Jazz is a form of music that was born out of live performance, and fans in Japan are certainly spoiled for choice when it comes to places to see jazz gigs.
With that blessing of choice, however, comes a catch. There’s an argument that the jazz circuit these venues are a part of is a bit too insular and doesn’t allow musicians to get their music out to a wider audience.
First, many of the venues are intimate — meaning pretty small. Playing to a sell-out crowd may mean a group of just 25-30 people. Add to that the fact that most of these small independently run venues have virtually no marketing budgets, so the audiences at these gigs will either be club regulars or die-hard fans of the artist.
An intimate atmosphere can be fantastic, but it’s not exactly the most effective way for artists to promote a new release or try to build a fan-base.
The music policies of some of the venues can also be problematic. A lot of clubs will only book straight-ahead piano trios, or vocalists who perform only the most popular standards or bossa nova-style pop tunes that are easy on amateur ears. There’s definitely a market for this kind of music, but sadly it’s the main reason jazz is seen as easy-listening tunes for older people (and stereotypical old people at that, today’s seniors grew up with rock ‘n’ roll!).
Thankfully, a number of acts are actively seeking the young and young-at-heart. Crossover acts such as Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, Quasimode, indigo jam unit and Fox Capture Plan (recently honored at the Jazz Japan Awards 2013) have attracted younger crowds to their gigs and have had hit albums, too. Other similar acts such as Tri4th, Jazz Collective and bohemianvoodoo are also proving jazz can still resonate in modern ears.
So how are these acts reaching newer audiences? To start with, they mainly perform their own material — and any standards they do perform are often given a much more contemporary arrangement. Consequently, the music sounds fresh and relevant, even appealing to fans who may otherwise shun anything to do with jazz.
Other things that have helped these acts include having a record company that both understands and backs their ambitions, or having a well-known club DJ pick up and actively promote the artists via club events.
More than anything else, though, the key to success for these groups has been where they play their stuff live. Rather than sticking to the traditional jazz circuit and festivals, these bands show up at events and venues more associated with rock or pop acts, resulting in a new crowd that even has some space to dance.
A few of the bigger venues on the circuit have taken notice of this trend. Subsequently, they have been trying to adapt to the new environment in some positive ways.
The Blue Note group of venues is booking an increasing number of younger, hipper acts both from Japan and overseas in addition to its roster of well-established older artists that frequently play its clubs. The customer base is changing as a result.
Likewise, JZ Brat in Shibuya sometimes hosts “club style” nights with acts such as those mentioned above, plus a DJ or two. Tables are removed so that patrons can dance — though maybe someone should get them up to speed on the current antidancing laws plaguing the electronic music scene.
All this doesn’t mean traditional jazz clubs are no longer relevant, though. Far from it, gigging in the smaller clubs presents a lot of musicians with the chance to further hone their craft, work on new compositions and play some of the standards they might not perform elsewhere.
But if jazz artists in Japan really want to reach out to a wider audience, they will need to step out beyond the traditional circuit and seek out shows at other venues as well.