Food & Drink | BEST BAR NONE

He's got jazz izakaya to an art form

by Jude Brand

Many newly opened bars and stores proudly display their year of establishment on the signage out front — even if it just opened. Vagabond, a funky jazz izakaya in Shinjuku, is no exception. The signboard outside proudly boasts “Tavern Since 1976.” When I arrived in 1981, this made me laugh. But now — after 26 years of business — it hangs proudly with the weight of the passing years.

In the ’60s, Matsuoka-san escaped the student riots in Tokyo to make love in Paris and not war on the streets of Shinjuku. He dreamed of becoming a painter and modeled his life on the writings of his favorite author, Ernest Hemingway. Not long into his sojourn, he met Hiragake, another young Japanese artist living in Paris. One look at his compatriot’s sketchbook made Matsuoka put away his paintbrush.

“I realized his talent was so great that I could never reach his level,” says Matsuoka with wistful resignation.

Some 40 years later, Hiragake’s erotic paintings line the walls (both upstairs and down) of Vagabond, Matsuoka’s ultimate creation, right in the heart of Shinjuku, ironically, the very place he tried to escape.

Vagabond is a thriving little drinking den. The place is thick with atmosphere and, though space is at a premium, the interior is a riot of art and objets and bric-a-brac. Lace doilies cover lampshades and old train-carriage luggage racks are mounted high on the walls. A baby grand piano hangs precariously over the staircase that leads up from the street. Opposite is a circular counter serving oden and drinks. And the space in between is crowded with tables and chairs, which fill to capacity most nights as customers trickle in and ai seki (table-sharing) becomes necessary. Unlike at a lot of places, you will not be asked if this is OK — it is mandatory at Vagabond.

On any given night, a duo or trio of musicians will be found squeezed in around the baby grand and delivering soulful renditions of jazz standards. There is no schedule — only Matsuoka-san knows each day who is booked. He will also occasionally grab the mike and add some Satchmo-esque vocals — especially if there is a beautiful young girl in the midst.

In contrast to the mayhem upstairs, the newer bar downstairs is serene and sophisticated. Wood paneling surrounds, offset by banker-green skirting. The bar is backed in dark peach and flanked with vases full of gorgeous lilies and orchids. This is where a lot of Vagabond’s older regulars tuck in for a whiskey before heading upstairs to hear the jazz. The upper deck itself attracts an interesting variety of customers, boasting equal parts salarymen and Shinjuku rock ‘n’ rollers.

In the eyes of a dreamer, this is a delicious slice of jazz heaven . . .