Sound of the '50s: Japan jumps to jazz

In Japan, jazz is back.

America's big band sound of the late 1940s and early 1950s is enjoying a spirited resurgence here - not only from those who actually remember it but from the rock music crowd as well.

Rock still reigns supreme here for young Japanese. But an increasing number of them, bored with rock, are taking a new interest in the ''soft, mellow sound, '' says Tatsuo Watanabe, leader of the New Blue Herd band, a 17-piece jazz orchestra comprised of students from Tokyo's Keio University.

''They like songs like 'Satin Doll' and 'Take the A Train,' '' he says.

''I started listening to Count Basie because I thought his music was cool,'' says one young Japanese musician.

Adds Japanese jazz critic Hisamitsu Noguchi, ''Most young people still prefer rock music. But if you want to show you're sophisticated, you listen to jazz.''

So far this year Japan has played host to an unprecedented number of major jazz concerts, featuring an array of both American and Japanese artists.

This summer, in a new twist, Japanese jazz audiences had more than eight outdoor festivals to choose from, touching almost every facet of the jazz music spectrum. The Budweiser Newport Jazz Festival, a five-day music marathon held at the mountain resort Madarao Heights, became the largest outdoor jazz festival ever to be held here.

Each day close to 4,000 people showed up to hear afternoon concerts featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Gerry Mulligan, The Great Quartet, and Spyro Gyro.

Listeners, dressed in the unofficial Japanese leisure uniform of T-shirts and jeans, nibbled steamed noodles with chopsticks as they watched. The festival also attracted entire families, drawing an audience ranging from tots in strollers to the gray-haired crowd.

''This was my ninth trip here, and I've always found the Japanese to be very appreciative of jazz,'' says singer McRae. ''They give you that little boost you don't always get at home.''

Trumpeter Gillespie compares the Japanese to the Europeans, who ''have an artistic interest in jazz history,'' he says. ''Americans only care about what's going on now. The Japanese are interested in what went on before.''

Indeed, jazz's current appeal can be measured not only by the growing number of jazz clubs found in Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka, but in the 200-odd recordings released here each month, many of them re-releases of works of the Glenn Miller/Benny Goodman vintage that are no longer available in the United States.

Japan also boasts several music magazines devoted to jazz, including the popular Swing Journal, an inch-thick tome published monthly for more than three decades.

That a tightly structured society like Japan is so enchanted by free-wheeling American jazz is a source of fascination to many, including American jazz musicians.

''The spontaneity and improvisation of jazz is very different from the Japanese style of doing things, which is so overorganized,'' says Mr. Mulligan, who has performed here ''six or seven times'' since 1959.

''The Japanese like most types of jazz, but they seem to enjoy the big band sound most these days,'' says George Wein, the veteran jazz concert promoter who organized the Madarao Heights and another outdoor jazz festival.

The reasons abound, ranging from the music's accessibility to its attractive image among young Japanese.

''Japanese audiences don't like the real avant-garde jazz,'' says Yasuharu Miyahara, music critic for the weekly magazine Shukan Posuto. ''Big band jazz is much easier to understand.''

Still, the cultural gap can make jazz a particularly thorny form for Japanese musicians, adds Mulligan.

''The whole idea of improvisation takes a big cultural adjustment, although a few have been able to do it.''

Most successful Japanese jazz musicians have spent a number of years studying in America. As a college student, Takehire Honda, pianist for the Japanese fusion jazz group Native Son, abandoned his classical music studies for jazz and immediately headed for New York.

''Being Japanese is no problem for a jazz musician because good music sounds the same, no matter who makes it,'' he says. ''But jazz is also an expression of a different culture, and if you're going to be good, you've got to go to America to get the proper feel for jazz.''

Despite cultural differences, the Japanese gravitated to jazz almost from the minute they first heard it.

Jazz arrived here as dance music in the late 1920s. The first big hit was Walter Donaldson's ''My Blue Heaven,'' but with the 1930s came recordings by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, as well as numerous American motion pictures also featuring jazz.

The onset of World War II ended this brief flourishing. Jazz was officially banned, dubbed ''the enemy's music,'' recalls Japanese jazz critic Noguchi. ''All the dance halls closed, and military marches became the only acceptable music.''

Jazz reappeared with the American occupation, however, and grew more popular than ever.

''It became a symbol of liberation for us,'' said Mr. Noguchi. Americans and Japanese alike listened to it on the Far East Radio Network, and Japanese musicians learned to play it at American dance clubs.

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