be difficult to visualize. "Most people's image of a jazz club is a rather ritzy place where you get suited up, drink wine and listen to people in suits playing—the kind of thing you see in the movies," says Catchpole.

"In Japan it's very different. You do have those clubs but by far the majority of places that people listen to jazz in are tiny cafes called kissaten, which means tea-house in Japanese language."

Kissaten originated in the latter half of the nineteenth century and quickly became popular throughout the country. Their popularity soared in the early twentieth century with the advent of vinyl records and peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. There were two reasons for their growth, as Catchpole explains.

"After World War II most Japanese people couldn't afford a record player and they certainly couldn't afford imported albums from the United States. So, if you wanted to hear the new Miles Davis record or the new John Coltrane record you would go to the café and the owner would put it on."

As Catchpole points out, this was a custom that didn't exist in the United States where people owned their own hi-fi systems, bought records and listened to them at home. Of course, juke boxes were ubiquitous in bars and cafés throughout the United States from the 1940s on, where swing could be heard alongside classical, rock 'n' roll, country and pop music, but jazz then, as now, was niche music.

The second reason for the popularity of kissaten as places to go specifically to listen to records was due to more aesthetic considerations.

"If you've been to Japan you'd know that you can't play loud music in your house when the wall between your apartment and the next apartment is about one inch thick," says Catchpole. "Putting on a really loud Charles Mingus record is just not going to work out—that's if you even had a stereo," he adds.

Effectively, the kissaten enabled young Japanese jazz fans not only to learn about the music but also to hear it played on quality stereo systems, which in most cases were hand-built by the café owners.

"Even today when I go to a café the owners will spend a lot of time talking to me about how they put together their audio system, how they built their speakers, what kind of amp they're using," Catchpole relates. "They're quite proud of it and the sound is amazing in most of these places.

Let Freedom Ring!

In the radicalized 1960s, the jazz cafés were also places where Japanese students could gather to talk about politics.

"Japan was a very different country then than it is today," Catchpole expands. "People were very politically active and there was a lot of opposition to the government. These cafés, which were very left wing, were places where they would gather and plan out the next riot against the police, while they were listening to the new Coltrane record. That aspect doesn't exist anymore."

Many of those radicalized students of the 1960s still frequent the jazz joints. "These people, who are now veterans in their sixties and seventies maintain their loyalty to the same café or bar they prefer. I'll chat to some of the regulars and they'll say, 'Oh, I've been coming here for forty years,' which is really cool, but the problem is that these people are slowly dying and it's hard to build a new customer base, especially with the places that are very old and run down."

Besides the jazz cafés are the jazz bars, and there is some overlap between the two.

"All the jazz cafés will have alcohol, which is a big part of Japanese culture," notes Arneill. "Practically everywhere you go you can order beer and whiskey. The main difference is that the jazz cafés operate in the day time and also serve coffee. They'll always have the latest jazz magazines, the latest books about jazz, even imported ones in English. You can sit there and read, chill for a couple of hours, sip a coffee, smoke a few cigarettes, have a nap."
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