Tokyo Jazz Joints: Capturing An Old Love Story

Ian Patterson By

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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."

In years gone by the majority of jazz cafés operated a strictly no-talking policy during the day. "It was a place to listen to the music at very high volume without disturbing other customers," says Catchpole. "Now, that trend has kind of passed. There are only two places I know of that have that rule during the day. On the door of one of them there's a sign in Japanese that says 'From 12 to 6 no talking.' It's a very Japanese way. When Japanese create a space it tends to be very functional."

Up In smoke

Functional, and accordingly, compact. "Virtually all of the jazz joints put on live gigs," says Catchpole, "so you think they're going to be a big places, but they're incredibly small. They just take one table away and have three musicians in the corner playing."

Catchpole exaggerates not. The Hot House jazz bar, in the Takadanobaba district of Tokyo, for example, can accommodate only eight people on a bench set against the back wall, with the drums in the centre of the floor. To enter or leave the musicians have to move from in front of the door. "It's an amazing atmosphere," says Catchpole.

The owner of Hot House is an elderly lady called Okaasan, who serves drinks from a bar in one corner. Women owners of jazz joints are commonplace.

"A lot of the bars are run by women," says Arneill, "easily a third if not more. Many of them are wives whose husbands have passed on but they've kept the places going. However, there's a definite sense that the days of Tokyo's jazz joints are numbered."

Creaking Joints

Naturally, the main functions of a Tokyo jazz bar, other than listening to the music, is to drink and smoke. This is the daily diet for both owners and their clientele. Mr Okuma-san, owner of Jazz Pepe in the Shinjuku neighbourhood of Tokyo, is a case in point.

"Mr Okuma-san was seventy seven years old when we visited him," relates Catchpole. "He's been running his bar for forty eight years in a basement. He said he only takes a day off when he's hung over. I asked 'Do you still get hung over?' He said 'Once or twice a week.'

"Forty eight years drinking behind a bar, chain smoking those short, Japanese old-man cigarettes in a dank basement with no ventilation. It's an incredibly unhealthy lifestyle and yet he's made it to seventy seven. Sadly the building is old and its owner has decided to tear it down. It's a very valuable spot near the station."

Ageing and the pressures of real estate are the two main enemies of Tokyo's jazz joints, but the 'old man's bar' image, combined with the clouds of tobacco smoke is also keeping younger generations at a distance.

"Times have changed," says Arneill. "People want Wi-Fi and they don't want to be surrounded by smoke. Most of these places are traditionally men only, young, single women wouldn't feel comfortable going there, so the new breed of jazz cafés have become a little slicker."


Cramped though the majority of jazz joints tend to be, there seems to be no shortage of space for vinyl. Take JBS, one of the newer jazz cafes: "The owner has twelve thousand vinyl," says Catchpole.

That figure is fairly typical of Japan's jazz joints, and not surprisingly, the owners that have been running their jazz joints for decades can boast a broad grasp of jazz history, or perhaps a degree of niche expertise that is uncommon to say the least. "Their knowledge of the music is astounding," says Arneill.

The owners can become quite incredulous if Catchpole and Arneill fail to recognize, what is for the owners at least, a lesser known figure from jazz's past.


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