A 30-Minute Introduction to Japanese Jazz from the 1970s: Like Japanese Whisky, It’s Underrated, But Very High Quality

“Jazz and Japan shouldn’t mix,” says All-Japan: The Cat­a­logue of Every­thing Japan­ese. “After all, the essence of jazz lies in impro­vi­sa­tion — a con­cept large­ly absent from both tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese music and Japan­ese soci­ety as a whole. Japan may adapt, but it does not impro­vise.” And yet, as the book goes on to tell, jazz and Japan do indeed mix, and they began doing so even before the Sec­ond World War. Japan­ese jazz dates back to the 1920s, when it drew inspi­ra­tion from vis­it­ing Fil­ipino bands who had picked the music up from their Amer­i­can occu­piers. In the cen­tu­ry since then, devot­ed Japan­ese play­ers (and their even more devot­ed Japan­ese lis­ten­ers) have devel­oped per­haps the most robust jazz cul­ture in the world.

But please, don’t believe me: have a lis­ten to the mix of 1970s Japan­ese jazz on vinyl above. Spun by Turk­ish DJ Zag Erlat on his Youtube chan­nel My Ana­log Jour­nal, it show­cas­es such musi­cians as trom­bon­ist Hiroshi Suzu­ki, sax­o­phon­ist Mabu­mi Yam­aguchi, and gui­tarist Kiyoshi Sug­i­mo­to. These names will sound famil­iar — though not over-famil­iar — to those of us who’ve spent years dig­ging crates around the world for Japan­ese jazz on vinyl.

Thanks to Youtube, they’re now becom­ing bet­ter-known among jazz fans of all stripes: just like the 1980s Japan­ese high-tech dis­co-funk now known as city pop, Japan­ese jazz owes much of its mod­ern recog­ni­tion to the algo­rithm. As a result, actu­al Japan­ese jazz albums like the ones non­cha­lant­ly dis­played by Erlat in the video have become a hot­ter com­mod­i­ty than they used to be.

Like all of Erlat’s “cof­fee break ses­sions” (oth­ers of which focus on Japan­ese dra­ma funk, Turk­ish female singers from the 70s, and “USSR grooves”), this mix runs a brisk 33 min­utes. If you enjoy the taste enough to go back for more, allow me to sug­gest the work of such Japan­ese jazzmen as Teruo Naka­mu­ra, Masayoshi Takana­ka, and Teru­masa Hino — much of which comes from the 1970s, an era that enthu­si­asts across the world now see as some­thing of a gold­en age. You’ll still only have skimmed the sur­face of Japan­ese jazz, one of the many West­ern inven­tions tak­en to anoth­er lev­el of mas­tery, and exhil­a­rat­ing new direc­tions, in the Land of the Ris­ing Sun. As one com­menter on Youtube puts it, “Japan­ese Jazz is like Japan­ese whisky: under­rat­ed, but very high qual­i­ty.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Acclaimed Japan­ese Jazz Pianist Yōsuke Yamashita Plays a Burn­ing Piano on the Beach

Haru­ki Murakami’s Pas­sion for Jazz: Dis­cov­er the Novelist’s Jazz Playlist, Jazz Essay & Jazz Bar

Stream a 144-Hour Discog­ra­phy of Clas­sic Jazz Record­ings from Blue Note Records: Miles Davis, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ornette Cole­man & More

Hear 2,000 Record­ings of the Most Essen­tial Jazz Songs: A Huge Playlist for Your Jazz Edu­ca­tion

Stream Loads of “City Pop,” the Elec­tron­ic-Dis­co-Funk Music That Pro­vid­ed the Sound­track for Japan Dur­ing the Roar­ing 1980s

How Youtube’s Algo­rithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japan­ese Song Into an Enor­mous­ly Pop­u­lar Hit: Dis­cov­er Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plas­tic Love”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (6)
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  • Judson Blewett says:

    Those inter­est­ed in ‘the funki­er side’ of the Japan­ese jazz scene (France is also well rep­re­sent­ed) may enjoy a large hoard of TV & movie theme song com­pi­la­tions, man­u­fac­tur­er’s demon­stra­tion albums & such­like I found and fre­quent on Sound­cloud:


    I’m not sure who DJ El Topo is, but his col­lec­tions are mar­velous and I endorse the over­all cut of his jib!


  • Jerry McCool says:

    You’ve left out Hiroshi Fuku­mara!!!!!!


    Big Jazz Fan

  • Jill says:

    I was tak­en to anoth­er galaxy!

  • Joel ector says:

    You are very very wrong regard­ing impro­vi­sa­tion and tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese music.shakuhachi is pure impro­vi­sa­tion.… really..have you ever lis­tened to jazz or shakuhachi??

  • Bding says:

    I only recent­ly ‘dis­cov­ered’ Japan­ese Jazz through the radio sta­tion Jazz Saku­ra. Wow, I’m hooked.

  • Patrick says:

    Thank you for shar­ing! I thor­ough­ly enjoyed your selec­tions. This was my first expo­sure to Japan­ese Jazz — excel­lent and as not­ed, very high qual­i­ty. Pass­ing on to oth­er jazz enthu­si­asts who are more knowl­edge­able than I am, and will cer­tain­ly appre­ci­ate as well.

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