Yokohama’s love affair with jazz first blossomed when the West was Roarin’ in the 1920s. Back then, ocean liners were bringing passengers and ships’ bands from all over the world, and Japan’s maritime gateway was a major port of call for steamers plying between the famed entertainment hubs of Shanghai and Manila. When these ships’ crews got shore leave, they would head for the bars and clubs to drink and dance . . . and make music.
In this city renowned for its international outlook and individualist flair, the universal, improvisational music that is jazz struck a chord from the start. Even in those early days, the prestigious Gaiety Theater, more attuned to Shakespeare and Puccini than Louis Armstrong, moved quickly to stage dances to the music of popular jazz bands.
So it is with good reason that nowadays, Yokohama’s jazz fans claim their city as the hometown of jazz in Japan — a claim confirmed by its thriving jazz club scene and its hosting of two of the country’s largest jazz festivals.
From jazz’s live beginnings in the ’20s, the next decade’s advent of recording technology helped spread the sound wider as jazz coffee shops opened, so that even those who couldn’t afford the high-priced, imported audio equipment could hear the music for the cost of a coffee.
Among these, the Chigusa opened in 1934 and, with only a wartime break, has been running continuously ever since. It was in that tiny space, too, that several of Japan’s most famous postwar jazz performers — notably Toshiko Akiyoshi and Sadao Watanabe — heard the latest Bud Powell or Charlie Parker recordings that were to inspire their own playing thereafter.
Chigusa, a 10-minute walk northwest of Sakuragicho Station, still caters to jazz aficionados today, with a massive pair of speakers covering one entire wall opposite shelf after shelf of vinyl LPs. An impressive collection of LP covers lines two other walls — Bill Evans on one side, and early Japanese on the other. Customers are left to squeeze onto stools in between.
Just north of Sakuragicho Station is another of the city’s older coffee houses, the excellent down beat, which opened in 1956. With its stock of more than 3,000 LPs and walls plastered with smoke-stained back issues of the jazz magazine Down Beat, it’s a relaxed and comfortable place to sink into the analog vinyl sounds of jazz on a sound system way beyond most fans’ price bracket.
During the Allied Occupation from 1945 to ’52, Yokohama’s pride in being Japan’s most progressive city was affirmed through jazz. The music became symbolic of issues related to a newly evolving sense of national identity, the postwar obsession with all things American, and the catchup culture rising from the ruins.
In “Blue Nippon,” a fascinating study of jazz and authenticity in postwar Japan, author E. Taylor Atkins draws close parallels between the postwar development of democratic and improvisatory attitudes in society, and the skills and approach that bebop, in particular, demands. In a recent e-mail interview, he explained: “This period was absolutely pivotal for Japanese jazz musicians. [In Yokohama] there seemed to be a greater concentration of clubs catering to African-American G.I.s than elsewhere, and thus Japanese who leaned more toward bebop than swing and dance music seem to have gravitated to Yokohama.”
But the spirit of cultural exchange and sharing — with nightly opportunities for Japanese musicians and members of the U.S. forces to share the stage and trade musical ideas — didn’t end with the Occupation. Indeed, it is a continuing source of civic pride. As Atkins noted, “In Yokohama obviously [jazz] has become a dominant metaphor for the city’s internationalization and cosmopolitan aura.”
That “metaphor” has, since 1980, taken center stage at the city’s annual Honmoku Music Festival, which draws top names from around the world. Since 1993, too, it has been signaled loud and clear by the annual Yokohama Jazz Promenade, which debuted that year following the merger of several different festivals.
Last May’s Promenade drew more than 84,000 people to hear a roster of 1,400 musicians playing at 38 different venues between Sakuragicho and Kannai stations, ranging from large concert halls to street corners. Notes festival organizer, Minol Umemoto, “The festival is a chance to try lots of things. The musicians are inspired because they can get heard by new listeners, and by foreign musicians.”
The Promenade’s atmosphere is lively and loose, “Almost like a music picnic,” added Umemoto, “you can wander around freely.”
Festivals aside, on any night of the year you can wander from jazz spot to jazz spot in Yokohama. Nearly a dozen clubs around Sakuragicho and Kannai stations offer live jazz every night, and even though places such as Airegin (just south of Kannai Station), opened in 1969, and Dolphy (near Hinodecho Station) seat at most 50, they draw a devoted clientele and the cream of Tokyo’s jazz musicians.
Asked about the Yokohama scene, trumpeter Tomonao Hara, who performs there regularly between U.S. tours, said, “Places like G Clef and Jazz Is are small, but the audience is always excellent.” At other well-known clubs such as Bar Bar Bar, musicians are at their best with the receptive, savvy crowds.
And, apparently, the market is not yet saturated. The ultra-sleek, Blue Note-like Motion Blue opened last year in the newly refurbished No. 2 Red Brick Warehouse. Its lineup is an intriguing mix of foreign and Japanese players that fits well inside the wide spectrum of styles on offer in the city’s clubs.
Airegin owner Umemoto emphasizes the special quality of Yokohama’s jazz scene, “Everyone’s friends. All the owners know each other and the musicians have good relations with the owners.”
There aren’t many cities you can say that about, but — true to form — Yokohama is one.