When you think of music in Japan it is hard to get past the impression of super-cutesy J-Pop idols, adorably non-threatening ever-expanding boy bands, and the bright preposterous-ness of the gravity-defying-haired Visual Kei bands. However, scratch past that (admittedly thick and ubiquitous) surface and you will find in Tokyo a varied and eclectic music scene. One musical genre that is particularly well represented is Jazz, with so many cafes, bars and clubs across the capital only New York City is comparable for sheer quantity. Below are a few to get you started.
One of the big boys on the scene, Cotton Club (named after the legendary jazz club of Harlem) showcases most of the biggest talent from around the world, and as such can be a little pricey, often costing in the region of 15,000 JPY for admission. However, if you want to see the best, you are going to have to pay top dollar, particularly as performers will sign exclusivity deals, meaning that you won’t find them playing cheaper bars a few days later.
That said, if you are going to take the ‘money is no option’ route, then you are in for quite a show. The acoustics and production values are top notch, and the atmosphere is intimate and thus pretty good for somewhere that is ostensibly an ‘event’ venue. Acts from all aspects of the genre are showcased, from serious straight jazz right across the board into soul, funk and smooth jazz.
Part of the international Blue Note chain, this is the biggest jazz club in Tokyo, and has prices to match. Like the Cotton Club, above, it attracts the highest quality international acts as well as the most lauded local gigs. In fact, by sheer size this venue should be topping our list.
The fact that it doesn’t is down to it being very much a place where spectacle takes precidence, and you are more likely to share your table with salarymen showing off their secretaries than you are afficianados, about which James Catchpole of Tokyo Jazz Site has written frequently and scathingly. Still, it keeps getting the big names (in the past it has been host to the likes of Dizzie Gillespie to Herbie Hancock), so the people keep coming.
If you want something that truly says ‘Tokyo Jazz’ then look no further than The Pit Inn. Having this year celebrated its 50th anniversary The Pit Inn is still going strong, offering up all manner of Jazz throughout the spectrum – from avant-garde to straight jazz – and you really never know what might come up next. The atmosphere is very much reverential to the artists, making it reassuringly distant from the plushness of the city’s jazz behemoths and at 3,000 JPY for most nights, it’s well worth a punt.
The area of Kichijoji is well known for its jazz clubs, and Piano Hall Sometime (to give it its full name) is one of the most popular. Established in 1974, it features acts every night from around 1,800 JPY, around half of what you would be charged elsewhere in town, and nearly a 10th of the likes of Blue Note and Cotton Club. The club is decorated with antiques and quirky accessories and musicians play from the center with listeners packed around and above them, and while the jazz tends to be of the straighter variety played by emerging Japanese artists, it does see some truly innovative acts at times.
If you are looking for somewhere with more of a jazz workshop vibe, head over to Jazz Spot Intro in Shinjuku. There is no fixed line-up, but their Saturday jam sessions have become something of Tokyo legend when Japanese and foreign musicians – both amateur and professional – pop by to join the band. It is all held together by bar manager Inoue-san who acts as both band leader and barman, serving your drinks between alto-sax solos. For the nights where there are no live acts there are around 1500 vinyl records and 1000 CDs placed around the bar to choose from.
For a really comprehensive list and indepth review of Tokyo’s sprawling jazz scene, check out the excellent Tokyo Jazz Site, where you will also find information on Tokyo Jazz Festival, happening September 1, 2, 3 2017.
Launched in 2002, the Tokyo Jazz Festival has developed into the largest international jazz festival in the country, drawing some 80,000 visitors to watch the 200 plus acts that hail from all over Japan and the world.