In a small jazz club in Okinawa, Japan, waitress Akiko Chino vocalizes a rendition of "Paper Moon." The aspiring singer struggles to interpret the song phonetically, having memorized the lyrics from a CD. The crowd applauds as she leaves the bandstand, bowing before resuming the work of clearing tables.
When she passes my table, she asks for clarification of a line in the song: "What is a Barnum and Bailey world?" I try to explain, but the barriers of language and cultural history get in the way.
Regardless, her love for jazz will go on. She is typical of many jazz musicians on this tiny island - self-taught, with a limited knowledge of English, but a great dedication to an American art form.
Okinawa has more jazz clubs than most cities in America. Located between mainland Japan and Taiwan, it has a history of Asian and American domination, and was a major battleground inWorld War II. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the American occupation, and the clubs are windows on that time.
In April 1945, the US military occupied Okinawa after a three-month campaign that resulted in some of the heaviest casualties of the war. American marine and naval forces lost an estimated 13,000 men in an invasion met head-on by Japan. About 80,000 Japanese troops were killed. The islandlost one-third of its population, about 150,000 people, caught in the crossfire.
The US administered Okinawa until 1972, when Japan resumed control with the agreement that the American bases would remain. During the years of occupation, the jazz clubs were havens where former enemies came together in the safety of cultural appreciation.
Japanese filmmaker Junji Sakamoto portrayed the impact that jazz had in mainland Japan in the historical feature film "Out of This World - Club Occupation Army." The movie documents the story of Japanese musicians such as singer Toshio Oida and drummer George Kawaguchi devoted to the "enemy music." It shows young Japanese musicians struggling to master jazz in postwar Japan by playing at nightclubs for US enlisted men.
Mr. Sakamoto said he made the film to chronicle the historic relationship between Japanese and American musicians, and to show how former enemies could move beyond the war and form a common bond through appreciation of jazz.
In the postwar period, Okinawans viewed the military bases through a multilayered prism, says Hayashi Oshiro. On one hand, they were considered installations of military oppression; on the other, they were seen as extensions of American abundance and popular culture. Once a week, Okinawans could go to stores and nightclubs on base.
Mr. Oshiro became a jazz fan from going to the base clubs, and he opened an American-style diner, The 50s Café, in the capital city of Naha. He also witnessed the influence on local musicians. They were drawn to both the music, the friendships, and the money earned in tips.
Most people preferred the swing music of the war era, but many others took to the innovative style of bebop. Over time, a few musicians even integrated traditional Okinawan melodies and instruments into their performances.
Some of the first-generation Okinawan musicians went on to careers as entertainers and jazz club owners. A few continue to perform today. One is pianist Yara Fumio. He is a short man with a long goatee. While he questions the need for the continued presence of the military bases, he appreciates the opportunity they provided to learn about jazz.
He owns a club called Gu-Wa Jazz Live in Naha. The name means fable, and the club is a treasured spot for jazz aficionados. A major highlight for the club was hosting a concert by pianist Kenny Barron several years ago. The encounter is still much talked about by local musicians, and an enlarged photograph of Barron surrounded by local musicians is framed and prominently displayed on the wall .
Another first-generation jazz singer is the legendary Sumiko Yaseyama, owner of Interlude, a small piano bar in Naha. She began singing as a teenager during the postwar occupation and become a featured performer in the base clubs. One of the highlights of her later career was recording an album with pianist Mal Waldron in the 1980s - the cover is framed and hanging on the wall at Interlude. In the tiny club, she and a young assistant work as hosts and performers.
No story of the early jazz scene would be complete without recognizing the contributions of musicians from the Philippines. Many originally came to Okinawa to work on the military bases.
Pino Arcaya arrived during the Vietnam War when the US military recruited him as a music teacher. "They sent me $300 and a one-way ticket to Okinawa," he recalls. "The Department of Defense wanted me to teach classical music to family members of the military. After a while I became bored with classical music, so a friend said I should try jazz, and I found it much more interesting."
He began to frequent the base clubs, some of which had hired musicians from the Philippines. One of the players taught him jazz piano. Performing with the club bands led Mr. Arcaya to a job as a pianist at a hotel. About 20 years ago, he opened his own club. "In those days," he says, "I would play at the hotel until 10:30 at night, then rush to my club and start all over again."
His Pino's Place is an intimate and charming jazz club. Behind the bandstand is a charcoal mural of musicians and the motto: "Jazz is the universal language of mankind."
The Okinawa jazz clubs are labors of love, rather than profitable business enterprises. The audiences are comprised of local regulars, tourists from mainland Japan, and older Americans.
The future of jazz in Okinawa rests in the hands of younger musicians, many from mainland cities. Kam's Jazz House in Naha is a laboratory for the next generation. Hidefumi Kamura, who was influenced by the military base jazz clubs on the mainland, came to Okinawa from the city of Yokosuka. Today he is one of the most respected and skilled bebop pianists in Okinawa.
On any given night his band might feature a tenor saxophonist, vibraphonist, trombonist, guitarist, or all of them. The club is a second home for many younger musicians such as Johma Kohsuke. Mr. Kohsuke came to Okinawa from Osaka about five years ago. His interest in jazz derived from listening to Charlie Parker recordings. He studied alone until he achieved a sufficient degree of skill.
Each year, Naha sponsors a jazz concert. In the midst of regional tensions, the theme for 2004 was jazz and peace. The concert featured local favorites such as Hidefumi Kamura and Yara Fumio, but it also introduced musicians from other Pacific islands. Paul Huang's Jazz Band arrived from Taiwan and delighted the audience with aset of bebop.
The Okinawa Jazz Association swing band showcased trumpeter Elio Miyashiro, a Hawaii-born artist who now resides in Tokyo.
The event highlighted the continued appeal of jazz in Okinawa and its larger connection to peaceful coexistence. In a small way, it demonstrated the resilience of jazz as one of the cultural ambassadors of America.