Since the late 1920s, Japanese coffee shops catering to jazz music fans have been a fixture in cities across the country. For decades, they disseminated cutting-edge Western culture and later, the counter-culture to students, intellectuals and music aficionados. Although the number of venues are dwindling, they have survived the digital age.
It was never about the coffee. Long before customers had a choice of a double espresso or soy latte, Japanese flocked to coffee shops serving just a couple of kinds of beans, but an endless variety of bee-bop, swing and avant-garde. They are known as jazz kissa - short for kissaten - tea or coffee shops.
"Tea for Two" sung by Anita O'Day accompanied by two Japanese jazz orchestras during a live 1963 telecast in Tokyo can be heard in one cafe. The original performance was a rare opportunity for Japanese to see and hear a famous American jazz star in their own country. It was also an era when an imported jazz album cost about one-tenth of the average professional’s monthly salary.
Times and moods have changed.
One of the few surviving jazz kissa in Tokyo is Eagle, in the city’s Yotsuya district, near Sophia University. These days it mainly attracts businessmen and office workers on their lunch hour, who pay the equivalent of nine dollars to sip a cup of ordinary coffee.
Eagle was started in 1967 by jazz fan Yohei Goto, the son of a bar owner, when he was a college sophomore.
Goto says he understands that to foreigners a jazz kissa can seem like a strange place. He explains it is a library of music. You are not allowed to talk. Unlike in United States, he says, where people listen to jazz for pleasure, in Japan it is a kind of art appreciation. Goto says Japanese people seriously study jazz as a component of African-American culture.
Jazz historian, pianist and Hitotsubashi University professor Michael Molasky says, by the time Eagle opened, the genre in Japan had come to play a more significant role in Japanese society than it did in its country of origin.
“It acquired something of a cultural cachet among bohemian types, intellectuals and writers. So that, if you wanted to be considered cool, you basically had to have some familiarity with jazz, at the time. It was kind of a rite of passage. To gain familiarity you needed to listen and the only place you could listen to this stuff were these jazz kissa,” Molasky said.
Protesters against the U.S.-Japan security treaty would take refuge from pursuing riot police in the coffee shops, listening - ironically - to jazz music from America.
At some jazz listening spots these days, cocktails, in addition to coffee and tea, are on the menu.
One of them is New Dug, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku shopping district. It opened as a jazz kissa named Dig in 1961.
New Dug’s owner, Hozumi Nakadaira, recalls the days when the clientele, mostly university students, would spend hours absorbed in the music.
Nakadaira says they could stay as long as three hours if they ordered one cup of coffee. He recalls it was okay to remain as long as five hours if a customer bought a second cup.
Professor Molasky, whose latest book in Japanese is a study of the history of the country’s jazz cafés, explains another compelling aspect is their elaborate and expensive sound systems. For generations of Japanese relegated to cramped apartments with paper thin walls, the jazz kissa were an audiophile’s heaven.
“Some of the jazz magazines, around the 70s, would advertise not only the number of records - and sometimes they had like 5,000, 10,000 LP’s [albums] in their collection - but they would advertise exactly the woofers and tweeters and the speaker system. And, some places went so far as to advertise what needle they used in the cartridge for the phonograph,” Molasky said.
Despite that acoustic niche, at Eagle, which has been spinning jazz discs for 45 years, owner Goto has no illusions that the specialty music cafés will survive for even another five years. He says, proudly, they are victims of their own success.
Goto explains the kissa had a big role to play in the 1960s and 70s, but now, they have completed their job of introducing American jazz to the Japanese public and witnessing it permeate the mainstream.
The love for the voices of Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday has also created a cottage industry of jazz vocalists in Japan.
You can hear Grace Mahya singing “Skylark,” on her new album. The tune is a 1942 jazz standard by Johnny Mercer and Hogy Carmichael. Mayha trained as a classical pianist but switched to jazz about six years ago.
Nakadaira estimates there are 500 singers, mostly Japanese women, trying to make a living belting out jazz in English.
Nakadaira says most of the audiences probably cannot understand the lyrics, yet they prefer standards sung in English. He contends that Japanese lyrics just are not considered cool or interesting to Japanese fans.
Some aficionados will study translations of the lyrics. But for Japanese jazz fans, as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald put it:
“It don't mean a thing if ain't got that swing. ...”