Kichijoji offers more jazz per tsubo than almost any place in the city. Not only are rents cheaper than inside the Yamanote Line, but small-niche businesses seem to thrive here. Teeming with shops, restaurants and clubs, it is dynamic without being overwhelming. With clubs presenting live jazz every night and several of the best jazz kissaten and bars in Tokyo, Kichijoji offers affordable, high-quality venues all within walking distance of each other. The easy, neighborhood feel lets those interested (and those already obsessed) catch a live set at one jazz club, then head to another, then move on to a jazz kissaten to hear it played on audiophile-quality sound systems. For those in need of music to take home, Kichijoji also has more than its share of jazz record stores.
Cool joints — Live jazz
Sometime — Nearly every jazz musician in town has performed at Sometime. The club has live jazz every night, always at 1,500 yen for even the biggest names, nearly half the charge elsewhere in town. With a kitschy antique interior, great service and reasonable prices, it’s easy to get quickly into the vibe. Musicians play from the center of the club, with listeners packed in on all sides. Most nights offer three sets starting from 7, so, except for the occasional short wait on a crowded night, you can squeeze in almost anytime. The music ranges from the most traditional to the very innovative. Many players have a monthly slot and know the club well enough to get right into the relaxed-yet-attentive frame of mind that nourishes creative playing.
Ishikawa Bldg. B1F, 1-11-31 Kichijoji Honcho, (0422) 21-6336. www.sometime.co.jp/sometime/pianohall/text/top.html
Akai Karasu — The “Red Crow” also has live jazz nightly. Cover charges range from 1,800 yen to 2,500 yen for larger groups. Vocalists are a specialty here, but other nights have up-and-coming players mixed in with more established names. The casual atmosphere makes it easy for musicians to play unexpected tunes and try out new ones, and many relish the loose spontaneity rather than having everything minutely choreographed in advance. The space is big enough to crash out in the back or sit right up close to the players. This is one of the best-run clubs in town, with regulars, fans and newbies all nestling in side by side.
Shirakaba Bldg. 4F, 1-13-2 Kichijoji Honcho, (0422) 21-7594. www.akaikarasu.co.jp
Art Club Strings — The newest of the three clubs offering nightly jazz, Art Club Strings is also the most elegant and intimate. The handful of seats tends to fill early in the evening. Customers sit at a table snaking around the grand piano, sax players scrunch their sheet music in next to diners’ plates and, when the rare quartet replaces the usual duo or trio, drummers reduce their sets to the bare minimum so as not to overpower the delicate acoustics.
This coziness means there’s no need for much amping. It’s a pleasure to be close enough to hear a samba jazz singer inhaling between phrases, the woody thwap of bass strings or the smooth flow of air through a sax. Try the tasty pasta and cocktails mixed at the arm-long bar. You can also sign up for jazz lessons at the daytime jazz school.
2-12-13 Kichijoji Honcho, (0422) 28-5035. www.artclub-strings.com/index/toppage.html
Bitchin’ brew — Jazz kissa
A&F — This jazz kissaten allows customers to select not only the songs played, but also which of the two sets of speakers to use and, for vinyl records, which stylus. Or, you can leave it to the master.
Though A&F is inevitably moving toward CDs only, the standards for the sound system remain impeccably analog-warm, crisp and detailed. It’s going to take quite a few cups of coffee to pay off the equipment in here. All seats face the speakers, and if you can’t take a clue from that, a small sign in English asks customers to refrain from talking. As a serious audiophile listening room, though, this rule seems less polite pretense than sheer dedication.
Consumables on offer — coffee, beer, whiskey and a few nibbles — are right to the point: They don’t distract from the sound.
Oriental Bldg. 2F, 2-2-3 Minami-cho, Kichijoji, (0422) 48-7323.
Meg — Like A&F, Meg maintains a community service, rather than profit-oriented, approach. The overstuffed chairs reverently face the large 2-meter speakers that take up the entire front wall. With a custom-made amplifier and speaker wires as thick as your wrist, the sound becomes almost over-clear. You quickly realize you are not used to hearing music played with so much subtlety, dimension and volume.
Meg also takes requests, carefully putting the CD covers out front so customers always know what’s playing and can read the liner notes. Whatever jazz name you’ve ever wondered about, they have, so just ask.
Holdovers from the prebubble era, when music kissaten of all sorts dotted the city, Meg and A&F also stock resources such as magazines for jazz devotees.
1-31-3, Kichijoji Honcho, (0422) 21-1421.
Round midnight — Bar/kissa
Outback — Outback does allow talking — even encourages it, with deep sofa chairs facing each other and a wonderful oval bar on the lower floor. The interior has been carefully designed by a trained eye, and equal attention has gone into the sound system. Drinks range from refined to exotic, and the food menu is studied. Overall, the upscale atmosphere is meant to impress, and it does.
Prices scale up as well, of course. But the jazz that the slickly dressed waiters choose is thoughtful and tasteful, with the CD covers helpfully projected on the wall. A small music charge is added to the bill, but with some justification.
2-8-1 Kichijoji Honcho, (0422) 21-1548.
Jazz Bar Funky — Upstairs from the first-floor Restaurant Funky, Jazz Bar Funky is wrapped in dark-brown wood, heavy wood tables and a massive, stylish sound system. The sound quality is excellent, and the CD covers brought down from the third-floor storage shelves are projected onto the wall like a painting. The choice of food and liquor is extensive and high-quality. Talking feels perfectly natural here, even though the volume is kept comfortably high. The music charge adds 500 yen to the drink and food bill, but it’s easy to think of it as a music lesson. Customers often write down the titles of what they hear.
1-7-3 Kichijoji Honcho, (0422) 21-1464.
John Henry’s Study and Scratch — These are two more jazz kissaten/bars that have a music charge after 5 but maintain a low-key, easygoing feeling. Though they are highly affordable, nothing is lost in the choice of music played over good, solid speaker systems. Excellent for an afternoon coffee or late, late nightcap, the welcoming ambience is backed up by solid collections of jazz CDs. These two spots still foreground the music, the essential quality distinguishing jazz kissaten from average kissaten that may happen to play background jazz.
John Henry’s Study: Sansui Bldg. 3F, 1-8-14 Kichijoji Honcho, (0422) 21-3854
Scratch: Marco Polo Bldg. 2F, 1-8-14 Kichijoji Honcho, (0422) 21-1969
Hot wax — Jazz releases
Disk Union — The rhythm of vinyl enthusiasts methodically flipping through stacks of used LP records forms a soft counterpoint to the loudspeakers blasting in the jazz section of Disk Union. Also selling both used and new CDs, this small outlet of the Disk Union chain offers an especially good jazz selection. There are revolving, weekly staff recommendations on new arrivals. They have excellent taste. Trust them.
Back issues of older CDs are in short supply due to meager shelf space, but the recent releases are current and complete. They have many hard-to-find European and American labels, as well as a pleasingly proud display of recently released Japanese jazz.