Great Mixtapes of 1970s Japanese Jazz: 4 Hours of Funky, Groovy, Fusion‑y Music

Like Amer­i­can jazz, Japan­ese jazz start­ed with ear­li­er styles like fox­trot and rag­time. Jazz was an inter­na­tion­al music, spread­ing across the Atlantic to Lon­don, Paris, and Berlin and across the Pacif­ic to Shang­hai, Manil­la, and Tokyo. Lux­u­ry lin­ers crossed the ocean and their house bands fer­ried new styles of dance music with them. “There was pre­cious lit­tle impro­vi­sa­tion,” in ear­ly Japan­ese jazz, “but that was­n’t as big a deal, as you know, in Amer­i­can jazz of the 1910s or ’20s,” his­to­ri­an E. Tay­lor Atkins tells NPR.

Japan even had its own jazz age. The word first entered the coun­try in a 1929 “pop­u­lar song attached to a movie called Tokyo March,” says Atkins. “The lyrics refer to jazz, and … that’s sort of where it came into mass con­scious­ness. It was asso­ci­at­ed with dance halls, it was asso­ci­at­ed with ‘mod­ern girls’ and ‘mod­ern boys’ — the Japan­ese ver­sion of flap­pers and dandies — and the urban leisure class­es: excess, and dogs and cats sleep­ing togeth­er, and all those sorts of por­tents of future calami­ty.”

When calami­ty came in the form of World War II, jazz was banned in Japan as the music of the ene­my. On August 15, 1945, when the Emper­or went on the radio to announce Japan’s sur­ren­der, Hat­tori Ryoichi, “Japan’s pre­mier jazz com­pos­er and arranger,” found him­self stuck in Shang­hai, “the city that since the late 1920s had served as the jazz Mec­ca of Asia,” Michael Bourdaghs writes in a his­to­ry of Japan­ese pop music. “From now on,” Ryoichi sup­pos­ed­ly toast­ed his fel­low musi­cians upon hear­ing the news, “we can car­ry out our musi­cal activ­i­ties in free­dom.”

How lit­tle Ryoichi could have pre­dict­ed the kind of musi­cal free­dom Japan­ese jazz would find. But first there was a peri­od of imi­ta­tion. “In the ear­ly post­war years, Japan­ese musi­cians were essen­tial­ly copy­ing the Amer­i­cans they admired,” notes Dean Van Nguyen at The Guardian. Some of the most pop­u­lar bands on TV and film were com­ic acts like Frankie Sakai and the City Slick­ers, a big band formed in 1953 in imi­ta­tion of Spike Jones & The City Slick­ers. Anoth­er pop­u­lar jazz com­e­dy act, Hajime Hana & The Crazy Cats “are sig­nif­i­cant,” writes Atkins, “for cap­i­tal­iz­ing and pur­vey­ing an image of jazz musi­cians as clown­ish, slang-singing ne’er-do-wells.”

Pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi was “the first Japan­ese artist to break away from sim­ply copy­ing Amer­i­can artists and devel­op a dis­tinc­tive sound and iden­ti­ty that incor­po­rat­ed Japan­ese har­monies and instru­ments,” Van Nguyen writes. By the lat­er 60s and 70s, eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment led to a “renais­sance” of Japan­ese jazz, writes the Sabukaru Guide to 1970’s Japan­ese Jazz. “The unique cre­ative land­scape in the jazz com­mu­ni­ty, along with Japan­ese music as a whole becom­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly more exper­i­men­tal and main­stream, led to an abun­dance of excel­lent Japan­ese jazz music in the 1970s.”

In the four playlists here, you can hear hours of this ground­break­ing music from some of the great­est names you’ve prob­a­bly nev­er heard in Japan­ese jazz. These include trom­bon­ist Hiroshi Suzu­ki, “one of the most-revered Japan­ese jazz artists,” notes the blog Pink Wafer Club, “even if most lis­ters are only famil­iar with his work thanks to the num­ber of times his music has been sam­pled.” Suzuk­i’s 1975 album Cat is one of the funki­est jazz albums from any coun­try released in the decade.

These playlists also include fusion key­boardist Mikio Masu­da, sax­o­phon­ist Sadao Watan­abe, and oth­er musi­cians who, like Akiyoshi, helped spur “young artists to evolve away from Blue Note mim­ic­ry towards free jazz, fusion, funk, spir­i­tu­al, modal and bebop,” writes Van Nguyen. “These dar­ing vir­tu­osos implant­ed rock and elec­tron­ic ele­ments, or took influ­ences from Afrobeat and fla­men­co music.” Their inter­na­tion­al influ­ences reflect­ed 1970s jazz exper­i­ments around the globe. The music also ben­e­fit­ted from the excel­lent record­ing qual­i­ty of Japan­ese stu­dios and the rise of small­er labels, which allowed for more exper­i­men­tal artists to record and release albums.

Find out above why “many young Japan­ese musi­cians cite the jazz inno­va­tors from this era as influ­ences,” Sabukaru writes. Read about ten of the best 1970s Japan­ese jazz records here. See a huge guide to Japan­ese jazz from all eras at Rate Your Music, and find track­lists with time­stamps for each of the playlists above at their YouTube page.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

Son­ic Explo­rations of Japan­ese Jazz: Stream 8 Mix­es of Japan’s Jazz Tra­di­tion Free Online

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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