by Wilma Dobie
Statesmen of Jazz Debut in Japan
from Jazz Notes 9/4, 1997Copyright © 1997 Wilma Dobie
Highlighting their departure for an international debut in Japan this past September, the Statesmen of Jazz, featuring foremost musicians 65 years and older, received a heartwarming and inspiring message from President Clinton.
"Jazz remains a vibrant part of our culture that is cherished by music lovers here and around the world," the President reminded the veterans. "You have touched the lives of countless listeners around the world who love jazz. As you share this uniquely American art form with the people of Japan, you remind us to celebrate the power of music to transcend race, age, nationality, and language."
The appearance of the Statesmen of Jazz Tour under the auspices of the non-profit, all-volunteer American Federation of Jazz Societies (AFJS) was arranged well in advance with the Koinuma Music Co., Ltd. in Tokyo. Their international debut would celebrate two historic Japanese-American events:
The 80th Anniversary of the founding of the Japanese-American Society and the 150th Anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation between Japan and United States.
While these are noble pages in history, as the fates would have it for the Statesmen, these events couldn't hold a candle to the fascinating and prophetic celebration taking place September 15, Japan's National Holiday, Keiro no Hi, Respect For the Elderly Day. This is a day similar to our week-end holidays, when banks, businesses, and schools close and families are off on outings or just taking it easy over the long weekend.
However, as we departed from Narita Airport we were unaware of this holiday and looked upon the traffic-jammed highways as a scene we well knew from home. "We" here refers to Statesman and saxophonist Rick Fay, 70, and wife Rebecca, Maurice Lawrence, co-chairman of the Statesmen of Jazz Tour, and myself. We were Florida residents and assigned to depart from Atlanta and arrive a day earlier than those scheduled for arrival on Respect For the Elderly Day. The other musicians performing on the tour were: Benny Waters, 95, alto saxophone; Claude Fiddler Williams, 89, violin; Jane Jarvis, 81, piano; Harry Sweets Edison, 81, trumpet; Louie Bellson, 73, drums; Al Grey, 72, trombone; Irvin Stokes, 70, trumpet; Early May, 70, bass.
Fourteen hours of non-stop flying along with crossing the international dateline was conducive to putting us into a world of unreality, though we had thoroughly enjoyed the incomparable amenities of Japanese Airlines on our flight from Atlanta International to Narita airport in Japan. Just entering the Miyako lobby was overwhelming, but new adventures awaited us when we were handed the keys to our rooms where our luggage awaited us.
Happily, I discovered Rick and Rebecca Fay were across the hall and Maurice Lawrence was next door. I readily confess to being a born bungler when it comes to working even the simplest appliances, but light switches have never stymied me until the Miyako. I pressed several, but none worked. I was about to call the desk when I noticed near the door a neon light surrounding a sign saying: "Please place your key here. " I did and the room lit up like Broadway! Conversely, when the keys are picked up, all the lights go out! Never a lost key.
Over our buffet breakfasts we traded room wonders. High on the popularity list was the heated toilet seat, floor lights as well as night lights, and tooth brushes with paste. We delighted over the Japanese slippers and Yukata, a combined nightgown and bathrobe which I immediately adopted. Seldom in their world traveling had these veteran jazz musicians encountered a breakfast buffet nearly the size of a tennis court.
The newly appointed Counselor for Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Embassy, Peter Kovach, arranged for a reception for the Statesmen, to be given in his home on the evening preceding their premier concert. It was a relief to all when it was learned the affair would would be informal since earlier in the afternoon a rehearsal was scheduled that included their Japanese hosts and guest musicians, Satoru Oda on tenor saxophone and Akitoshi Igarashi on alto.
There is an especially warm bond between Japanese and American musicians because of the exceptional enthusiasm with which Japan has always welcomed American jazz. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Hot Club of Japan in 1947, and that same year the prestigious Swing Journal published its very first issue, which was not wanting for good stories since there was an upheaval in jazz styles at that time, a confrontation between swing and bop.
The arrival of drummer Louie Bellson with the Statesmen of Jazz recalled a chapter in Japan's jazz history, when the legendary Gene Krupa visited Japan in the early 1950s with his trio featuring Charlie Ventura and Teddy Napoleon. Krupa was overwhelmed by the reception he received in Japan. "It was the most tremendous thing I've ever experienced," he was quoted as saying to the press. "There was nothing these people wouldn't do for us." Weeks after arriving home the trio was still opening gifts given them by their Japanese admirers.
Bellson first attracted nationwide attention in 1942 as the spectacular teenager who won the Gene Krupa Drum Contest, then went on to perform with Krupa's former bandleader, Benny Goodman. Today, decades later, Krupa's prodigy Bellson is known internationally, and has been fondly received by Japanese audiences ever since his first appearance there in the early 1960s with an all-star percussion show. Bellson and other Statesmen in the band have established warm friendships with Japanese musicians, and they now frequently appear in each other's country. Both saxophonists appearing in the premier concert, Oda and Igarashi, have been to the U.S. and have participated in the Monterey Jazz Festival.
A light, steady fall rain fell on guests arriving at the home of Cultural Affairs Counselor Peter Kovach. An elevator awaited us at the door and was ably captained by eight-year-old son, Alex, who cautioned us to mind our steps as we were let off in the family's living quarters. Smartly dressed in slacks and a Navy-styled sports coat brightened by a bright red handkerchief, Alex was the perfect host with his charming parents.
The occasion was not only special for its recognition of the Statesmen of Jazz but a very special day for bassist Earl May, who was celebrating the disturbing turn of a decade on his 70th birthday. Co-chairmen Maurice Lawrence and Mat Domber had passed along the word to Counselor Kovach and he arranged for a birthday cake to be at the ready. First, however, the host and his gracious wife Penny had wine and soft drinks served with canapes. Later a buffet table was set up.
Unfortunately, the rain prevented our gathering out on the spacious patio where our hosts had thought the Statesmen might want to jam for fun and for the guests. The musicians had brought their instruments but it was no dice in this weather. Alex supervised bringing in the blazing birthday cake and all serenaded beaming Statesman Earl May. For the record, jazz was dominant in conversation, naturally. It was known before his arrival that Counselor Kovach was an ardent jazz fan. Diplomatically, he held that his enthusiasm embraced all styles of jazz, but the underground has it that he leans toward progressive.
Vying for the excitement and customary tensions that accompany premiers, especially this one marking the international debut for the Statesmen of Jazz Tour, there was also the televising of the performance by Japan's public TV station, NHK. Specifically, the something special about this debut is in its endeavor to establish worldwide recognition for the creative and enduring contributions musicians 65 years and older have given to the world of jazz and to perpetuate this recognition globally.
After arriving and rehearsing at U-Port Hall for the opening concert, on viewing the impressive spacious stage, soft chandelier light, and keen acoustics, hopes were high for a successful international debut. Peeking from behind the drawn curtains into an early-seated crowd, we were startled to see a most youthful audience and scarcely an elderly face among them. Startling because we had read and rejoiced over a major New York Times article calling attention to the fact that "one person in six is already older than 65 today in Japan." We thought, "This will be our audience in Tokyo!"
What apprehension we had disappeared immediately when the curtains parted and extravagant applause greeted the rousing "Strike Up the Band" opener.
Shortly thereafter, patriarch and 95-year-old Benny Waters had the first spotlight performance and this fountain of vitality brought down the house with his original composition, "Blue Waters." Each Statesman's individuality was given warm attention but it was their dazzling ensemble improvisations that overwhelmingly delighted their audience.
Next on the agenda was a more relaxed setting at the Hub Urayasu, a well known night club. While browsing through some literature given out at the invaluable Guest Relations Desk I learned that, amazingly, "Japan probably has more night life than any other country and in Tokyo alone over 500,00 people are employed in the entertainment world." An eye-catching sign greeted us as we entered the Hub. Engraved on a brass plate was "Entertainment and Shot Bar."
Nearest the bandstand, the wall was covered with impressive autographed pictures from the innumerable famed American musicians who had performed here. Also, around this handsome huge room were brilliant, impressionistic paintings of jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong who had been a very early guest. This "at-home" atmosphere brought out the best swinging in high style on such splendid jazz dandies as "C-Jam Blues," "Moten Swing," "Jitterbug Waltz," etc. It was a lively audience but noticeably different from those the musicians knew at home. They listened with intensity and little conversational exchange, least of all hollering for service, for a small flashlight was at every table to signal the waiter's attention. A goodly number of attentive young jazz musicians were in the audience and, immediately after the Statesmen finished, trombonist Al Grey gave them an impromptu workshop to their utmost delight.
The closing concert came late on a lazy sunny afternoon in a beautifully beige-colored banquet room with tables seating ten to twelve. Centered on each table was a low-burning candle with a pale pink flower at its side. There were numerous ash trays spread about since Japan does not prohibit smoking in public places. We were yet to see a smoke-filled room so had to conclude ventilation was ever at its best in Japan.
This final Statesmen of Jazz Tour concert at the luxurious New Hotel Otani in Osaka brought out a well-dressed audience of families and friends, some with well-behaved youngsters. Noticeable was their intense enthusiasm, sometimes with rhythmic clapping but never noisy or disturbing. The Statesmen's First Lady and first-time visitor to Japan, pianist Jane Jarvis, put it well when she observed to her fellow musicians, "I don't know what it is but you can feel there is something special about the audience. They have a kind of wonderful, unspoken involvement in jazz. No language barrier on this score."
And, so it was "Sayonara" to Japan from the Statesmen of Jazz Tour that last lovely twilight Sunday in Osaka.