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Nobuo Hara

by Judit Kawaguchi

Nobuo Hara, 80, is the leader of Nobuo Hara and His Sharps and Flats, a 17-member big band formed in 1951 that helped to make jazz popular in Japan after World War II. Their sweet rhythms, which took the country by storm, have not lost any of their swing, and even today they keep audiences mesmerized with their hot live shows. Besides taking his band abroad regularly since their first overseas gig at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1967, Hara has also played with so many stars that he could easily form his own galaxy (one that would not only shine the brightest but sound the best). His playing partners have included Quincy Jones, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Perry Como, Henry Mancini, Silvie Vartan, Nat King Cole, Yves Montand, Sarah Vaughan, Diana Ross, the list goes on and on…

Jazz is uplifting. We all felt so down after the war, and our only happiness was jazz.

No matter the circumstances, parents are always parents first. One day the Imperial Japanese Navy band came to play in my hometown in Toyama Prefecture. This was during World War II, so their music was mostly energetic marching songs. I immediately wanted to join them. We boys all felt the same: wanting to protect our families. I auditioned and was among 90 boys picked from around the country. I was so happy, but my parents weren’t because they were scared of losing me. I was 16 years old.

There is no easy way out, ever. For the first three months in the Navy we were called “new soldiers,” and we studied classical music day and night. Then we graduated to “training soldiers” for a year. In our section, we woke up at 6 a.m., cleaned the barracks, and practiced while standing from 8 a.m. till noon. We kept on going all day and late into the night.

When being hit is normal, not feeling much gets normal, too. We got hit a lot. Our teachers in the Navy all carried a thin, flexible bamboo stick and slashed the center of our forehead with it. My buddy got hit, and as I turned, I could see the giant red bump growing on his forehead. I started laughing, got hit instantly, and so did my buddy, again. Then I noticed that the second bump was forming on top of the first. That was just the funniest thing I have ever seen. Every day was like this. We were kids and it was fun.

Smoking is dangerous for your health. It happened sometimes that at night we were suddenly woken up and had to gather in the music hall, which was a huge room. We stood in line and saw a boy upfront. He was caught smoking a cigarette and it was time for him to pay. Each teacher hit him 10 times with a very hard wooden training sword called a bokuto-. With that, even one good hit causes internal bleeding. I could count to about 100 hits then I felt too sick to keep going. His meat, his muscles were almost all gone and in a few days the leftover meat got rotten on him. I heard he recovered in a year or so. Our superiors wanted to show that we were a tough bunch, even though we were musicians.

Men cry, too. After dinner, we had one hour to go outside and practice more. I stood by the ocean, across from Mikasa Park and saw the slow Keihin Kyukyo train in the distance. I wanted to go home to Toyama so much but just stood there playing the saxophone, with tears rolling down my cheeks, night after night.

If you eat from the same bowl, you develop similar taste buds. The friends I made in the military are friends for life. We still meet and cry for those who died. I was just lucky not to have been killed. It was down to luck, nothing else.

Playing jazz literally nourished us. It meant that we could drink beer and eat sandwiches. I was 20 and it was 1946. I was back in Toyama when I received a letter from my Navy buddy inviting me to audition for the symphony orchestra at the Teikoku Gekijo, or Imperial Theater, in Tokyo. I took the train up and bumped into a flautist friend at the entrance. He also got a letter. He told me that we couldn’t eat on doing classical. Only jazz had a future, and we wanted a part of it.

Money comes if you do a good job. I’ve never thought of money, but I made a lot. I was so young and just loved jazz and wanted to play it. Right after the war if you had an instrument, you could get a job. I was making eight or 10 times more than the average salaried person. We were actually paid by the Japanese government from the war penalty fund. We were fortunate, but we wanted to step up and get hired by better and better bands. We practiced all day, listening to the jukebox and trying to copy the sweet sounds until the vinyl wore out.

Competition develops the self. No competition means people get spoiled and lazy. In the Navy, every second was competitive.

All is not bad that was before the war. At least we had proper role models. Teachers were great. They would invite us over for tea and a good time. Now teachers are mostly bad: they just punch in their hours in the classroom and that is all. It’s too late to educate them. They must be fired.

Listen to old people. Nowadays people in their 20s only hang out with their own age group, so once they get a job, they are shocked by the company hierarchy. They need to talk to old guys like me, and us elderly must create opportunities to interact with the young.

There is a culture vacuum for mature people. The minute that people think of us elderly, the topic turns to welfare, nursing homes, bed sores and diapers. Yet I see so many healthy and powerful elderly like myself who are still very much part of society and life. What we need is more dancing, more music and less concern about us from the younger generation.

Playgirls are just for play.For serious fun, one needs a smart girl who knows how to play straight. My wife and I have been making beautiful music together for almost 60 years and we are still in tune.

Humans must be responsible. Every action, from the moment we wake up till we go to sleep, is our own responsibility.

Parents’ preaching is like cold sake: It takes time to sink in.