In 1956, pianist and band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi made the brave decision to leave Japan and enter the Berklee College of Music in Boston. As a young Asian woman embarking on a career in jazz, she was a novelty back then. She persevered and subsequently spent the majority of her career in the United States.
Two generations later, young Japanese jazz musicians still follow in her footsteps and try to earn their chops by attending music academies in America and playing in clubs there.
With a thriving jazz scene at home, however, why would a young artist leave everything behind and try to make their career in the United States? Jazz musician Makoto Ozone, himself a Berklee graduate, tells The Japan Times that the “American experience” carries a badge of authenticity — but for the wrong reasons.
“It’s like if you were abroad and wanted to study the Japanese shamisen or koto,” he says. “Of course anyone of any race can master the instrument, but you’ll likely get the best training and teachers in Japan. It’s the same for jazz in America.”
Ozone, 51, took a similar road to Akiyoshi and made a name for himself overseas. His first album, “Makoto Ozone,” was released in 1983 and consisted entirely of his own compositions. He subsequently formed a long-standing relationship with jazz giant Gary Burton, and has recorded numerous albums with musicians from around the world.
“Jazz was born in America and logically has much more of a solid foundation in that culture than in other countries that just play a lot of jazz,” he says.
Some Japanese music critics, however, tend to take this idea of American authenticity to an extreme. Many adhere to the notion that spending time in America is a requirement for Japanese jazz artists, and that only Americans (specifically black Americans) really know how to “swing” or “get down” with the music. That belief has led to problems here. For instance, jazz-club owners will jump at the chance to book American acts over Japanese ones because they want the “real deal.”
“Of course jazz is American music, but it’s also now a music of the world,” Ozone continues. “You have great jazz players throughout Europe and Asia who can incorporate pieces of their own musical traditions into their work while using a jazz template. But you’ll find that most of these wonderful artists have also spent at least some time honing their skills in America.”
Ozone, who also teaches at the Kunitachi College of Music in Tachikawa, Tokyo, disputes the notion that simply being in America will allow a Japanese musician to soak in some soul. Instead, he says there are technical reasons why he recommends his students go overseas.
“U.S. rhythm sections are playing at a phenomenal level, they have a very deep understanding of time and space,” he says, stressing that this is not a matter of just playing fast licks to impress the crowd. “It’s about what we call the ‘pulse beat,’ the space between the lines as you are playing. There’s no doubt, though, that young Japanese players are ‘in time’ and swinging, too. I’m talking about an intangible feel for space and time that, as a musician, you know immediately when you hear it. It can’t be taught in the classroom, it has to come through the experience of playing with a group of great musicians, learning to communicate wordlessly through your instrument.”
Getting this practical experience, says Ozone, is much easier in the United States.
His point was reinforced at a weekend jam session in a small jazz bar in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba district last month, where one music student said that though the scene in Tokyo is dynamic, it isn’t nearly as conducive to experimenting and learning as in the United States.
“In Tokyo, first of all you have to pay to join jam sessions at clubs, even if it’s only ¥2,000 this is still a burden,” the student (who preferred to remain anonymous) said, referring to the noruma (pay-to-play) system that also plagues independent acts in musical genres other than jazz.
“To book even the smallest neighborhood bar or live venue in Japan you usually have to front the owner the fee and then try to make it back by packing the house. As a young, financially struggling musician this is often impossible. How many people — even close friends — are going to come out on a rainy Wednesday night and spend ¥3,000 just to watch you ‘jam’ in a tiny live house?”
The situation in major U.S. cities such as New York is different in that an amateur musician can hit three or four jam sessions a night and play for hours often free of charge. These sessions attract an audience of dedicated fans who generally are looking to hear what new sounds are coming out of the scene.
“There’s just nothing really like that in Japan anymore, where most bar owners only want you to play standards like (Bart Howard’s) ‘Fly Me To The Moon,’ ” the student continued. “And then a lot of them shut down by 1 a.m.”
Ozone confirms this way of doing business is as much a fault of conservative audiences here as it is the country’s music-scene norms. When jazz fans pay money to see a show, they want to hear familiar classics and aren’t into taking a chance on new material.
“In Japan the club audiences and owners sometimes have pretty strict expectations of what they want to hear,” Ozone says. “Outside of some of the more avant-garde clubs there isn’t a lot of room for experimentation or even the freedom to fail.”
As a teacher, Ozone believes the freedom to fail is a necessary part of learning how to play music. He is also aware of the fact that this kind of adversity makes a person stronger as well. While the government has publicly worried about the recent trend of young Japanese not traveling overseas, when it comes to music
Tokyo’s schools tell a slightly different story. The Kunitachi school says that a majority of its students attend music programs abroad at least once during their university years (they could not provide figures as they say most students go independently and not as part of any university-exchange program). Another prestigious institution, the Tokyo University of Fine Arts (known colloquially as Geidai), says that each year between 45 to 60 of its students choose to take off a semester or two and face the challenge of living and gigging overseas — a challenge Ozone says is well worth accepting.
“I always tell my Japanese students that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by heading across the ocean,” he says. “When I went to Berklee I could barely speak any English and was full of doubts, but you soon find that jazz is democratic and if you can play then that is all you need.
“Living abroad for a few years and working on your craft, seeing and interacting with the world, these things will only make you a better musician — and a better person.”
James Catchpole blogs about jazz cafes at www.tokyojazzsite.com.