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Tokyo Jazz Joints

Tokyo Jazz Joints

Courtesy Philip Arneill


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Tokyo Jazz Joints
Philip Arneill (with James Catchpole)
168 Pages
ISBN: 978-3-96900-120-2

Japan's love affair with jazz is an old one. A unique one. It is home to hundreds of jazz-listening bars and cafés, places where chatting is at best frowned upon, and even forbidden between certain hours as the music plays. And where else but in Japan can one find jazz cafés that specialize in playing bebop, hard bop or soul-jazz?

These kissaten, or kissa for short, pre-date World War II. There are several hundred of them, mostly in Tokyo, but they are to be found in towns and cities throughout the country. Gradually, as the kissa owners and their clientele age, and as redevelopment changes the face of neighborhoods, these spaces are disappearing.

Irish photographer Philip Arneill has been photographing these locales since 2015. Years spent crisscrossing the capital and traveling to far-flung corners of the country represents a serious labor of love. The result, Tokyo Jazz Joints, features 129 color photographs—shot without flash—that document the kissa. The photos reveal frequently nondescript exteriors, and interiors that are usually cramped and dimly lit. Decades of tobacco smoke has stained ceilings and walls. The spaces, which often only sit a handful of people, are crammed with memorabilia, while the walls are lined with row upon row of jazz vinyl.

Tokyo Jazz Joints is a photographic narrative of details large and small: kissa name signs; listening menus; bottles of booze bearing their regular customers' names; framed photos of jazz greats; faded concert stubs; walls festooned with 'I was here' autographs; dingy staircases; bonkers high-end sound systems; and in several poignant pictures, the kissa owners themselves.

The sum effect of the photos is to capture the soul of these temples of jazz, these refuges that invite listeners into another world—a hermetic world in many ways.

The photos are Arneill's, but the Tokyo Jazz Joints story is also that of James Catchpole, an American writer and podcaster who has been blogging about the jazz kissa since 2007.

Together, these two Japanese-speaking foreigners have travelled to kissa all over Japan, chatting to the owners before asking permission to take pictures. No two kissa are the same. Each has its own special character, its own vibe. Some are quite chic and modern-looking, even if a little sparse. Most have the look of time-weathered dive bars, tucked down obscure alleyways and known only to the cognoscenti.

Short but insightful essays by both Arneill and Catchpole chart their joint adventure, this love story about jazz obsession. [For a fuller, more detailed account see All About Jazz's interview with Arneill and Catchpole from 2017]. This book is just the latest manifestation of a project that has translated into photographic exhibitions in Tokyo, Penang, New York State, California, Munich, London, Belfast, Liverpool, Swansea and Berlin, as well as engendering a successful podcast series.

No expense has been spared in the design and printing of this handsome coffee-table book. The embossed hardback comes in an attractive color slipcase, an artful detail that feels like a nod to vinyl lovers—those who understand the importance of rituals in the old-fashioned way of listening to jazz.

A heartfelt homage to the kissa, their owners and to the music that inspired them in the first place, Tokyo Jazz Joints also serves as a timely reminder of the important role played by all documenters of jazz cultures. At the same time, it invites a rethink on what it means to really listen to jazz.

The documentation does not stop here, but time is the greatest enemy of the jazz kissa, as Arneill relates in his introductory essay: "There is still much work to be done. There are many joints to visit, photos to make, stories to uncover and memories to create, before those photos and stories are all that is left of this magical, fading world."

A beautiful, sensitive and important book on a fascinating corner of the jazz world.


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