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Osaka’s giant jazz festival could be great for local acts … if the youngsters get involved

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

When Osaka was chosen as the Global Host City for the third annual International Jazz Day earlier this year, jazz fans across the country were elated.

Organized by UNESCO and in partnership with the U.S.-based Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, the main event on April 30 will be an All-Star Global Concert by some of the genre’s most popular musicians.

The choice of Osaka as the venue could also be seen as recognizing the long-standing love affair Japan has had with jazz and, since the concert will be broadcast live on the Internet, it provides a great chance for this country’s artists to be heard by a wider audience.

The concert will be held in the evening at Osaka Castle Nishinomaru Garden. Two of the most famous names on that bill are keyboard player (and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the event) Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Both men are veterans with careers that span more than 50 years, and both can lay claim to having significantly shaped the course of jazz history with their music.

Among the artists representing Japan at the concert is pianist and composer Toshiko Akiyoshi. She has a career that stretches back almost seven decades and is notable in jazz history for being, among other things, the first Japanese jazz musician to study at the world-famous Berklee College of Music.

With her on the bill is trumpeter Terumasa Hino, who has been dividing his time between Japan and New York since the mid-1970s. He started out playing hard bop, but has also embraced fusion, avant-garde and hip-hop in his recordings over the years.

There’s also Kobe-born pianist Makoto Ozone, another Berklee alumnus, who has been winning plaudits over the last three decades both here and abroad. Like Akiyoshi and Hino, Ozone has spent a considerable amount of time honing his craft in the United States. In addition to performing and recording his own music, he also works as a professor at the Kunitachi College of Music.

These three musicians have no doubt played a key role in raising the profile of Japanese jazz abroad, and their inclusion in the International Jazz Day event was pretty much essential.

In addition to artists who have played an important role in the development of jazz over the years, the All-Star lineup features some younger musicians who are shaping the future of the genre. Grammy-winning bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding will need little introduction, with her recent releases achieving mainstream success. Soulful vocalist Gregory Porter, also a Grammy winner, is arguably viewed as one of the most exciting new talents at the moment. This will be his third trip to Japan in just over a year. Then there’s keyboard player Kris Bowers, who has just released the album “Heroes + Misfits,” which features his own contemporary vision of jazz with hip-hop and indie-rock twists.

It’s great to see musicians of different styles and ages coming together to play at this concert. However, it’s noticeable that, at the time of writing, there seems to be an absence of young Japanese talent on the bill — and it’s not as though there’s a shortage to choose from.

Nowadays, it’s almost mandatory for young musicians to study jazz formally in order to hone their technique and gain a greater understanding of the music’s rich history. Following the example set by Akiyoshi all those years ago, several Japanese performers who have gone to the United States to study have gained international recognition for their work — pianists Chihiro Yamanaka and Hiromi Uehara, saxophonist Erena Terakubo and trumpeter Takuya Kuroda are just a few names that spring to mind that would fit this bill.

I’ve been informed that more artists are yet to be added to the All-Star Concert roster in the runup to the event, I just hope that some of the new generation of Japanese artists will be among them. International Jazz Day was set up to bring communities together to learn more about jazz and its impact around the world. Adding more local talent could additionally help foster the intercultural dialogue and awareness-raising that is at the center of this great event’s mission.

The International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert takes place at Osaka Castle Nishinomaru Garden’s Special Stage on April 30. Tickets are ¥8,000-¥16,000 and can be bought at www.ijd2014-osaka.jp/about.html. For more information on the event and the global webcast of the April 30 concert, visit www.jazzday.com.