Want to read jazz's best magazine? You'll have to learn Japanese

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Everyone knows that jazz is America's very own music. Jazz is indigenous to its soil, and it's ''in'' these days to refer to it as America's classical music.

Why is it, then, that the glossiest, most prestigious, thickest jazz magazine in the world is read by hardly any Americans?

Because it's printed only in Japan, and only in Japanese!

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Swing Journal, a monthly publication that sells for 780 yen (around $3) a copy, and which has a circulation of close to 200,000, was started by Japanese (in 1947) for Japanese jazz fans in Japan. And so it has remained - an indication of the popularity of America's classical music in Japan.

Since its early days, Swing Journal has been strongly influential in jazz in Japan. Today, the Japanese jazz audience is a large one, and many young Japanese musicians are leaning toward jazz as a career. Some head for the United States to study at Boston's famous Berklee College of Music, and others head straight for the challenge of the New York jazz scene.

Japanese jazz musicians and fans are numerous here in the States. It's common to see at least four or five or even more Japanese faces in the audience at the jazz clubs, and not infrequently one of those faces is in the band.

Kiyoshi Koyama, editor of Swing Journal from 1968 to 1977, feels that Swing Journal had a lot to with this great growth in the Japanese love for jazz - especially the changes he made in the magazine. In a recent interview, he described how jazz became popular in Japan.

''Suddenly, after World War II, the US Army and people from the States started coming over to Japan and brought this brand-new music. American touring groups gradually started to visit Japan. Then it was time for a specialized magazine.''

So Swing Journal was born.

''The original publisher is still with the magazine - Kogo Kato. In the beginning it was a very small magazine. Paper was in short supply.''

It survived the challenges of postwar Japan, and in 1967 Kiyoshi Koyama was asked to become the new editor. Mr. Koyama had already been editor of the Japanese version of Down Beat Magazine during the early '60s, as well as a free-lance jazz writer.

''Jazz magazines all over the world have never been a profitable business,'' he remarks. After he took over the magazine it began to thrive, a success story for which he takes considerable credit.

''To dedicate my life to, or express my interest through, a magazine came very naturally to me. My dream when I was in high school was to publish a jazz magazine.''

In his efforts to get closer to the source of jazz, Koyama made the decision not to stay in Tokyo, but to travel to the United States and open up the lines of communication between the US and Japan, via jazz. No Japanese jazz journalist had done this before. He contacted photographers and journalists in the States and established good relationships with them, which continue today.

He is also well respected among musicians in his own country. And they hold the magazine he's done so much for in high regard because of the quality of the pictures, the layout, and the writing.

In addition to his editorial duties, Koyama was and is an avid record collector, and this hobby has led to some interesting developments with the magazine.

''I was not satisfied with what the record companies were doing with jazz. I told them what I was interested in and that if they would follow my ideas, I would promote them in my magazine. These were all collector's items, reissues, things that people had been waiting for - we needed those records to be out. In guiding the record companies in this specialized field of jazz, we had a great success in the record business.''

Swing Journal also began to publish a discography, making Japanese jazz fans aware of what was available in the States.

''Prior to my coming, the magazine never had a printed discography. The publisher didn't know what a discography was. So it was an adventure to put an American discography in a Japanese publication - it inspired great interest as far as record collecting was concerned.''

Koyama negotiated with the Japanese record companies to make these records available through their affiliates in the States.

''I also tried to promote local Japanese jazz musicians. Swing Journal started a regular series of concerts in Tokyo, and sometimes nationally. This was a brand-new idea in Japan. For a couple of years we promoted the Japanese All-Stars, who toured major cities around the country.''

The concerts were successful, and the interest in jazz grew.

''We had a reputation for doing good for jazz; people respected what we were doing and were willing to help.''

Now there are several major jazz festivals in Japan as well as an active jazz club scene, especially in Tokyo.

Swing Journal finds itself without an editor at the moment, but Koyama is always in the background. His name is practically synonymous with Swing Journal in Japan, and he still contributes articles regularly. After so many years devoting time and energy to the magazine, he's not about to give it up.

''It's my baby, and my life. So whoever will be editor, I need to take care of it. I'm behind Swing Journal forever.''

People in the jazz world often ask whether Swing Journal will ever be published in English. Says Koyama: ''I don't think so. Translating Japanese into English, 100 pages each month, is lots of work. Physically, I think it's impossible unless you have an enormous amount of staff. It's not economically feasible.''

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