Music

Sadao Watanabe, Japan's godfather of jazz, passes on his wisdom

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

Before he became one of Japan’s best-loved jazz musicians, saxophone player Sadao Watanabe was one of the first Japanese musicians to study in the United States. As a young man he studied at Berklee College of Music, in Boston.

“Back then, the journey was long. It wasn’t easy to just hop over to the U.S.,” he says. But now there are jazz studies departments throughout the world, and young Japanese students aspiring to study jazz at Berklee are not uncommon. At the time, however, only pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi had gone ahead of Watanabe to Berklee, which was the only university in the world where a musician could study jazz. Along with Akiyoshi, and pianist Masahiko Satoh, who immediately followed him at Berklee, Watanabe helped to lay the groundwork for Japanese jazz in the postwar era.

Like many Japanese of his generation, Watanabe first fell in love with jazz because of the influence of the American armed forces.

“I think one or two weeks after we surrendered, FEN (Far East Network — radio for U.S. Armed Forces) started broadcasting. That’s where I learned about jazz,” Watanabe, 86, says.

Though the occupation forces did not purposefully use FEN as a means for propaganda, they were aware of its popularity with young Japanese people. Thanks to FEN, a generation became enamored with American music and the optimism, freedom and individualism that American pop culture encouraged.

Watanabe was no exception.

“American culture was a huge shock to me,” he says. “Till that time, I had only listened to Japanese army songs or heavy German classical music. So listening to popular American songs was very different. That was the first time I understood the impact of Western culture. And, pretty early on we had American movie magazines with color pictures from the U.S. I was in awe of them, and of jazz musicians in magazine articles.”

He also fell in love with jazz through the film “Birth of the Blues” (1941), starring Bing Crosby, which had a lasting impact.

Watanabe says the American troops themselves were also inspiring. “After the war ended, there were many American GIs in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture — my hometown. They were so cool, unlike the Japanese soldiers. I was so enamored.”

Soon, Watanabe transformed that adoration into focus and began to build up his jazz chops.

“There was a secondhand clarinet in a music shop in my hometown for ¥3,000,” he says. “Over half a month I convinced my father to purchase it for me.”

Watanabe’s father was a biwa (Japanese lute) performer and encouraged his son to take lessons from a local shop owner who had played at silent movie theaters before the war. After a few lessons, Watanabe formed a band with his classmates. Then, because so few musicians owned instruments, dance halls hired Watanabe to sit on stage and look good with his instrument, without playing.

“By high school I was working at hotels playing dance music for military officer society parties,” he says. “After graduating high school, I went to listen to American service bands, for example in Yokohama. I followed those players around.”

Horn of plenty: Sadao Watanabe is known for his work in jazz, but also plays Brazilian bossa nova.
Horn of plenty: Sadao Watanabe is known for his work in jazz, but also plays Brazilian bossa nova.

Watanabe made his way to Tokyo and took up the alto sax and began studying music seriously. Soon he met Akiyoshi and performed in her band. Akiyoshi, discovered by pianist Oscar Peterson, would soon travel to Berklee College of Music to study jazz.

“I was lucky because when I was 19 Toshiko Akiyoshi spoke to me,” Watanabe says. “She invited me to jam sessions with GI players and jobs at bases. I was so lucky. I worked hard to get into the world, but I was so lucky to have met her.”

In 1962, Watanabe followed in Akiyoshi’s footsteps to Boston.

“For me to go to the U.S. was very lucky,” he says. “Japanese musicians put on a concert to raise money to wish me luck. They told me to work hard. I kept that in mind and, with a realization that I might not see them anytime soon, I knew I had to work hard.”

While a student, Watanabe performed with fellow classmates and musicians in Boston and New York and performed in Chico Hamilton and Gary McFarland’s bands.

Watanabe had a significant effect on jazz in Japan after his return in 1965. He partnered with instrument maker Yamaha and, through his teaching efforts, he spread the knowledge he gained at Berklee to musicians throughout the country. For example, the free jazz experimental sax musician Akira Sakata, a renowned jazz musician in his own right, studied with Watanabe.

Watanabe also helped musicians study in the U.S. Pianist Satoh, whose career spans every genre from bebop to electronic music to Buddhist-inspired experimental music, got the opportunity to study at Berklee thanks in part to Watanabe’s efforts.

Watanabe was also on Japanese radio and promoted jazz music through his show, “My Dear Life,” which went on for 19 years, starting in 1972. By that time, the Japanese jazz boom was in full swing and Watanabe frequently had in-studio live sessions with visiting jazz musicians.

As a composer and performer, Watanabe has kept Japanese jazz at an incredibly high standard. Over his long career, he has played all around the world, with musicians from Japan and overseas. His career has not just been solely about jazz, but also Brazilian bossa nova.

Watanabe thinks his long jazz career has taught him something about Japanese society.

“I think young Japanese jazz musicians, and maybe young Japanese people, more generally, are not so self-assertive because they are too polite,” he says. “I taught at Kunitachi College of Music until last year. I had students who had studied lots of jazz theory but could not compose a piece of jazz music.”

When asked about what has changed about the jazz scene in Japan, Watanabe sees the distance between the U.S. and Japan as a key element.

“Everywhere is really close, information is everywhere. Musicians are therefore not hungry anymore. It’s too easy to live,” he says, adding that he wants to encourage young Japanese musicians “to communicate. It seems like the current jazz scene is too separated and musicians don’t talk with each other. Young musicians seem closed off from each other.”

However, Watanabe doesn’t despair. He says among his students and the young players he knows there are some truly great young musicians. “I’m excited to see what their future will be like.”

The Sadao Watanabe Quintet 2019 tours Hokkaido in July. For more information on dates, visit www.sadao.com.