As one of Japan’s longest-standing maritime gateways to the world, Yokohama has absorbed many cultures from the West over the last 150 years — not least its abiding love of jazz.

Indeed, many residents of this metropolis — known in Japan and worldwide for its friendly attitude toward anything foreign or new — take pride in the fact that Yokohama is truly the birthplace of jazz in Japan.

According to Koichi Shibata, a third-generation resident and artistic director of the annual jazz festival Yokohama Jazz Promenade, on July 1, 1925, the city hosted the nation’s first public jazz performance at a theater named the Kirakuza.

(Technically speaking, the first-ever performance by the band had taken place five days before that at Tokyo’s Teikoku Gekijo, Shibata regretfully admits. But citing the high admission fee for the Teikoku show, he asserts that the Yokohama performance was the nation’s first for “regular folks.”)

On that occasion, he said that a troupe led by magician Tenkatsu Shokyokusai, returning from a U.S. tour, performed on a bill with a seven-piece jazz band they had brought back with them. That day, Yokohama residents reacted with awe and excitement to such numbers as “Limehouse Blues” and “Somebody Loves Me,” he said.

But it was after World War II, with the arrival of the Allies’ fun-loving Occupation forces, that the city’s jazz culture began to really blossom, local records show.

At first, several live-jazz venues, night clubs and cafes sprouted up after the war to quench the thirst for music among the many American soldiers, especially African-Americans, followed by others through the mid-’60s. Along the way, as well as hosting overseas artists, such places also influenced and nurtured numerous prominent local musicians, including Sadao Watanabe, Terumasa Hino and Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Time has passed and a lot has changed, though. The Occupation forces have left and U.S. bases have been downsized. Home audios became easily available, and many of the “jazz cafes” — where musicians and aficionados gathered to “study” jazz — have disappeared. The most symbolic of these was the closure in 2007 of Chigusa, a renowned cafe in Yokohama’s Noge district.

But locals like Shibata are trying to keep the city’s jazz tradition alive. To explore the roots of jazz in Yokohama, I recently visited two spots — a 53-year-old jazz cafe in Noge, where music is played nonstop at an ear-splitting volume from its vast LP collection, and a 25-year-old jazz bar and restaurant in the posh district of Kannai, which features nightly performances by local musicians.

The former, named “down beat,” looks more like a detectives’ hideout than a coffee shop. Located in a commercial district alongside rows of tiny “snack” bars and love hotels, the cafe keeps its lights so low and its amplifiers cranked up so loud that you almost feel like you become a pulsating part of the music yourself. Owner Tamiko Tanaka told me that down beat was opened by a man named Hayato Abo in 1956, though at that time it was located elsewhere in the city. Then, in the late ’60s, it moved to its present home and she and her husband, who had been regulars at down beat, took it over in 1996.

Down beat’s main clientele today is aging businessmen who have known the place for many years; many stop by for a few drinks after dining or drinking elsewhere, Tanaka said. But business was sporadic when I visited, with the blaring music serving just one solitary patron.

Indeed, though I marveled at the vintage album jackets, magazine articles and an autographed picture of Sonny Rollins adorning the walls, I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer down beat would be up and running. I walked up to that lone customer lounging in the corner, a man wearing a baseball cap and visibly buried in thoughts.

“Hi,” I said softly, trying not to startle him. “Do you come here often?”

The customer, Masao Kataoka, who said he was from Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward, turned out to be friendlier than I’d thought. “I come here on my days off. Usually it’s a two-day trip,” the 53-year-old said, adding that he works for a Tokyo facility that looks after children estranged from their parents. “I find this place relaxing,” he explained.

Kataoka told me that owners of jazz cafes — not just in Yokohama, but across the nation — tend to be cranky and unfriendly, citing one in Tokyo called Full House, named after a 1962 Wes Montgomery album. It was only seven or eight years after he started frequenting the joint that the owner finally spoke to him, he said.

We also chatted about nonjazz stuff, perhaps helped by the cafe’s cozy ambience.

“What’s it like to work with kids in that situation?” I asked.

“Most kids are there because they have been abused by their family members,” he said quietly. “They are psychologically wounded. So we sort of run an orphanage but technically they are not orphans, and we have to deal with their parents outside. It’s tough sometimes.”

Soon the music changed to the soothing voice of Astrud Gilberto. It was fun listening to Gilberto and Kataoka, but I had to go. I had arranged to meet Shibata, the city’s annual Jazz Promenade director whom I had spoken to by phone the previous day.

When I arrived at our appointed rendezvous, BarBarBar restaurant in the Kannai district, at a little past 8 p.m., most of the tables were already taken and well-dressed customers of all ages were being entertained by a quintet.

Shibata soon arrived with a high school friend, and we sat at a table not far distant from the band. During a break between sets, Shibata’s friend, a retired radio producer, introduced me to Nori Onuki, a female vocalist making her solo debut there that night.

“This is a long-standing, prestigious place to play at,” the Yokohama native in a gorgeous blue dress declared with a smile. “The (male) guests are here to purely enjoy the music, not to chitchat with women.”

Shortly afterward, BarBarBar’s owner Hiroshi Tsuruoka, who also heads the corporation running the huge Yokohama Stadium music and sports venue, turned up and sat himself down at a table at the back. As we went over to greet him, Tsuruoka declared himself in a good mood that night, as the underdog Yokohama Bay Stars baseball team had just beaten Yomiuri Giants in a David vs. Goliath game.

“Can you believe it?” Tsuruoka said, rolling his eyes and sipping a glass of red wine. “A sayonara (goodbye) because the hitter was hit by a ball!” he said, with a self-deprecating laugh.

Tsuruoka and Shibata have been instrumental in Yokohama’s recent revival as the home of jazz. Tsuruoka is chairman of the Yokohama Jazz Association, as well as being secretary general of the Jazz Promenade, which has been held every year since 1993. In 2008, the festival drew more than 2,300 musicians and 132,000 visitors.

“The American soldiers loved to enjoy themselves,” Tsuruoka, 69, said, looking back on the immediate postwar years. “And many Japanese came to Yokohama — because, even if they knew nothing about jazz, they could learn it and somehow make a living here.”

Back then, Yokohama hosted a lot of night clubs and bars where full jazz bands would play, and many other “parasite” bars the band members themselves would go to after playing their sets, Tsuruoka said. By the early 1980s, however, most of those places were gone. Yokohama also lost the patronage of “the ultimate playboys” from Tokyo, as the Roppongi entertainment district grew and replaced it as the nation’s nightlife capital, Tsuruoka said.

“But we are from Yokohama and we can’t go all the way to Tokyo to have fun,” Tsuruoka grinned. “That’s why we created this place in 1984 — so we could enjoy ourselves.”

Tsuruoka said he wants more businesses to come and open jazz bars and restaurants in Yokohama. “Competition is welcome,” he said merrily, tapping his fingers on the table. “To me, the more places to have fun, the better. Look at Chinatown! It’s a jumble of 210 businesses!

“Throughout human history music has flourished around ports. New Orleans, New York, San Francisco — they are all port cities. These are the places where people of different ethnic backgrounds have mixed. And it’s the music that connects them, because it knows no language barriers!”

It was long into the night, and suddenly realizing that I had a 90-minute journey home, I got up and said I had to leave. Tsuruoka and Shibata offered a handshake — as if we were old friends. As I walked back to the station, with the jazzed-up melody of the “Sound of Music” haunting me, I knew that I’d gained a few insights into Yokohama’s past, present and future that night. And that I’d likely be back before long to soak up some more of those special vibes.

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