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Tokyo Jazz Joints: Capturing An Old Love Story

Ian Patterson By

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"They can get quite angry sometimes," says Catchpole. "One eighty-six year old owner, who's retired now, had a bar that sat only seven people. He has five thousand soul-jazz and hard bop records. He used to trade with American soldiers, mostly black American soldiers, after WWII, who would bring him these hard bop records. So his collection is entirely originals. He said: 'Don't you know Willis "Gator" Jackson? You're American!'" recounts Catchpole laughing.

"He pulled out twenty six original Willis Jackson records—all in pristine condition. I'd never heard of Willis Jackson. I had to explain to him that jazz in America is not popular and that the majority of the population knows nothing about it. You hear more jazz in Japan."

The care that the jazz joint owners take with their precious vinyl mesmerizes Catchpole. "Watching a Japanese jazz joint owner hold his vinyl is like watching a diamond merchant; the way they put the gloves on, the care they take wiping it clean. You don't want to touch because you feel like you'll scratch the records. They treat it with such care. "

Jazz Joint Owners

Hayashi-san, a woman in her mid-sixties, is the owner of Candy jazz joint in a suburb of Tokyo. She became a jazz fan in the early 1960s when she had a part-time job as a teenager in an electronics shop where the owner played jazz radio. She was seduced by the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and has been collecting jazz records for fifty years. "Candy is so distant from the centre that a lot of people don't know about it," says Catchpole. "The vinyl collection in Hayashi-san's café goes from floor to ceiling. What's amazing is that she's been able to communicate with a lot of European free-jazz musicians and they come over and play in her café, particularly at the weekends. A lot of musicians from Holland and Scandinavia come and play, also with local Japanese musicians. Her café can maybe seat fifteen people."

A former jazz joint owner is the Nobel prize-winning author Haruki Murakami. Together with his wife, the now world-famous author ran a coffee house/jazz bar, The Peter Cat, from 1974 to 1981. A few years earlier, while still a student, Murakami had worked in a basement jazz bar in Shinzu called The Old Lying Cat, a venue which draws still draws his fans to this day. "It seats about fifteen to twenty people, hasn't seen fresh air in about fifty years and it seems like everybody in there is chain-smoking," says Arneill.

Shadows and Light

When it comes to seeking permission to photograph the jazz joints, Catchpole and Arneill have met very few obstacles so far.

"The majority of the owners have been very open to the project and to being photographed, which was not necessarily what we expected," admits Arneill, "because although Japan is camera-friendly people are shy, and this is, in some ways, a very closed, hidden world. It is an underground world. I think all the owners seem to get a bit of a kick out of these two mad foreigners turning up to photograph and document these places."

Almost without exception, however, the owners request that any photos should be taken during the day so as not to disturb the customers.

Arneill, who uses a Canon digital SLR and a standard kit lens, adopts a simple approach. "I don't really like using flash and for this project I don't think it would reflect the places—it would make them something else. I just use a really slow exposure to capture what little light there is."

The lack of light is only one of the challenges for the photographer to overcome. "Some of the places are so cramped that it's really difficult to capture any sense of the space. Physically, you can only go so far in the room."

Blues For The Tokyo Jazz Joints

Catchpole and Arneill hold out little hope for the long-term survival of Tokyo's Jazz Joints once the veteran owners pass on, or are forced to close. "These people have left mainstream society and they don't have someone to take over," says Catchpole. "If they have kids they've gone into straight jobs and they don't want to know about running a jazz bar. In the last year I know of four places that have closed."

Despite the gloomy prognosis, the two expats are full of admiration for the owners of Tokyo's jazz joints. "They've been able to keep these little bars and cafes running for forty plus years, making very little money and leading a very unhealthy lifestyle. These people have so much spirit," says Arneill.

So too Catchpole and Arneill, whose labour of love has been rewarded with international exhibitions in Penang, Malaysia—at the Penang Island Jazz Festival—in New York State and in California, with further exhibitions forthcoming.

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