Tokyo Jazz Joints: Capturing An Old Love Story

Ian Patterson By

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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.

"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.

"We're hoping to take it elsewhere," says Arneill. "When we wrap up the project we'll have the final, very large exhibition in Tokyo and we'll get the Japanese jazz press to cover it. Then maybe we'll give the prints to a gallery or an archive and hopefully at that point we'll publish a book."

There is however, still work to be done. "There are over four hundred and fifty jazz joints all around the country," estimates Catchpole. "If we have the means we will do the rest of Japan. We want to share this with the rest of the world."

Photo Credit: All photos courtesy of Philip Arneill/www.tokyojazzjoints.com
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