A lot of people were left feeling blue after Chigusa, Japan’s oldest jazz cafe, closed in 2007 when the Noge district of Yokohama where it had been serving Satchmo with its coffees since 1933 fell victim to developers.

Now, though, they can kick out the jams and return to their haunt with its 3,000 jazz records, thanks to a group of long-time aficionados and locals who have succeeded in resurrecting Chigusa near to where it was originally opened in 1933 by the renowned Mamoru Yoshida, who died in 1994 aged 81.

Masataka Yusa, a regular at this mecca of jazz culture in Japan who heads the self-styled Chigusa Kai (Chigusa Association), said he is excited to have successfully resurrected the cafe whose name meaning “autumn grasses” was what the business there was called when Yoshida acquired the property.

“I want many people to come here and enjoy the classics of jazz,” the 63-year-old transport company chairman said this month as he enthused over the record collection that takes in swing, which was all the rage in the 1930s and ’40s, modern jazz that’s developed since World War II, and most everything else that could be classified as jazz.

“You can listen to the great sound through a new audio system and indulge yourself in the cozy atmosphere, which is different from being at a concert,” Yusa said before explaining that his passion for Chigusa goes back to 1960, when he started going there in junior high school.

“Modern jazz was very popular then as music and also as fashion. I was so amazed by the cool music and fashion of Miles Davis — who put on skinny pants,” Yusa said, recalling the late great trumpeter and seminal players of the modern jazz movement.

But it wasn’t only the latest records of Miles Davis and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers that attracted Yusa to the cafe — it was the owner, Yoshida, too.

The “great man,” as Yusa explains, started Chigusa with about 100 of the old 78s records and a gramophone. By 1942, when Yoshida was drafted into the army, he had amassed an astonishing 6,500-plus discs — most from the home of jazz, the then enemy country of the United States.

According to a book of Yoshida’s titled “Yokohama Jazz Story” that was published in 1985, purchasing new records in the troubled 1930s could be an expensive business. “At the time, the average price of a record was ¥1.5,” but I paid ¥8.5 for the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s ‘Caravan’ on the Brunswick label,” he wrote. After that, he put a poster for the great pianist and composer’s record on the outside wall of his shop to advertise it.

Although a U.S. bombing raid on Yokohama on May 29, 1945, razed Yoshida’s property to the ground, along with his record collection, he reopened his jazz cafe after he returned from the war in 1946.

During the postwar Allied Occupation from 1945 to 1952, Yokohama became Japan’s most progressive city — a status affirmed unequivocally through jazz. In fact the Occupation’s radio station often played both established favorites and the latest jazz releases, and many jazz live houses opened for American servicemen, as Yoshida’s book recounts.

Additionally, many jazz records were only available on labels exclusive to the U.S. forces, and though it was only permitted to play them within military facilities, Yoshida managed to get his hands on lots of them to boost his collection, as he explained in his book.

At that time as well, several musicians who would become Japan’s most famous jazz performers honed their skills in Chigusa by listening to American records. Among those was the pianist and bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi, who was enetered into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1999 and to this day remains its only Japanese member.

Yusa, the Chigusa Kai head, said he heard from Yoshida that Akiyoshi had often visited the jazz cafe and would always ask to hear records by Bud Powell, the so-called father of modern jazz piano who died, aged, 41, in 1966.

“Apparently Akiyoshi tried to write the scores for Powell’s music because it wasn’t available here,” Yusa said.

On a wider front, though, Yoshida didn’t just help Japan’s jazz fans and players — but all its musicians, Yusa said, explaining how, in the 1970s when the Japanese Society for the Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (JASRAC) was trying to set the secondary-use music fee payable to composers, he spent a lot of time negotiating with JASRAC’s then head, Yasushi Akutagawa.

“As a result, Yoshida persuaded Akutagawa to make the amount of the secondary-use fee reasonable,” Yusa said. “But Yoshida never mentioned anything about that to his customers.”

Yoshida never married, and when he died in 1994, his sister Takako Yoshida took over Chigusa. But then, around 2000, she began to have health problems and it became difficult for her to keep the cafe going, according to Yusa. And even though members of the Chigusa Kai volunteered to help out, they had their own jobs, too, and it was hard to keep the place open.

Just then, when Chigusa’s fortunes were at a low ebb, a real estate company started nudging shop owners in the area to sell up so it could build a condominium. Finally, after the shops on both sides of Chigusa sold out, Takako Yoshida decided to close the 74-year-old cafe in 2007.

Two years later, however, members of the Chigusa Kai brought the spirit of Chigusa back to life for nine days in October 2009 when they rented a public facility in Noge, Yusa said. “Around 2,500 people came to the event, — among them young students, many of whom said ‘I’ve never heard such loud music, I’m amazed,’ ” he said.

Inspired by the huge response to that event, Chigusa Kai members decided to restart the cafe. Fortunately, the owner of a nearby restaurant who had been friend of Yoshida’s chipped in to help rent a vacant store, and the City of Yokohama also subsided the reopening — on condition the cafe contributed to the reconstruction of Tohoku following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

No problem: the Chigusa Kai members decided to sell precooked curry made in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, at the cafe, and to hire people to work there who had lost their homes in the disaster, Yusa said.

They also extended a helping hand to a jazz coffee shop named h. Imagine in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, that they’d had read in the newspaper was destroyed by the tsunami. To help the owner, Katsutoshi Toyama, to reopen, in May last year they took him about 20 jazz records and ¥150,000. Eventually Toyama found suitable premises in Ofunato, the city next to Rikuzentakata, and on March 11 this year he reopened for business.

Fittingly, too, that was also the day when Chigusa in Yokohama reopened.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.