A Northern Japan Jazz Kissa Tour
I’m launching a new pop-up newsletter called BASIE!BOP!JAMAICA! It begins this Friday, June 16.
For sixteen days I’ll be exploring a few of the greatest (and maybe not so greatest?!) jazz kissas1 of Tōhoku and Hokkaido. Like my previous pop-ups, each day I’ll send out a missive recounting the day’s experience — a waterfall of words all photograph’d up with possible supporting video. Sign up here (as with all pop-ups, this list and your email addresses are deleted as soon as it’s done):
Alt titles: “The deep north jazz kissa tour.” “The narrow road to neru drip.” Call it whatever you like, permute our patron saint Bashō every which way — the fact remains the same: We’re heading north for adventure.
Great adventures benefit from guiding rules (… at least mine do):
- Our main goal — the goal above all else — is to listen. Sixteen days of pure listening. How utterly, fabulously indulgent. Yes, please. Focused attention, gentle attention. Attention directed the air vibrating into our ears. Eyes closed, stomach full of bitter black coffee and maybe some mixed nuts or giant corn. Will we smoke a cigarette? We might smoke a cigarette. Inhale. Listen. What’s playing when we step over the threshold? What comes next? And then what’s after that?
- We’re interested in the men and women behind the counters. Lives committed to a genre, to low-key proselytization, to spreading musical gospel. Who are these folks? What does it feel like to develop a multi-decades-long intimacy with … vinyl and the patrons that gather around the turntables?
- At each kissa, we’re going to ask for Ryo Fukui’s seminal Scenery (1976) album. (I’m assuming everyone will have it!) It feels appropriate given the direction and geography of the tour. I’m listening to it now as I write these words.
- Despite it being firmly Rainy Season Mode over here, we’re also going to walk the heck out of the towns, the neighborhoods of the kissas. What sorts of landscapes are they embedded within?
- Portraits when possible.
For twenty years — from eight to twenty-eight — drumming was a central tenet of my life. And jazz drumming a big part of that. In fact, jazz was perhaps the first foothold I had to “higher culture” beyond my hometown (outside of video games and Guns N’ Roses, that is). It’s what got me mail-ordering performances by Buddy Rich and Tony Williams and Steve Gadd and on and on. It was from that drumming — the jazz variant in particular (though I tried to play everything) — that I developed a kind of confidence in skill acquisition that powered much of my life beyond. And very much powers what I do today. Music is so obviously a language (as is all art, visual and otherwise). Experiencing this — music as language — feels so fundamental. When it lands it shocks the system. I still remember a singular flash playing at the Reno Jazz fest some twenty+ years ago. The kind of moment where the world falls away and you’re amid total telepathy with your fellow musicians, and while the audience may be out there — in their seats, nodding along — they exist just as diffuse energy, as fuel for the Jazz Machine. There are few better feelings in the world than the intertwingularity of an on-stage deep pocket.
Which is all to say: Jazz has a particularly unique shape in this battered old heart of mine.
And I’ve now been going to jazz kissa for some twenty-three years, since I arrived in Japan in 2000. Back then, I didn’t know what they were called — in fact, I thought it was weird (and mildly heretical) that these “jazz clubs” (as I mistakenly framed them) didn’t have live music (you just listen to records?! … much unlike the live jazz clubs I’d sneak into in Hartford or Boston or San Francisco or Philadelphia or New York). The very first bar I went to in Tokyo was Dug in Shinjuku. Little did I know how seminal it was. How important Nakadaira-san was in the pantheon of Jazz kissa owners. Though I remember cocking my head at the lack of a stage, I augmented my then lack of language skills with musical knowledge, and bonded with folks over strange licks off certain albums. Some of those friends have gone on to become huge musicians in Japan, playing with the greats, appearing frequently on TV, backing up studio albums across all genres. Nakadaira-san is now 87, and you can still find him lurking about Dug some nights, endearingly corpse-like, signing his photo books, chatting up regulars.
Me? I’ve tried to embed the rhythm of my musical history into the steps of my walks. I am not an academic, and I in no way purport to be an expert on matters of jazz kissa or even jazz itself. But I do have a lifelong connection to the genre, and multi-decade history with the smokey old kissas that spin the records.
Why now? Why this pop-up today? I’ve wanted to run something like BASIE!BOP!JAMAICA! for ages, but life kept getting in the way. The plan was to finally head out earlier this year, but Morioka took over.
Jazz kissa also are having a bit of a moment.2 The Jazz Kissa Instagram account (maintained by jazz kissa impresario Katsumasa Kusunose) has some 29k+ followers. Sasha Frere-Jones recently wrote about audiphilia for Harpers, and jazz kissa make a strong appearance. Professor E. Taylor Atkins has been writing about jazz in Japan (and by dint of that — jazz kissas) for thirty+ years.
The biggest impetus for heading out right now, though, is quite simple: Folks are dying! Older generation kissas (jazz or otherwise) are not long for this world. The owners (the “masters” as they’ve been called since time immemorial) are aging out, closing up shop. Often without someone to take over. Yes, there is a stirring of a new generation of contemporary masters (and we’ll visit a couple of their shops), but if we’re going to see the OGs, now’s the time to go.
Every nook of Japan is littered with Jazz kissas. To simplify, we’re heading north. I’ve formed an unexpected connection to Tōhoku these past few years, and these past six months in particular. Many of the jazz kissa I’m heading to I’ve been to before. I discovered some of them during my Tiny Barber walks and others on other trips. It usually works like this: You go to one, chat up the owner, and on your way out ask for their next kissa recommendation. You go there, tell them so-and-so sent you, and so on and so forth, expanding your jazz kissa universe relationships. Like this, you connect with the community and the community guides you along.
Last year, the kind and quirky proprietor of the famous, classic, Eigakan (a jazz kissa named “Movie Theater”) over near Tōdai, let me photograph his voluminous “official” index of all the registered jazz kissa across the country. Forty-five super-dense pages.
It was through my own travels, cross referenced with this insane list, mixed with a sprinkling of online sleuthing, that I put together the BASIE!BOP!JAMAICA! tour.
We’ll not be too focused on the audio equipment (though we’ll probably make note).3 Paragon or a tin can, the impulse to listen is what matters. We like jazz kissa because — as places and modalities and community hubs — they contain the sparks of a good life, well-lived, well-committed to an unlikely thing. I think there’s something we can all learn from a good jazz kissa.
So, come on. What’re ya waiting for. BASIE!BOP!JAMAICA! is happening. Sign up!
Let’s listen closely and closer still,
p.s., The photo at the top is not from a jazz kissa, but rather a fabulous old kissaten in Hakodate called Trail. It was on the trip where I found Trail — right after drinking that well-labeled iced coffee — that I inadvertently stumbled on a string of fantastic jazz kissas, planting the seed for this tour.
Mostly defined as: Mid-20th century “listening cafes” for jazz music. But there is a lot of variance in this definition. Lots are coffee-focused cafes, fitting into the broader “kissaten” universe. But some are more bar-like, and some even jazz clubs (but for the most part, live music is rare). You can tie yourself in knots splitting hairs over this stuff. Though they’re traditionally known as “jazz kissa” — the shortened version of “kissaten” (fear not: even if you call them “jazz kissaten” you won’t suddenly turn into a pillar of salt). Some are seventy years old. Some forty. Some are five years old. The important defining element is simply: A presiding and effusive ever-abiding love for jazz, jazz, and more jazz. ↩︎
Well, all things Showa-era are having a bit of a moment as Millennials and Gen Z-ers sensibly, understandably, (almost as a palliative to the general trauma of contemporary life) reach back for the analog amid our screen-infested days. ↩︎
In general, I am terrified of overly fetishizing the technical aspects of experiences. ↩︎