Brooklyn-born James Catchpole runs Tokyo Jazz Site, a blog that documents the capital’s extensive jazz scene.
Based in his adopted city since 1998, Catchpole established the site in May 2007, when, he says, “after some very basic lessons on what a ‘blog’ is and what ‘domains’ are, a Web-savvy friend helped me set up an account and we got the first page up. From there it wasn’t long before the jazz content expanded and the look of the site came together.”
Posting under the guise “Mr. OK Jazz,” Catchpole offers reviews of the city’s jazz joints, specializing in the lesser-known hole-in-the-walls that fly below the radar.
How did Tokyo Jazz Site come about?
It was born of frustration, to be honest. I’ve been going to small, out-of-the-way jazz bars here for several years. Most of these don’t have Web sites with maps, and just knowing an address in Tokyo is no guarantee you will find anything.
One night in Shinjuku, after wandering in the cold for an hour looking for a bar, I was cursing about getting lost in this damn city and wishing for a jazz guide-book. Then I figured, why don’t I write one? I already spent pretty much all my spare time looking for jazz around town. Of course, getting a book published is a whole other problem, so a friend convinced me to start up a blog first.
Who’s your audience?
Anyone and everyone interested in the jazz scene in Tokyo. The site is in English as there is already plenty of info on the Web in Japanese, so it’s mainly a resource for foreigners. The main English-language newspapers and listings mags don’t have much jazz content, so there’s a real need for some more extensive coverage.
Who is Mr. OK Jazz and why the name?
Mr. OK Jazz has been in Tokyo for 10 years and has been at various points an English teacher, wedding minister, graduate student, NGO worker, actor, salaryman, private investigator and tour guide. The name is a tribute to my all-time favorite nonjazz band, Franco & OK Jazz, from the Congo, Central Africa.
How do you rate Tokyo as a jazz city?
Without question the equal of any city in the world, if not the best. Obviously my hometown New York has the history and is the home base for so many of the best jazz musicians in the world, but Tokyo wins when it comes to neighborhood jazz bars and cafes, and is the best city in the world for jazz record collecting. Shinjuku, Kichijoji, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa and Ochanomizu all have wonderful jazz shops, and even the local neighborhood video stores in Tokyo will have a jazz section with some surprising gems. There’s nowhere in the world that can match it.
You’ve written scathingly a few times about the capital’s biggest jazz club. What’s so bad about Blue Note?
The atmosphere is sterile, the staff rude, the ticket prices outrageous and the food not even that great. And you know, I could forgive all that if the music was worth it, but they play such short sets! I saw Dr. John there a few years back and he was done within an hour. The audience isn’t exactly endearing either, with too many people there for a business dinner and not for the music. . . . For a good live session (I think) there are at least 20 places in town guaranteed to put on a better gig.
The Pit Inn in Shinjuku would be near the top for live gigs in Tokyo. Great sound, serious jazz-fanatic audience, and always a top-line band no matter the genre. If you want a small place for dinner and romance you can go to either branch of Naru, in Yoyogi or Ochanomizu. They always have good vocalists performing. For free jazz you can head to Aketa No Mise in Nishi-Ogikubo. For casual jam sessions there are a number of places. Any of these will be a fraction of the cost of Blue Note with a much better atmosphere.
What makes a great jazz venue?
It’s really a subjective thing. I know people who won’t go to certain bars or clubs because they don’t like the sound quality or the bartender is mean or the bathroom was filthy. For me it’s about the music and the customers. Is this a club or bar where I can listen to good jazz and then turn to the guy or gal next to me and talk about the music? Does the owner or bartender take requests? If I sit at the bar, will the conversation flow?
On TJS I really want to introduce these kinds of places, because there are so many around town, yet foreign jazz fans just don’t know where they are.
What’s the future for the blog?
With over 200 bars, clubs and cafes left to profile, I pretty much have the next year or two booked! But while doing that I want to expand the site with more musician profiles, and a lot more on all the great Japanese jazz available on record or CD.
Is the book still your goal?
Definitely. If I can stick to my goal of checking out one or two new places a week, then I should have enough information to start working on a book by the end of the year. So expect the future best-seller to hit the shelves in November 2009.