The Heart Within: Jazz Journeys to Japan


The Heart Within: Jazz Journeys to Japan
(work in progress)

By Bill Minor
Copyright © 1998 Bill Minor

Recently returned from a second trip to Japan, I was sitting at the kitchen table late at night, sipping sake, leafing through photos of Kiyomizudera and Kinkakuji temples in Kyoto, the bright orange buildings of the Heian Jingu Shrine, the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) and sacred shika (deer) in Nara - and photos taken at two Tokyo jazz clubs: J Club and Pit Inn.

A sudden unbidden feeling of serenity came over me. Totally unsought, the way the Zen masters say it's supposed to come. Don't worry. No overlarge claim of satori or enlightenment here. Just a nice sense, as I listened to Masao Yagi play "'Round Midnight," of general well being. Yagi recorded an album of tunes by Thelonious Monk in 1960. The Japanese liked them so much they brought over the real thing, and Monk recorded a popular Japanese song, "Ko Jo No Tsuki" ("Moon Over the Desolate Castle") in return. A contemporary San Francisco artist named Miya Masaoka has recently recorded this tune and "'Round Midnight" on the koto, a traditional Japanese instrument made from two pieces of paulownia wood shaped like a crouching dragon.

Small world? Indeed.

The Japanese word kokoro covers a lot of ground. A dictionary offers three meanings: spirit, heart, mind. I like "the heart within," and have chosen that as the title for this book. I'm carrying on an inner (honne: underlying reality) and external (tatemae: appearance) love affair with Japan, a country not my own.

I have carried on a lifelong love affair with the cultures of three countries not my own: Greece, Russia, and Japan. I set out to study each and did so for years, attempting to learn their respective languages, read their literature, acquaint myself with their history - long before I set foot on their actual soil. It took me 23 years in the case of Greece, 35 to get to Russia, and 41 for my first trip to Japan. The wait was well worth it. I have written about each place: some travel pieces and a slender book of poems called Goat Pan on the first, Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union on the second, and now - this book on jazz in and from Japan.

Jazz music became a passion for me about 17 years ago, when I started to write seriously about what had been another lifelong interest, and I began to attempt to play it (I was once totally undeserving house pianist at a place called the 456 Club in Brooklyn) with more purpose than I'd paid attention to before. The two books I've written about jazz were written under quite different circumstances. My wife and I traveled 4000 kilometers in the former Soviet Union, which at the time - the tail end of the Cold War in 1990 - was still a somewhat mysterious and even forbidding place (Lithuania, where we'd booked a hotel in Vilnius, was literally removed, by Liquid Paper correction fluid, from our visas); whereas Japan was, from start to finish of two visits there, an accessible and fully engaging nation. The people we met in both places were wonderful, the Russians generous to a fault, but it was Japan that captured my heart. I didn't want to leave. Why did I feel so totally at ease there? I suppose it's the purpose of this book to find out.

Because of a history of seclusion and political risk, there were just a few top jazz artists in the Soviet Union at the time we visited there, and they were spread out. Trumpeter Germann Lukianov and bassist Tamaz Kurashvili rehearsed for festivals over the phone: Lukianov living in Moscow, Kurashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia - more than 1500 kilometers, or 1100 miles, away. Yet before we left on our first trip to Japan, I had listened to hundreds of Japanese jazz artists on recordings, and knew many more by name. I had a long list of potential contacts, more than I could ever accomodate in the length of time set aside. Rob Hayes and Chika Okamoto of Berklee College of Music in Boston sent me a list of 333 Japanese alumni! When I started research on jazz in the former Soviet Union, friends and acquaintances were surprised that such a thing even existed. When I started the present project, the same people said, "The Japanese love jazz, don't they?" How they knew this, I didn't know. My own interest was related to why the Japanese loved jazz so much, and just how they went about playing it - the form that interest or love had taken over the years.

I encountered a single type of jazz musician in the former Soviet Union: fine isolated performers with an immense hunger to perform, at last, with world class artists, to go out into the world at large and prove how well they could play. I discovered there were three basic types of Japanese performers: (1) those who had been free to do just that, ordinarily taking up residence in the United States (some for so long that they were no longer known in Japan); (2) those strictly Japanese performers tucked away in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto and elsewhere, whose work was generally not known outside of Japan (such as fine pianist Hisayuki Terai who, with his wife Tamae, runs - and performs at - the Over Seas Club in Osaka); and a final class that had managed to straddle both worlds, truly international artists who were known in both countries and frequently traveled back and forth between the States and Japan.

I discovered that jazz life in Japan, ironically, was infinitely more complex than that in "Russia." Because of ethnic and cultural diversity, tracing "roots" to the music or influences in the former Soviet Union was relatively easy (pianist Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh, from Azerbaijan, merging traditional folk modes, or mugam, with jazz, for example), but the effects of assimilation and influence in Japan are much more subtle, even evasive. I had joked with friends that, given the geographical demands, the spatial dimensions of the former Soviet Union and the tendency there for people to think on a grand War and Peace scale, I should - by contrast - when writing on Japan reduce my findings to a haiku. But the subject of jazz in Japan (and Japanese jazz outside of Japan) proved far too expansive for a 5-7-5 syllable format.

I even had to redefine my concept of the word "journey," for the Japanese jazz journey began at inception, and included a great deal of history (although jazz in the former Soviet Union, surfacing and going underground in accord with the political climate, too, had an interesting, if more limited, history). In a 1988 New York Times article Blue Note Records producer Michael Cuscuna said that, when the popularity of our only indigenous art form, what has been called "America's classical music," went through a serious slump in the States, "Japan almost singlehandedly kept the jazz record business going during the late 1970s." Japan had already made major contributions to the world of jazz - and in many ways. Reviewing a CD release by drummer Masahiko Togashi, John Corbett wrote, "Precious little has been written in English about the history of jazz in Japan. In the eyes of many Americans, the land of the rising sun is recognized as a major consumer of the music, but a fascinating tradition of Japanese jazz musicians exists, extending far beyond the smattering of recognized names like Toshiko Akiyoshi and Sadao Watanabe." There was much for me to learn, and understand, before I set out on the actual geographical journey.

I had trouble finding out about jazz and just getting into Russia in 1990. When I wrote about that ordeal, my editors said, "Can't you get us to Moscow faster?" My reply was, "This journey started long before I set foot in the Soviet Union; it started here." And I had my first "live" exposure to two Russian musicians - Sergey Kuryokhin and Igor Bril - in the States. Previous exposure was even more the case with Japan. Before we arrived in Tokyo on July 22, 1996, I had acquired a substantial collection of Japanese CDs; met, heard "live," and interviewed a number of Japanese musicians from Eiji Kitamura to Makoto Ozone; discovered a highly active American Japanese jazz community (many of whom were experimenting with traditional Japanese instruments); was lent and read drummer Akira Tana's insightful ethnomusicology thesis, written at Harvard, on jazz in Japan; and found myself at an international jazz festival held in Hawaii, where I talked to Toshiko Akiyoshi and Tiger Okoshi. Unlike the situation in the former Soviet Union, much of the jazz in Japan had come to me before I even boarded a plane to cross the ocean.

A fascination, a passion, that began for me as a very young student of the visual arts at Pratt Institute in the mid '50s, with my introduction to Ukiyo- e prints, by way of Toulouse-Lautrec, whose silkscreen posters, the "Divan Japonais" - with their deliberate violations of Western perspective - had compelled me to light out from Brooklyn up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art one day and return with a collection I still treasure, Japanese Color Prints, which contained Hokusai's "Great Wave Off Kanagawa," Utamaro's "A Beauty and Her Likeness in a Mirror," and work by Hiroshige, Harunobu, Shunsho, Sharaku. I also discovered the wondrous woodcuts of Shiko Munakata. I was hooked, and an acquaintance with the rich legacy of literature, Zen Buddhism, and Japanese music - gagaku (court music), other forms of traditional music, and Japanese jazz - still lay ahead.

So, 43 years later, recently returned from my second trip to Japan, I sat at the kitchen table close to midnight, listening to pianist Masao Yagi, thinking of what a long, strange, wonderful trip it all had been, the entire journey. My friends still made jokes about my respective "periods," my Greek and Russian and now Japanese. But, sipping sake (tsumanai, cold), I smiled, thinking, "This is the best. This is the real thing." In Greece, I was still young, full of fitful animal high spirits; in Russia, the ghosts of Osip Mandelstam and Dostoevsky dogged me, with deep troubled delight, all the way. Now, I thought of the Zen master Dogen's tanka on mujo (impermanence):

To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane's bill.

Why and how, in such a vast, unstable, fugitive world had I been allowed - by way of the visual arts, literature, religion, and especially jazz music of Japan - to know so many moments of probably undeserved peace? I realized it was the purpose of this book to find out.

Bill Minor is the author of Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, and served as scriptwriter for the Warner Bros. film documentary by the same name.


C o m m e n t s

Bill Minor's Japan book 1 of 4
David Gitin
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January 27, 99

Bill's writing is always personal, not egotistical, but more like a series of disclosures, taking one into the adventure of his discoveries, friend to friend. I look forward to the rest of this book (and recommend the Russia book to all).

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