Music

The jazz cafe offering sounds of the 1960s in a Shinjuku basement

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

For many Tokyoites, Shinjuku is inextricably linked with the 1960s and ’70s and with jazz. “There used to be jazz kissa (cafes) everywhere,” says Dug cafe owner and jazz photographer Hozumi Nakadaira. During these decades, the district came to be known as a Mecca for young people and a jazz and avant-garde art haven.

In the immediate postwar period, Shinjuku was an area of black market dealings and multiple red-light districts. Then, in the 1960s, a new generation of young student activists took to its streets to protest against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, American involvement in postwar Japan and Japan’s complicity in the capitalist world order.

For these activists, art was deeply intertwined with politics, and Shinjuku came to be the site of an array of new experimental art movements. Like the traveling performers of old, Juro Kara’s theater troupe performed in a tent temporarily built on the grounds of Hanazono Shrine on the edge of Golden Gai — a warren of shacks that had, until recently, been both a black market and red-light district. Artists and musicians conducted events, equal parts artistic and political, at the plaza in front of Shinjuku Station’s East Exit. The soon-to-be-renowned Japanese new wave film director Nagisa Oshima recorded these happenings, interspersed them with scenes shot at the new Kinokuniya building, designed by modernist architect Kunio Maekawa, and created the now-classic “Diary of a Shinjuku Thief.” Meanwhile, Daido Moriyama’s photographs depicted the student movement, the art world and an underworld populated by sex workers and yakuza.

Jazz was the soundtrack for this new artistic and political world. Activists and artists would congregate at jazz kissa to plan revolts and performances over endless cups of coffee. They would go and listen to jazz being performed at the new Shinjuku Pit Inn. They’d visit record shops and seek out new sounds, and, at the same time, musicians from the U.S. began to frequently tour Japan.

Dug is one of the few holdovers from that jazz-obsessed time. It’s located in the basement of a building on Yasukuni-dori with only a small white billboard on the ground floor announcing its presence. Open the door and it immediately feels like a different world. The dark narrow stairs lead to a red brick room filled with black-and-white photographs of jazz greats, taken by Nakadaira. Jazz, most often bebop, is always playing, and patrons quietly chat for hours on end.

Jazz kissa often were, and still are, quiet places where people can focus on music. In the 1960s, most jazz kissa were shrine-like places where speaking was forbidden and no alcohol was served. “Visiting a jazz kissa is like a religious experience. You sit and listen as if receiving a sermon,” says Masahiro Yoshida, owner of jazz kissa Eigakan. Poor musicians who couldn’t afford records started out by listening obsessively at jazz cafes, writing down the notes by ear and practicing at home.

However, Nakadaira says he started his cafe because he “wanted to create a different kind of jazz kissa,” one where speaking was encouraged, alcohol was served and anyone could enter. “I wanted to create a place where you could drink and listen. Where you are allowed to talk and drink wine. A lot of people had meetings here over a coffee or glass of wine, and still do.”

Most importantly, the music was to be of the highest quality. “At the time, a lot of jazz kissa were run by people who were not music fans. I wanted the best sound. It cost more than ¥3,000 to buy an American pressing of a jazz record. But that was what I really wanted to have,” says Nakadaira.

He had first come to Tokyo from Wakayama Prefecture to study photography, but soon found a way to marry both of his passions — music and photos — through his cafe.

“I started taking photographs of musicians because I wanted to display them in my cafe. Art Blakey’s tour in 1961 was the start. I hid the camera, because photographs were not allowed, and took an action shot.”

That tour was the start of the jazz boom of the ’60s and ’70s, and from then on, Nakadaira shot almost every important jazz concert in Japan.

“There were many famous visiting musicians performing on any given night and I had to decide which one to go to,” says Nakadaira. He shot many well-known names, including Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans and John Coltrane, and befriended many of them, taking their pictures as they relaxed offstage, or during moments of intense concentration. In addition to being shown in his cafe, Nakadaira’s photographs have graced record covers. He’s published two books of his images and been the subject of multiple exhibitions across Japan.

Nakadaira still comes to the cafe almost every day, and the music and decor remain much the same as when it first opened. Still, while Dug never changes, its clientele does.

“I started the shop about 60 years ago. Most of my clients from my generation don’t come so often,” Nakadaira says. “However, their children’s or grandchildren’s generations are now coming. Recently, a group of guests made up of three generations came to visit. And my son also now helps run Dug.”

Dug is also one of the few jazz joints where women can feel at ease by themselves, or as a group. Non-Japanese are welcome also, and some find their way into the basement cafe.

Nowadays Shinjuku is becoming better known as the home of the Robot Restaurant or duty-free shops than for jazz or avant-garde art. It feels as if there are more tourists every day, and more and more shops catering to these visitors are popping up. The student protests of the 1960s feel like a distant memory. But spend some time below ground in Dug, and after you emerge onto Yasukuni-dori, if you listen closely, you might just hear jazz as you wander around Shinjuku at night, looking up at the bright neon lights.

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