Jazz has a trendy underground appeal in Tokyo. It gained popularity after the World War 2. At this point some of the biggest jazz musicians in the world are coming from Japan now. In today’s Japanese culture jazz clubs are kind of an alternative thing to do for young hipsters.
They have the cache of being cosmopolitan. Granted, New York is an undisputed haven for jazz. It’s where jazz musicians and jazzheads still thrive, and where you can catch a late-night set at places like Zinc Bar, down a set of stairs, past a velvet curtain to find whiskey-swilling aficionados head-boppin’ to new talent and legends such as Jeff “Tain” Watts and the late Cedar Walton.
But Tokyo has quite its share of jazz lovers too. Record collectors can dig into various jazz shops in neighborhoods from Shinjuku to Shibuya and Ochanomizu, and those craving a dose of live music can bar-hop into an impressive array of locations throughout the city, which span live venues with notable acts to more idiosyncratic bars with distinctly varying moods. Make sure to avoid crappy spots that feature “lite” crooners and opt for the real deal. Here’s a short-list to get you started:
Pit Inn – Shinjuku: A place for the straight-up, hardcore jazz listener. The seats all face the small stage, the bands are always at their prime, prices are fair, and the sound’s top-notch. Accord Bldg. B1, 2-12-4, Shinjuku-Ku; 03-3354-2024; pit-inn.com/index_e.html.
Samurai – Shinjuku: A quirky, unique establishment filled with more than 2,500 “lucky cat” figurines, including a five-foot-tall one at the entrance. Ambiance is key here, with every bit of wall space taken up with those cats as well as calligraphy, haikus, and autographed album sleeves from New York jazz artists. This is a sanctuary to drink, soak in the décor, and contemplate the records on rotation. The owner, Jiken Miyazaki, also hosts live, improvised haiku performances, which he perceives as a form of jazz. Mori Bldg. 5F, 3-35-5, Shinjuku-Ku; 03-3341-0383; jazz-samurai.seesaa.net.
Jazz Pub Michaux – Shinjuku: Tiny spot for those in-the-know and connoisseurs of ’50s and ’60s jazz. Elder owner Misho Yasushi is a devoted record collector with countless stories to tell (including interviewing Thelonious Monk during his Japanese tour). This is a place where even the keenest jazz buff will discover something new, especially in the hard-bop and soul-jazz realms (with rare finds from players like Baby Face Willette). After all, Yasushi has over 4,500 records to share. 3-11-12 2F, Shinjuku; 03-3357-4509.
Aketa No Mise – Nishi-Ogikubo: Those searching for something a bit more off-kilter should check out Aketa No Mise (which means “The Open Store”). Don’t expect anything fancy, though. This is a no-frills, basement jazz club, with a stage for acts leaning towards free jazz and experimental angles. Yoshino Bldg. B101, 3-21-13, Nishi Ogi Kita, Suginami-ku; 3-21-13, 03-3395-9507; aketa.org/mise.html.
Naru – Ochanomizu: If you’d like some good food and wine with your jazz outing, head over to Naru, which has proper live sets every night from respected players, talented vocalists, and regulars from the Tokyo jazz circuit. It’s owned by saxophonist Ishizaki Shinobu, and there’s a sister location in Yoyogi, a neighborhood in the northern part of Shibuya. Jujiya Bldg. B1, 2-1 Kanda Surugadai, Chiyoda-ku; 03-3291-2321; jazz-naru.com.
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