SENDAI – For the past 20 years, the streets of Sendai have resonated with live music during the annual two-day Jozenji Streetjazz Festival, gathering crowds of hundreds and thousands from across the nation in what has become a staple mid-September feature in the city of 1 million.
The same can be expected this year, says Mitsuhiro Sakakibara, a well-known local jazz pianist and the founder and chairman of the festival, although he admits he and other organizers had second thoughts on whether to host the event when the March 11 earthquake struck the city and the tsunami wiped out its coastal area.
“There was talk of canceling this year’s festival after the disaster,” Sakakibara, 54, says. “We temporarily halted preparations, and held many meetings to decide what we should do.”
In the end, Sakakibara and others involved decided it was in everyone’s best interest to continue hosting the event to show that despite the tragic devastation Tohoku has suffered, the people are willing to move on.
This year, the festival will be held on the weekend of Sept. 10 and 11 and will feature around 750 groups — roughly 5,000 musicians — performing on 45 outdoor stages set up along and around Jozenji Street in central Sendai.
Last year’s festival drew around 740,000 people, and Sakakibara says this year he expects yet even bigger crowds.
Jozenji Streejazz Festival was founded in 1991 when Sakakibara and a friend were inspired to host an outdoor concert that passersby could watch and listen to for free.
The two went around talking to locals to ask for their support, and set up a planning committee and invited other participants to help them in their endeavor. The festival has been growing steadily ever since.
The first festival in 1991 had 25 bands playing on nine stages and attracted around 5,000 people. By the 10th festival in 2000, the festival grew to attract roughly 380,000 people, who listened to 520 bands play on around 30 stages.
But Sakakibara says preparing for the festival every year is no easy matter. As a policy, the festival receives only small subsidies from the city.
To cover operating fees, the organizers mainly rely on help from local businesses, fees collected from musicians performing at the festival and donations from people attending the festival. In recent years, the festival has run on an annual budget of around ¥50 million.
In the wake of March 11, Sakakibara says he was worried that many of the businesses that have been providing financial assistance would not be in a situation to lend a hand. That issue was dealt with by trimming the annual budget to around 70 percent of its previous size.
The planning committee of around 50 — all volunteers from various backgrounds — is responsible for spending nearly two months listening to the thousands of demo tapes sent each year by prospective musicians and deciding who will perform.
The committee also negotiates with the police on how to deal with traffic during the two-day festival, seeks permission from local districts to use space, and maps out the stages and sets up the audio equipment.
While the name of the festival includes the word “jazz,” Sakakibara says performances are not restricted to that genre.
“In its 100-year history, jazz music itself has transformed many times to accommodate the changing times,” he says. “So when I use the word jazz, I’m referring to that state of mind — that flexibility to encompass many musical elements.”
True, each year Jozenji attracts a colorful variety of musicians, from jazz and rock bands to ska groups, showcasing various talents from across the nation.
But despite its sheer size — Jozenji Streetjazz Festival is now considered one of Sendai’s four largest festivals, alongside the Aoba Matsuri Festival held each May, the Tanabata Festival in August and December’s Pageant of Starlight — Jozenji has yet to promote itself overseas and remains largely unknown outside Japan.
Sakakibara, however, says an English page was recently added to the website, and overseas promotion is in the works.
Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, the festival committee has been working on various reconstruction projects, coordinating concerts in tsunami-ravaged Kesennuma and Ishinomaki, as well as delivering musical instruments to children living in disaster zones.
But while acknowledging that the disaster will inevitably loom over this year’s festival, Sakakibara says the committee decided not to make any specific references to the tragedy when promoting the event.
“I understand how people’s attentions are focused on the disaster and rebuilding all that has been lost,” he says.
“But I think what is most important, and what we need to do, is to continue hosting the festival, unchanged, unhindered by what happened.”
Details of the Jozenji Streetjazz Festival are available at j-streetjazz.com (in Japanese, English, French, Chinese and Korean).