On April 30, 2014, events were held in nearly 100 countries and on all 7 continents to celebrate International Jazz Day. The three-year-old holiday was launched by UNESCO, the United Nation’s educational and cultural organization, to raise awareness of jazz music as an educational tool and a force for peace, expression, and cooperation among people. Osaka, Japan was selected as the 2014 Global Host City, the locus of the international celebration. The city celebrated with a day of activities and events ranging from dance and instrument workshops, panel discussions on topics ranging from parallels between jazz and traditional Japanese comic theater (rakugo) to Women in jazz, and of course, concerts. The day culminated in an all-star concert in the shadow of the historic Osaka Castle, broadcast live to a global audience over the internet.
The selection of Osaka as the epicenter for this festival of all things jazz highlights a long, vibrant history of the music in Japan. How and when it first arrived in the early part of the 20th century remains unclear. Yet whether from American and Filipino bands playing on the ocean liners that connected the United States with Asia, or in the form of records brought back by Japanese business travelers from trips to American cities, by the 1920s the jazz fever swept both countries with equal intensity.
The western city of Osaka became the center of it all. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 devastated Tokyo and prompted artists and entertainers to relocate to Japan’s “second city” while the capitol rebuilt. Thus it became the birthplace of the roaring 20s dance hall craze. There, as in the US, jazz became a symbol of youth culture and modernity, with parents in both countries fretting over the decline of society in the face of zoot-suited young men, “moga” (“modern girls”) and their American “flapper” sisters. By 1928 American record giants Victor and Columbia both started subsidiaries in Japan, bringing the music of American jazz greats while promoting home-grown artists in Osaka and beyond.
Jazz remained popular throughout the pre-war years, up until 1943 when the militarist government banned “the enemy’s music” along with other perceived Western influences. However, closing the dance halls failed to stem Japan’s interest in jazz, with even imperial soldiers listening to jazz records the night before battle. After the war, jazz returned in full force, where it was both a symbol of liberation, and a source of commonality between the Japanese people and the occupying GIs. The demand for jazz bands by homesick Americans and the lack of musicians among them, lead to the further cultivation of Japanese jazz musicians and jazz clubs and cafes across the country.
By the 1960s jazz began to languish in popularity in the United States with the ascendance of “Rock and Roll,” but in Japan the musical form flourished in the post-war decades. It became a haven for both American jazz musicians who began to tour Japan in great numbers to appreciative audiences, as well as record labels. As producer of Blue Note Records, Michael Cuscuna, explained in 1988: “Japan almost single-handedly kept the jazz record business going during the 1970s… Without the Japanese market, a lot of independent jazz labels probably would have folded.”
Japanese jazz in this era was not limited to US imports however. New forms of jazz fusion were developed as Japanese artists combined jazz traditional Japanese instruments and tunes. A number of Japanese musicians, such as pianist and bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi, who were familiar among GIs following the war, developed American fan-bases as they toured the US. Ultimately collaborative groups and projects were forged between American and Japanese jazz greats as their paths crisscrossed the Pacific.
While its popularity in Japan has waned somewhat, the country’s jazz culture remains vibrant, making the selection of Osaka for International Jazz Day a source of excitement for many of the star performers in the headline concert on April 30th. As the musical director for the festivities, American keyboardist and composer John Beasley told the Japan Times: “Japan is one of my favorite places to play in the world… [the] audiences are very enthusiastic, and they’re deep listeners.”