13 February 2016


First, may I suggest you watch RIGHT NOW this delightful video made by young traditional jazz musicians in Japan? It shows vividly how the music is thriving in that country and also how it can be played with joy. Watch it BY CLICKING ON HERE. If I have understood correctly, the Band is The Khachaturian Jazz Band (The Khacha Band, for short) and the players are Tomomitsu Maruyama (leader, banjo and vocals), Naho Ishimura (trumpet and tambourine), Kensuke Shintani (clarinet), Hishinuma Naoki (tuba), and Tomohiko Miwa (percussion).

I have never been to Japan and I know very little about traditional jazz in that country. But we all know there has long been - albeit on a small scale - a strong tradition of New Orleans-style jazz played particularly in Tokyo and Osaka. 

So let me state what I can; and if you can correct me on any points – or provide additional information with which I may enrich this article – please send me an email: ivantrad (@) outlook (dot) com.

There seem to have been Japanese musicians even before World War II who were influenced by American dance band and early jazz music. For example, listen to THIS RECORDING (CLICK ON) of Tiger Rag.

Later, it seems that a group of enthusiastic young musicians from about 1955 were hugely influenced by the New Orleans Jazz Revival, notably by such musicians as George Lewis, Jim Robinson and Bunk Johnson. The Band called The New Orleans Rascals was formed in 1961. And it still performs today, mainly, I think, in Osaka. Those young musicians started making records early in their career. And they enjoyed a terrific boost when George Lewis visited Japan with his band in 1963.
The New Orleans Rascals
The visit by George Lewis was a big sensation at the time, seminal and influential. In fact, its legacy is still strong. I think I am right in saying there are many musicians in Japan today who still feel that the ONLY correct way to play the music is in the style of George Lewis.

I remember that in about 1980 a friend who was crazy about The New Orleans Rascals gave me a cassette tape of their recordings. They certainly were very good, sounding much like a George Lewis band and playing his repertoire.

Over the years, The New Orleans Rascals have often played at festivals abroad and, in their turn, they have hosted many fine guest performers from other parts of the world.

Correspondent David Withers in New Zealand has told me the late Mike Durham, best known as the leader of The West Jesmond Rhythm Kings, lived in Japan in the 1980s, playing with a band called The Kobe Stompers.

Rhoichi Kawai (devotedly a disciple of George Lewis) has not only been the great clarinet player of The New Orleans Rascals; he also formed a club in 1958 – The Waseda University New Orleans Jazz Club – and it still exists today. Waseda University is in Tokyo. In fact Rhoichi Kawai has been the dominant figure in Japanese traditional jazz for decades. He is considered a great pioneer and is held in respect even by the much younger generation of musicians.

Members of the Club included Mari Watanabe, the fine pianist who moved to New Orleans about twenty years ago, and still plays there at Preservation Hall and The Palm Court Café. She is married to Roger Lewis, who plays the sax with The Tremé Brass Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Another club member was the great pianist Natsuko Furukawa, whose brilliance may be appreciated in many videos. She now lives in Kawasaki where she runs the band Soul Food Café, with her husband playing the saxophone. They occasionally visit New Orleans. You can watch her in storming action by CLICKING HERE.

And how about sampling a performance of The Old Rugged Cross by The New Orleans Rascals in 1991, with leader Rhoichi Kawai on clarinet? To do so CLICK HERE.

Yoshio Toyama (trumpet), who has frequently visited New Orleans to play, was also a member. In more recent years, Kensuke Shintani (clarinet), Haruka Kikuchi (trombone) and Makiko Tamura (clarinet) were members. Another important former club member is Hiro Kodaira. He lived in New Orleans for many years and played the banjo in Jackson Square. Many street musicians there still remember him; but he returned to Japan after Hurricane Katrina.

It has been impossible for Japanese traditional jazz musicians to make a full-time living from the music. Traditional jazz is not quite popular enough among the general public – a situation common in most countries. Rhoichi Kawai himself, for example, had a day job running a jewellery store.

There seem to be quite a few bands currently on the scene. For example, (playing in Tokyo) The New Orleans Jazz Hounds include several young musicians. I know that the work of Makiko Tamura – the superb young lady clarinet player – is greatly admired all over the world, as readers of this Blog have made clear to me.

One of my readers - Lou in the USA - strongly recommended to me a video is which Makiko Tamura and Kensuke Shintani duet on clarinets in I've Found a New Baby. It was quite something. But, alas, it seems to have been recently removed from YouTube.

The leader of The New Orleans Jazz Hounds is Mikio Shoji (piano), who was mostly inspired by the late Danny Barker.

And there is Nobu Ozaki, the bassist with John Boutté, who seems to be the only Japanese traditional jazz person who didn't join the Waseda University New Orleans Jazz Club! He preferred to move young to New Orleans.

Kensuke Shintani (already mentioned) is a superb clarinet player on the current Japanese sceneAlso in Tokyo is Tomomitsu Maruyama who plays the banjo. You saw both these men in the video I recommended at the top of this article. Haruka Kikuchi considers Tomomitsu the best traditional banjo player in the world.

As far as I can tell, a gentleman called Giichi Oya has been extremely important in supporting and publicising the work of young traditional jazz musicians in Japan. We owe him a great debt of gratitude.

Some of the younger Japanese musicians, such as Haruka, are by no means stuck in the past but are absorbing the many influences that have infiltrated traditional jazz in New Orleans itself during recent years. I am referring to such influences as those of Baltic brass band music, Caribbean rhythms and calypsos, and even Mardi Gras Indian 'funky' music. Haruka Kikuchi, the great trombonist, set up home in New Orleans at the end of 2013, and has played with pretty well all the great bands there, even forming one herself, and she has happily toured as a member of the Mardi Gras Indian Funk Band called Cha Wa. Here she is in the centre of the band:
Haruka told me she wants to be a bridge to the next generation. She thinks the jazz culture she has found in New Orleans is slightly different from the one she left in Tokyo. She is glad she has settled in New Orleans because she says 'I have to learn and study many things here, and want to play good music. Just good music with everybody (no matter where they are from!).'

And have a look at this video - click on to view.  It is a distinctive Japanese group playing In The Mood and The Kentucky Waltz. Robert Wendorf (resident in Japan) drew it to my attention.

I have received this message from Tokyo:

Hello, my name is Steve Kim and I currently live in Tokyo. I really appreciate your post about Jazz in Japan!

I organize a large outdoor event, which while is mainly a Latin festival, I hope to have some of those groups on your post to perform at the event! The event is called Cinco de Mayo and while it is a Mexican event mostly celebrated in the US (kind of like the early St Patrick's Day), I have altered it a bit in Japan to include all of the Americas and hope to incorporate a little bit of New Orleans. I have had a band called Blitz and Squash Brass Band from Osaka in the event in Osaka and Tokyo. There was a trumpet player they invited from New Orleans called Travis Hill who performed at the event in 2014 came for the event in 2015 but tragically passed away during his visit due to illness. But I hope to revive the music in the event in Tokyo.

This was with Travis back in 2014 in Osaka.