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Tokyo Jazz Joints: Capturing An Old Love Story

Ian Patterson By

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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."

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