On a Sunday in early August, American trumpeter James Barrett led his band through a set featuring rhythmic jazz and world music beats as part of the Saiin Music Festival in western Kyoto.
Tall and lanky, modestly clad in a T-shirt and beige jeans, the 34-year-old Barrett belied the popular image of the trumpeter as a flashy attention-hog. But his trumpet soon took command as he led the band through a rousing jazz/world music rendition of the theme to the animation hit “Astro Boy” that brought the crowd in the tiny basement bar to its feet.
Barrett is one of a handful of professional foreign musicians active in the Kansai live jazz scene. That Sunday he could be seen in two performances, one by his band and another as a member of one of what he estimated are seven or eight big band jazz orchestras in the Kyoto area.
His group, Jackals in Monk Robes, a name he appropriated from a Chinese government slur about the Dalai Lama, includes a drummer, a guitarist, an ebullient Japanese accordionist and a young yukata-clad woman strumming an electronic koto. After the gig, while divvying up ¥100 tips for the band members, Barrett talked about life as a Kansai-based jazz musician.
Barrett hails from the small desert town of Gardenerville, Nevada, where his father was a college English professor.
He was originally drawn to the trumpet because its power and flash suited his style, he said. “Trumpet is a physically demanding instrument. It demands a lot of power from your abdomen, but you need to relax your lips so they can vibrate. When you hit the high notes on the trumpet, you’re like the guy in the gym pumping twice as much iron as everyone else, saying ‘f—- you, look at me.’ “
Barrett studied classical trumpet at a state college in Reno, Nevada. “I was receiving a classical musical education, but it wasn’t much fun. I was bored in rural Nevada. The other students were practically living in the practice room; in fact, I could count the number of mentally healthy individuals among my fellow classical music majors on one hand,” he said. “I had been assigned a Japanese roommate as a freshman, so through him and his friends I was exposed to Japanese culture. I started to study Japanese kind of as an escape valve.”
In 1999, as a college senior, Barrett began a year of Japanese study at Minnesota State University’s campus in Akita. Jazz aficionados on the faculty there introduced him to local jazz amateurs with whom he could jam. “Basically I worked on my jazz more than my Japanese, and when I returned to my university in 2000 I decided to change my major to jazz performance.”
Upon graduation in 2002, Barrett assessed his options. With only two years of formal jazz study he lacked both experience and musical prospects. Saddled with college debt and still fascinated by Japan, he decided to return with the JET program in August that year, serving as coordinator of international relations for a small town in Shimane Prefecture.
Barrett described the job, imposing title notwithstanding, as “more of a pet gaijin babysitter, teaching English to everyone from nursery school kids to senior citizens.”
Although he found the locals kindhearted, when his one-year stint was up in mid-2003 he soon moved on to Osaka, where late-night jam sessions were abundant and the urban hubbub was more to his liking. After an unsatisfying stab at salaryman life as an English-textbook salesman, Barrett decided to teach English during the day and try to develop his jazz chops at night.
“When I wasn’t working I’d jam. If I made friends with someone I’d crash his gig and ask to play a song, then would talk to the owner to try and book gigs. I was trying hard to get more hands-on experience. At first I played small jazz clubs and bar bands, and gradually I got to hang out with some great local jazz musicians who really kicked my ass. They let me come up on stage but afterwards gave me some great advice. The great jazz vocalist, Harvey Thompson, for example, told me simply, “Man, just sing on your trumpet,’ which was perfect for someone like me who basically was relying on book-learning at the time.”
Soon Barrett was a regular at some noted Kansai jazz clubs, like Le Club Jazz in Kyoto, Osaka Blue Note, Mr. Kelly’s and Don Shop, an Osaka club that held regular jam sessions from 1 to 3 a.m.
Barrett explained, “Everyone is welcome to join in jam sessions in Kansai, but will people call you for paying gigs? I did get bar gigs and band gigs at first, but I didn’t really practice enough, so after about three years the calls stopped coming. Then I got fired from one of the best big bands in Kansai, which was a real wake-up call.”
“Practice time and space are valuable commodities in Japan, especially for brass players, but I started a weekly schedule of practicing in various parks around Osaka.” Gradually he perfected a signature sound.
Several of Barrett’s favorite professional foreign jazz musicians are based in Kansai, including Phillip Strange, a jazz pianist, drummer Larry Marshall and bass player Israel Cedano. Most foreign musicians, Barrett said, play in bars catering to foreign clientele or they play dance music.
“After a few years I decided to stop looking for bar band gigs. I was tired of making my music accessible through an alcohol filter, playing bebop or the cool jazz sounds of the 1940s and ’50s for drunk salarymen.
“In Kansai, at least, jazz tends to be strictly divided from rock and roll. Jazz musicians are highly trained in musical technique, while rock musicians are more creative but have less technical ability and both sides tend to disregard the other. It’s difficult to make money playing creative instrumental, improvisational music, although there are a few spaces, like Urban Guild in Kyoto and the Big Apple in Kobe, that provide a place for a blend of art rock and art jazz music.”
Although capable foreign musicians can find work in the Kansai region, without Japanese skills (or a Japanese wife or agent) it can be difficult to make the connections needed for regular high-level gigs, Barrett said. You must also reach out in Japanese to build a fan base, particularly via social networks like MySpace and Facebook, he added.
Understanding the band culture can be challenging for foreign musicians, he said. “Most Japanese bands are highly structured, like clubs in high school, with people playing different roles and one musician usually serving as producer. Everyone knows, for example, that they need to clean up afterward without being told. The faster you understand the rules, the faster you can bond.”
Barrett says Japan can be an amazingly lonely place for a foreign musician. “Japanese musicians will welcome you into their space, but they go home after the gig and you’re all alone. It’s important to know what you want to do here, to not lose focus and drink all night.”
You’d best forget about striking it rich as a jazz trumpeter in Kansai, Barrett said. “An average payout for a bar band gig might be ¥30,000 a night, meaning a four-person band can pay their rent if they gig often and offer lessons during the day. But trumpets are seen as optional for a bar band, so you’d tend to be part of a six- to eight-person group, which dilutes individual returns.”
His economic calculations have become weightier since he married in June. His wife, Ayumi, is an Osaka native who supports his career “as long as we’re not on the streets,” he said. The two dream of starting an ethnic import emporium with a space for improvisational jazz in Osaka, a city he calls “comfortable, warm and laid-back.”
Barrett is now mainly leading his own avant-garde music and jazz groups and arranging and writing music for big bands. He is scheduled to play at Urban Guild in Kyoto with percussionist Kazutaka Komaki on Sept. 10, and with vocalist Hao on Sept. 25. “If you know your own sound and have the basic social skills to explain it, you can do well here in Kansai,” he said.