Issue #3 | ,

At the Jazz Kissa

jazz japan

Like the cramped sushi bar I found in Kyoto packed with friendly businessmen and laughing smokers, and the independent Tokyo record store I found filled with collectible blues and jazz, I stumbled on Jazz In Rokudenashi by accident. It was a jazu kissa on a brick side street in Kyoto’s historic Gion-Shijō district. Jazu kissa translates to ‘jazz café,’ and this one had no windows and no eye-catching architecture to announce itself. It stood at the top of a narrow staircase set between a sleazy night club and a vacant storefront where the only testament to its existence was a thin standing sign advertising “Jazz In.” Looking closer, I found a small handwritten white sign affixed to the wall. “Coffee, Tea, Whisky, Beer, Others,” it said. Beside it, a twelve-inch record painted with a tiny arrow pointing up the stairwell. So I went.

When I stepped into the dark warren, the smell of cigarette smoke hung in the air. A patchwork of stained, aging posters gave the interior a yellowish tint. In the doorway, a young woman stepped past me, shouldering a backpack, as the young man at the counter bowed and said something to her in Japanese that wasn’t your standard arigatou gozaimasu. Then he looked at me and nodded.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hello,” I said, sparing him my bad Japanese.

I set my backpack in the corner. The bartender removed a soiled ashtray and stood sentinel, his arms behind his back, a slight grin on his face. Decked in tiny round glasses, the collar of a paisley shirt peeking from the top of his fuzzy blue sweater, he looked like a librarian who played in a band. I couldn’t spare him my Japanese for long.

“Ocha?” I said. “Kocha, or ocha?”

Since jazz kissaten specialize in coffee, not tea, this one likely wouldn’t have sencha, matcha or hojicha – my favorite teas – so I used the two general words for green and black tea that I knew.

“Ah,” he said, “kocha,” and got to work. A pan rattled and a teabag slipped from its crisp paper sleeve. While the leaves steeped, I looked around.

A Yebisu beer glass full of disposable chopsticks stood by the register. Nearby, a plastic drummer figurine stood opposite a row of Suntory whisky bottles. The absence of saxophones and trumpets in the posters suggested they belonged to movies and rock bands, but their katakana text withheld the truth.

I pulled an old jazz magazine from a rack of yellowing miscellany in the corner: Swing Journal, April, 1992. Pastel font on the cover said, “The Jazz Festival.” That was all I could read, though I knew the publication. Launched in 1947, Swing used to be one of Japan’s best jazz magazines, but it shuttered in 2010. I lowered myself onto a stool and flipped through the glossy pages. This issue contained photos of late Miles Davis playing electric, cover art to albums the magazine seemed to suggest buying, and photos of Japanese and American musicians of color discussing jazz in vertical columns that I couldn’t comprehend.

I came to Japan from Oregon to research a book about human density. Music drew me to as many places that had to do with music as with research, scores of tangential destinations such as record stores, piano bars, rockabilly bars, even an eel restaurant whose Beatles-loving owner had plastered the walls with Fab Four memorabilia. I’m not a fanboy. I’m not a collector. I’m just an enthusiastic listener, one so mystified by the power music has over people like me that I bought Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain to finally try to understand it.

Jazz kissa seemed like the sort of niche specialty store that endured thanks to a thin, devoted following. Yet everywhere I went in Kyoto and Tokyo, I heard jazz. A ramen shop off Shijō-dori blasted Jackie McLean’s cover of “A Foggy Day.” A muzak version of Miles Davis’ “So What” played in the travel accessories section of Tokyu Hands department store. While snow fell in Shibuya, Stanley Turrentine’s saxophone poured from some unseen speaker. Japan sounded like one giant Pandora jazz station. So many of the Starbucks and Tully’s coffee shops where I bought matcha lattes played an endless loop of Horace Silver, Milt Jackson and Sonny Rollins, that Pandora seemed to hold at least some part of the country in its grip. Maybe jazz was everywhere back home in the US, too. Maybe over the years I’d started blocking it out along with all the garbage trucks and chirping blue jays of daily life. But here, awoken by the energizing novelty of everything, my ears perceived a world that appreciated this American music more than the citizens of the country that invented it. Japan is a culture known for its dedication to mastery, and it has a track record of importing American music, food, fashion and technology, and then improving it so much that it becomes uniquely Japanese. Japan embraced jazz. Granted, I heard J-pop and hard rock and Japanese hip-hop, too. During the first two full days in Japan, I heard traditional Japanese music playing on the streets of Nishi-shinjuku. I stopped to listen, standing alone on the street at night in freezing winter air, my body further stiffened by the music’s eerie beauty. This was exactly the sort of experience I hoped for: intimate encounters with other peoples’ way of life. But hearing Miles Davis solo on Cannonball Adderley’s “Autumn Leaves” inside a chic Shimokitazawa clothing store comforted me in a way I hadn’t expected. The trumpet’s slow, melancholic notes pushed out the blue feeling of distance and isolation that frequently overcame me during my travels. In its place, music ushered in calm and the warmth of familiarity.

After pouring hot water from a dinged kettle, the bartender placed a white porcelain cup in front of me with a small jar of sugar. I wasn’t even thirsty. I’d already had a highly caffeinated matcha latte elsewhere. I only wanted to listen to music in an authentic jazu kissa. Being a music fan whose enthusiasm qualified me as music dork, I’d read about these places in books, but this was my first time inside one.

“Jazu kissa?” I said, waving my hand around the room.

He laughed. “Hai. Jazz kissa.” Jazz kissa? The literature I’d read called them ‘jazu kissa.’ Maybe there were variations in type, or maybe, as usual, I’d flubbed the Japanese. In the heat of the moment, on the subway or at a cash register, I often said sumimassen instead of gomennasai, excusing myself when I meant to apologize. That’s what happens when you try to use a language you’ve only dabbled in for a few weeks. Hopefully, my six stock phrases would become reflexive enough that I could eventually learn some conversational Japanese. For now, I relied on hand gestures and my unreliable recall.

I pressed my palm to my chest. “My first jazz kissa.” This was a gesture I found myself making frequently during my three-week stay in Japan. Without a common language, a palm laid flat atop the chest offered a vague way to convey emotion, gratitude, affection, or indicate that in the embarrassingly jumbled string of words that formed my closest approximation of a sentence, I was speaking about myself. So far I’d used my hands a lot. I’d pointed to maps, pointed to buildings, to street signs and menus and dishes that people were eating at neighboring tables, and to the complex web of colored lines on Tokyo’s subway maps when I couldn’t discern the station I was trying to reach. Gestures were essential in getting by here, as was the kindness of strangers. Japan was populated by patient, generous strangers, and music provided a powerful medium that brought us closer together.

Although I couldn’t tell this young man that I’d wanted to experience a jazz kissa for years, I pantomimed walking down the street and stumbling on this place. “Accident,” I said, pointing to myself then the ground.

He laughed. “Accident. Good. Welcome.”

Vintage Southeast Asian psyche played overhead, a type of trippy, twangy rock and roll that I loved yet hadn’t expected to hear in a jazz bar.

Pointing to the speaker, I said, “Cambodian? Thai?”

“Ah,” he said, “Thai.” Out of what might have been a mix of embarrassment and propriety, he pawed through a shelf of LPs and replaced the rock with jazz: Sonny Criss’ Jazz-USA. I’d never heard of it.

He hung the pink record sleeve in a slot on the wall above the player. Instead of starting at the beginning, he skipped the first track, a rendition of a slow song that seemingly every mid-century jazz musician covered called “Willow Weep for Me,” and dropped the needle on a fast one called “Blue Friday.”

The old vinyl hissed and popped. Criss’ tart alto filled the dim room. As the cream swirled in my cup, the bartender and I sat in silence, and Sonny Criss and the incredible pianist Kenny Drew tore through the track with a playful ferocity.

The bartender and I bobbed our heads. We nodded at cool parts. Occasionally, he and I glanced at each other to trade a smile or an understanding look, some silent acknowledgment that what we were hearing was one of a kind. The song was filled with fire and fluidity, the taut mix of danger, precision and possibility that great musical improvisation contains. Spontaneously composed jazz solos balance on a knife’s-edge, eliciting a feeling as edgy and cutting as you sometimes feel when you can’t say what you need in a foreign country, or can’t tell if you’re completely out of place and lonely this far from home, or if you’re invigorated by the challenging introspection of solitary travel, a sensation as rich and tense as listening to music in a dark room with a stranger and not being able to discuss what you’re sharing.

When the pianist finished his solo, I looked at the bartender in awe. “This is really, really good,” I said.

He smiled mischievously, either pleased at the fact that I liked his pick, or pleased that I was enjoying myself in his club. “Very good,” he said. “Very, very good.”

The bartender’s name was Kay. As it turned out, he did play in a band: drums in a local rock four-piece.

“Is this your club?” I said. “Are you the owner?”

“No, no,” he said grinning. “Not owner.” He pressed his palm to his chest as I had, proving how contagiously expressive the gesture was, and said something in Japanese that might have meant ‘worker’ or ‘employee.’ “Bar, night,” he said. “Jazz, day. Jazz kissa, at day.”

When I asked the club’s age, he wrote the number ‘1979’ on a scrap of paper—not the golden age of jazz, but a golden age for the jazz kissa. Next to the date, I wrote the name of Criss’ album so I could buy it later.


My dad got me into music. When I was a kid, we played a game. While he drove me to elementary school, we’d listen to jazz or country on the radio, and I had to guess the musician. “Who’s that?” Dad would ask.

I’d tilt my ear toward the speaker. “Duke Ellington.”

During the next song, Dad would smile and glance at me sideways. “Who’s that?” “Sachmo,” I’d say. And Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Bennie Goodman, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Wills, Buck Owens, and the Andrew Sisters. After a few years, I could name scores of jazz and country artists.

Thanks to my dad, genre doesn’t interest me as much as feeling. I listen to whatever moves me, whether it’s stylishly obscure or predictably mainstream. That includes everything from the Velvet Underground to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, The Ronnettes to Lionel Hampton, Meat Puppets to The Fresh & Onlys. Why deny yourself powerful sounds just because of their cultural associations? And why fixate on the obscure if obscurity is a song’s only asset?

That’s what brought me to Jazz In: curiosity. I wanted to hear how jazz sounded in Japan, how it felt to listen to it here, and to see how the Japanese responded to it. Jazz was my music, but it belonged to everyone.

My current music collection contains music from most of the musicians my dad introduced me to, though his collection definitely does not contain any Velvet Underground, or any rock and roll. When he first got me into jazz, I never imagined that one day I’d end up on the other side of the Pacific, standing on a steep hill in Kyoto’s historic Higashiyama district at night, as three young women in kimono played an entire Bennie Goodman album in their shop, in a wooden building, surrounded by temples. Dad would have loved it. As Goodman’s band played, I walked past the store and thought of him, wishing he could have been there to hear it. And now I’m here, wishing Dad was sitting on the neighboring stool in this jazz cafe, drinking tea and sharing this listening experience with me.


After “Blue Friday,” Criss’s band ripped through an even better fast song called “Sunday.” The bartender stood up and waved his arms low by his waist, excited yet falling in and out of time with the music in a way you wouldn’t expect of a drummer in his line of work. He didn’t seem able to keep a beat or to care. Sometimes he snapped his fingers like a bebop hep cat. Other times he just stood there, bobbing his head with his hands out like fins. To me, enthusiasm trumps appearances, and this bespeckled, seemingly bookish guy had loads of enthusiasm.

When he sat back down behind the bar, we both stared in opposite directions and listened to the next song, a slow one called “More Than You Know” whose title seemed fitting. Then we fell silent and stared into space. For a few straight minutes, we stayed that way: gaze upwards, away from each other. The silence wasn’t awkward. It was powerful in a way that I still can’t express in my native language and that seems to want to be felt more than described. This was partly what jazz kissa were for.

When it comes to jazz in Japan, meditative listening has a long tradition in the country’s public places. The jazu kissa date back to 1929. A general music café, or ongaku kissa, called the Blackbird opened next to Tokyo University to play foreign music to customers. American troops had introduced jazz during the occupation, but the music gained countercultural appeal with the arrival of French nouveau and noir films, where jazz frequently provided the soundtrack. This separated it from popular music. What helped solidify jazz’s reputation as hip, outsider music was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ first Japanese tour in 1961.

Touring for their album The Freedom Rider, these musicians were the first people of color many Japanese citizens had seen, and as retired Hitotsubashi University professor and Japanese-jazz scholar Michael Molasky said, “after seven years of occupation and massive influx of American culture, in the Japanese imagination, [at that moment,] the face of jazz turns black.” The Jazz Messengers returned to Japan in winter 1964. In the months following that tour, the band released one of their most powerful albums, Free for All, which they followed with a tribute to Japan, called Kyoto. Once Blakey brought his message, jazz cafés multiplied, flourishing during the 1960s and ’70s, and peaking at about five hundred by 1976.

Unlike a concert venue, the original kissa’s goal wasn’t to host live bands. It was to provide a place where people could listen to and discover recorded jazz. At the time, jazz arrived in the form of imported American albums, often at hefty prices. Expense and scarcity meant the average Japanese jazz fan couldn’t afford to buy as much new music as they would have liked – or at least, couldn’t support the strength of their musical habit – so jazu kissa provided an archive and listening space. As Molasky explained to The Japan Times: “The high-quality audio system, combined with a large collection of jazz records (often numbering in the thousands) served as the equivalent of a musical library in an era when the price of an imported jazz LP was far too expensive for a young fan to amass a personal collection.” During the country’s jazz boom, many Tokyo neighborhoods contained half a dozen jazz cafés. People drank coffee and listened to the newest imports. A kissa’s record collection helped direct fans to good albums in a genre famous for its overwhelming scope and dizzying variety. But along with the country, jazu kissa changed.

To capitalize on the country’s unusually large fan base, Blue Note Records started releasing both classic and out of print albums in Japan in the 1970s. Domestic production reduced the need for cafés that played imports. Also, the country’s increased standard of living, the availability of digitized music and the declining cost of home audio systems all reduced what Molasky calls the kissaten’s “rarity value.” “The advent of high-quality portable listening systems altered the way young people listened to recorded music,” he said, “rendering a fixed listening space anachronistic. It’s therefore no surprise that the few remaining cafés are occupied mainly by older customers, with an average age somewhere around 50 or 55.” Since the 1990s, kissas’ numbers have declined. By 2003, approximately half of Shinjuku’s two hundred ’70s-era kissa had shuttered. One of those fatalities was Dig, which the legendary jazz photographer Hozumi Nakadaira opened in Shinjuku in 1961. Newer jazz cafés such as Kissa Sakaiki and New Dug (featured in Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood), and hard bop era holdovers like Jiken Miyazaki’s legendary Samurai, are adapting to stay solvent. In Kyoto, there was Jazz In Rokudenashi.

Mixing elements of a coffee house, bar, record room and concert venue, some modern kissa are casual affairs, a place where people talk, read and drink strong coffee against a backdrop of recorded music. Others are hardline, promoting listening as a deep intellectual, even spiritual, practice, and cultivating silence to the point of isolationism. These kissa function as temples, where visitors become disciples who come to listen to records and appreciate jazz’s sound and history. As E. Taylor Atkins says in his book Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan: “The hardcore jazz coffeehouses are not places at which to socialize, conversationally, at least. Rather, they are places where one is socialized, evangelized, and indoctrinated into the mental discipline of jazz appreciation, and to a deeper understanding of the music’s message and spirit.” The house rules at Tokyo’s Jazz Position Ongakukan captures this idea: “Welcome. This is a powerful listening space. Please ‘dig’ your jazz. We ask that you observe silence while the music is playing.” I saw no such rules posted here.

Sonny Criss started playing the slow standard “Easy Living,” and I finished my tea.

I slid by smartphone across a smear of random red paint that streaked the counter and pointed to the screen. “Do you like Sonny Clark?” The album was Cool Struttin’.

“Sonny Clark.” Kay pointed to his chest. “Hai. I like.”

“Me too,” I said. “One of my favorites.”

Clark is a cult figure in American jazz, an agile, inventive pianist that hardbop jazz fans love and that too few mainstream listeners have heard of. Born in 1931, Clark started playing piano in elementary school, in an African-American owned hotel in the tiny Pennsylvania mining town of Herminie No. 2. During this career, he performed with everyone from John Coltrane to Dexter Gordon to Sonny Rollins. He recorded eleven albums as a leader, over forty as a sideman, and he died of a heroin overdose in 1963 at age thirty-one. Japanese jazz fans revere Clark’s music. At the 1986 Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival, the audience erupted in applause when Jackie McLean, Woody Shaw and Cedar Walton launched into Clark’s signature tune “Cool Struttin’.” You can hear the crowd humming the melody in the video. It’s an unusually vocal display of jazz fandom, but Clark’s song is a beloved theme in jazz circles, and the Japanese love their jazz.

The week before I took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, I heard a live version of “Cool Struttin’” play in Tokyo’s Kinokuniya Books’ CD/DVD section. It was performed by a Japanese band with heavy rock drums in place of Philly Jo Jones’ brush work and light touch. Not long after that, I popped into the Tully’s Coffee in Kyoto near Omiya Subway Station, only to hear Sonny Clark’s song “Sippin’ at Bells” play from the speaker. His piano work on that song is one of my favorite performances in jazz. There’s a sadness and intensity there, an ambulance-ride urgency, as if he were knowingly racing to a premature end. And here at Jazz In was a person who understood the song’s blue magnetism, a person who felt the same tremors from Clark’s music, and who I could only point and gesture with.

Kay reached for my phone then stopped himself. “Eh?” asking if he could.

“Please, yes,” I said.

With his index finger, he flipped through the artists on my phone and pointed at ones he liked: Stanley Turrentine, Hank Mobley, Jimmy Smith. “Ah,” Kay said, stopping at The Three Sounds’ Introducing album. “I know. I like.” Although only equipped with a few words of English, he could pronounce the names of the musicians he read on the screen. I envied that. I couldn’t read a word of Japanese, not even bonito dashi, one of my favorite flavors on earth. He kept scrolling. Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown, The Velvet Underground. “Velvet Underground,” he said, pointing to his chest. “I like. Very much.”

I pointed to the cover of the Velvet’s Live at the Gymnasium album. “This is so good. Live recording. Live show.” His face showed no sign of recognition, and I didn’t reach for my phrase book. “Concert,” I said. “Concert—um. Live. Performance. Bootleg. Bootleg?”

“Ah, bootleg,” he said. “Yes. I know.” He hadn’t heard of this concert, though. That was clear. With my hands, I asked if he had a blank CD. I wanted to burn him a copy of the album. It took some pantomiming, drawing circles and outlines of CD players in the air, but eventually I got the point across, and he said, “No, no here.” Then we laughed at ourselves and nodded.

“Gomennasai,” I said. “My Japanese.” I pinched my fingers to show a small quantity.

Pointing to the wall of records, I said, “What are your favorites?”

“My favorites?” He stared into the air for a moment, maybe thinking of an answer, maybe thinking of the words to articulate it. Then he rummaged through the records, becoming so absorbed that he didn’t hear the needle scratching along the label of the finished record, over and over and over.

Instead of telling me a few musicians’ names or laying a few records on the counter, he held up one album.

“Barry Harris,” he said slowly, contemplatively, as if searching not for the words or pronunciation so much as savoring the depth of their meaning. “Solo piano.” That was the name of the album: Solo Piano. Kay set the needle in the groove. He stood while I sat, and we listened. Harris’ take on “The Londonderry Air” was as nimble as you’d expect from one of jazz’s greatest pianists, but I preferred a piano trio to solo piano. I liked to swing. That’s why I gravitated to Red Garland and Wynton Kelly and stuck to Harris’s trio work with The Three Sounds. This solo song felt like one long introduction to a composition that never started.

I nodded my head and smiled with my secret, and Kay laid a ragged copy of Kenny Dorham’s 1963 Una Mas on the counter. It was old, possibly an original, though I couldn’t tell. It didn’t say Toshiba on the bottom the way many of Blue Note’s 1970s Japanese pressings do. I pointed to the song “Sao Paulo” on side two, telling Kay that I liked it even better than the incredible title track. He smiled and burst into the song’s dark, jaunty melody – bah nah nah, da-duh-da-duh-duh-duh – nodding his head as he hummed, so I joined in, humming with him and laughing the whole time. When he finished the melody his face went solemn again. Was he embarrassed? Didn’t he find this whole encounter as amusing and moving as I did? I wanted to hear “Sao Paulo” on vinyl, played louder and with a fuller spectrum than my home stereo system could muster from my digitally compressed CD. I wanted to tell Kay how great the bonus track “If Ever I Would Leave You” was on Una Mas’ CD version, a track omitted from the LP but well worth any digitized tinnyness, and to ask if he’d heard it, just like I wanted to tell him how excited I was when, not far away, I’d stopped to gaze through the wooden slats of a restaurant on an ancient stone backstreet, and I saw businessmen sitting on the floor eating soup to the sound of a Charlie Parker solo. But there was no way. Instead, Kay set the LP back on the counter and let Barry Harris continue tinkling his ivories.

Of all the streets in Kyoto, of all the narrow alleys that pass for streets, I chose this one. It seemed too coincidental to character as chance. Although I bristled at such a woo-woo idea as fate, this all seemed too perfect to call it anything else. I’d wanted to visit a jazz kissa while visiting Japan, but I hadn’t had time to visit the ones in central Tokyo where I’d spent the previous two weeks, so I’d given up. Even though their numbers were dwindling, I told myself I’d visit them next time. Then I found this. It could have gone any number of ways.

From the street called Shijō-dori, I’d initially walked a couple miles south to explore the historic area of south Higashiyama. Earlier I’d decided to visit a historic district on the city’s far west side called Arashiyama, but weather precluded it. After walking a few blocks downtown from Shijō-dori, I turned around and headed north. For no reason, just an urge to head up rather than down. Now Barry Harris played piano as the taste of kocha lingered on my lips. It reminded me of a scene in Haruki Murakami’s novel After Dark.

Toward the beginning of the book, the female protagonist Mari Asai asks the young trombonist Takahashi Tetsyta: “So why did you choose the trombone?”

She was sitting in a Tokyo Denny’s at 11:56pm, reading and drinking coffee, when Tetsyta sat himself at her table.

“When I was in middle school,” Tetsyta says, “I happened to buy a jazz record called Blues-ette at a used record store. An old LP. I can’t remember why I bought it at the time. I had never heard any jazz before. But anyway, the first tune on side A was ‘Five Spot After Dark,’ and it was great. A guy named Curtis Fuller played the trombone on it. The first time I heard it, I felt the scales fall from my eyes. That’s it, I thought. That’s the instrument for me. The trombone and me: it was a meeting arranged by destiny.”

When I asked to pay for my tea, Kay held up three fingers. “Three hundred—” He squinted and tipped back his head. “Eto… Three thousand five hund-er-ed Yen, please.” Normally customers place bills and coins in small trays in Japan, which the clerk takes to make change. Instead of using the silver dish, I place the Yen in his hand.

From the doorway I waved. “Thanks a bunch.”

Kay waved and bowed. “See you again!”

“I hope so,” I said, offering my best attempt at a respectful bow before slipping back into the cold Kyoto air, which, for at least a few minutes, no longer felt as cold.

Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer Guwashi999

Aaron Gilbreath is the author of the personal essay collection Everything We Don’t Know (Curbside Splendor) and a collection of jazz essays, This Is (Outpost19). His essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, Kenyon Review, The New York Times, Paris Review, Brick, Southwest Review, Saveur, Tin House, The Believer, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Threepenny Review, and listed as notable in Best American Essays and Best American …

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