Aketa No Mise (“The Open Store”) is out in west Tokyo, not far from Nishi-Ogikubo station. The Ogikubo area was well known in the 1960s as a gathering spot for hippies, artists, political dissidents and drop-outs and you can get a taste of this scene at Aketa no Mise. It’s a great basement jazz club with no pretensions or care for current trends, a space solely concerned with creative expression via music. The live acts they book are on the experimental/free side, which is unfortunately all too rare these days. Owner Aketagawa-san, who runs the ocarina-shop across the street as well as overseeing the Aketa Discs independent label, keeps the schedule diverse and interesting; last time I dropped by in the afternoon there was a trio rehearsal going on between a tympani drummer, electric guitarist and a female vocalist.
That’s not to say there aren’t some unpleasant things about the club. It’s down in the basement and as a result is very dark and damp, and the cans of Sapporo beer were kind of warm..never acceptable, even a place devoted to free jazz! But those minor points aside, I love this joint. There are too many jazz clubs around Tokyo that feature the same vocal + quartet singing the same standards, night after night. Knowing there is a place like Aketa no Mise still in business is comforting to all jazz fans who want to keep the spirit of improvisation alive.
First is an old-school Yokohama jazz bar with a vibe and sound all its own. It’s more spacious than your average jazz joint in the Tokyo Metro Area, with room for about 30-35 customers, and space in front for live sets. There’s a baby grand piano in the corner right as you enter and a drum set to the right before you get to the tables and long counter bar along the left wall.
Mr. & Mrs. Yamazaki have been running First for more than thirty years and the bar itself dates back to 1968. It’s a bit dark and the magazines in the back corner are way out of date, but the regular customers are not just old, solitary jazz fans; First is happy to host small drinking parties and doesn’t mind even when they get a bit rowdy, though I prefer it when people are alone and concentrating on the music.
The vinyl selection is all modern jazz (some superb Joe Henderson was playing on my last visit) with a slant towards more ‘moody’ records, making it always feel like midnight in First even when you’re there in the late afternoon. First used to have about one live gig a week but recently have increased to about two or three per week. Thankfully, the live gigs seem to include a variety of styles and not just the usual vocal quartet/quintets you get at a lot of other places; check the website for the schedule before stopping by.
First is one of my favorite places to stop by in Yokohama, an all around great jazz joint. Check more pics here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Vanilla Mood is a cool little jazz bar/club just across from Roppongi Hills. It has been open for sixteen years, run for the last five by Amagai Ken-san.
Amagai-san hosts events there almost every evening, ranging from DJ nights to improv sessions to straight-ahead swing. He’s putting a lot of effort into making the space one that is both casual for customers, but also serious enough for musicians who want to experiment. He told me that too many jazz bars/clubs in Tokyo cater to only one kind of audience (older/richer) and that he’s trying to bring in a different kind of crowd. The Friday ‘New York Jazz Room’ nights featuring a regular group of formerly NYC-based Japanese musicians is well worth dropping in for.
The vibe is warm and friendly at V Mood and the space large enough that you can move around; the big glass doors opening out onto the street give it a real different feel to most claustrophobic jazz joints. I was very happy to find Vanilla Mood, it’s a groovy jazz spot in Roppongi that you can escape to if your friends are heading to some meat-market/awful-music club.
Birdland is a beautifully decorated cafe and bar located in the north-east part of Tokyo, just a short skip from Kita-Senju station. This is an old, working-class neighborhood that is showing signs of some gentrification with new wine bars and cafes, but Birdland evokes an older era despite being open only since 1989.
The owner Morikawa-san is an incredibly friendly guy; he let us stay in the place between 6 and 7pm, usually his break time as he prepares for the evening ‘bar’ session, and chatted the whole time with us as we took pictures and drank some beers. The feel of the place is almost European, and that extends to the excellent selection of whiskey and draft beer (Guinness & Belgian Vedette, very rare in a jazz bar). There are also a good two dozen jazz portaits hanging on the wall along the right side, be sure to look at some of the smaller ones as you’ll find some real surprises.
Birdland has live music about two or three times a week, usually musicians that are friends of Morikawa-san but also some occasional foreign guests. Straight ahead modern jazz, nothing too free and thankfully not too many vocalists. The ￥3000 music charge covers the whole evening. During cafe and bar time there’s an extensive collection of vinyl behind the bar that Morikawa-san plays from; Grant Green’s ‘Matador’ was on when we entered.
Every jazz spot has its own unique feel and Birdland is no exception. You’ll feel instantly welcome there as you settle in for a leisurely coffee of beer, and with the large windows offering plenty of natural light, it’s the perfect spot for people put off by some of the more subterranean jazz joints around town. Photos of Birdland here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Jazz Pepe is as old school as it gets. Opened in 1969 by the now 77 year old Okuma-san, Pepe is a basement bar that has made virtually no accommodations to the present day, making drinks there feel like you’ve been instantly transported back to Showa-era Japan.
The music is almost entirely jazz vocalists from Okuma-san’s large collection. Okuma-san himself is a joy to talk with, open and friendly while drinking and chain smoking as if it was still 1969. Like many Shinjuku old-timers, he was quick to share stories about the old days when there were jazz bars on every corner and Shinjuku was a rough & tumble part of town.
Surprisingly for such a small, divey place, Pepe still hosts monthly live performances by some local singers. For years I had thought Pepe was out of business due to the broken door leading down to the joint and graffiti covered sign that was never lit up. Going down the stairs and finding it open was one of the best jazz experiences I’ve had in Japan. Photos of Jazz Pepe here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.com
Meg is a small cafe/club in Kichijoji, western Tokyo that is a vibrant part of the local scene. There’s live music almost every night of the week, plus jazz album/cd trading sessions, vocalist jam session nights, and workshops given by owner Terashima Yasukuni. Terashima-san has written several books on jazz in Japan, which you can buy at Meg. He also puts out a yearly compilation CD “YT Presents Jazz Bar…” which is worth a listen.
What you notice immediately when going into Meg are the huge red speakers that dominate the back wall. I’m not an audiophile, so have no idea if the shape makes any difference or is just for style, but the sound in Meg is awesome. You rarely hear such crisp, clean sound like this anywhere in Tokyo.
Meg is a classic jazz kissaten in a great area for music wandering. I highly recommend spending an hour or two there some afternoon before exploring the Kichijoji nightlife. Photos of Meg are over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
The Pit Inn remains near, or at the top, of any list of live jazz venues in the Tokyo area. 2015 saw an ongoing series of shows celebrating the club’s 50th anniversary, and it shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Unlike far too many jazz clubs these days, the Pit Inn puts the focus squarely on the music. All seats face the stage, and the audiences are mostly dedicated fans who don’t spend half the show talking or fiddling with their phones. The atmosphere is exactly what you imagine an old, basement jazz club in Tokyo would be; old posters, dark lighting, ‘minimal’ service. The only minus point for me is the lack of a good beer menu.
The style of music varies so check the schedule in advance; their English language web page always has a full description of the featured band so it’s easy to find the type of gigs you want to attend. No other club in Tokyo features as many of the best local musicans so let’s hope they keep going for another 50 years. It’s a cliche but true: the Pit Inn is the Village Vanguard of Tokyo.
SOMETIME Kichijoji (they use all caps..) opened in 1975 and still packs people in every night of the week. As the name says it’s in Kichijoji, an area in Western Tokyo that has long been known for being a jazz ‘town’, though there are fewer joints now than there were in the golden days of the 60s and 70s.
SOMETIME though is without a doubt the center of the Kichijoji jazz community, a great place to dive into the local scene. There are usually different Japanese musicians playing every night, all genres featured. The official name ‘Piano Hall SOMETIME’ refers more to the look of the place rather than about the music. The big black grand piano does dominate the center of the room (there is no stage), but it’s not at all a ‘piano bar’. Customers sit at the counter around the open-space, or look down on the musicians from seats in the loft.
There’s a real speakeasy feel to the place when it’s full and the musicians are out on the floor tearing it up. Even better for the poorer/cheaper jazz fan is the live charge. Gigs can be as cheap as ￥1600, and that covers you for all the sets in the evening (unlike many big-name chain clubs.) SOMETIME is a great place to kick off a night in Kichijoji, and I’d recommend the Sunday afternoon lunch sessions or even just cafe time as well. Photos of SOMETIME over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Bitches Brew is yet another only-in-Japan kind of place. It’s a tiny sqaure room on the second floor of a building in the fairly residential area of Hakuraku, north Yokohama. There is live music every night, but as there is no stage, the lack of space means the audience is an active part of the gig. You are literally right next to the musicians as they play.
BB was opened 10 years ago by the chatty & friendly Seiichi Sugita. Sugita-san had a long career as a photo-journalist, shooting some of the biggest jazz names at festivals in the US and Europe. He’s also quite the audiophile and has a vacuum-tube system in the place for music in between live sets. (Audiophiles can read about all his equipment up on his homepage.)
Sigita-san takes pride in putting on live shows every night with musicians who make the trek down from Tokyo just to perform there. I was stunned to hear that free-jazz legend Akira Sakata plays there regularly; imagine the power of hearing someone like him in such a small room. Bitches Brew is place for real music heads, and it’s well worth the trip to Hakuraku to check out a show there. Photos of Bitches Brew over at Tokyo Jazz Joints
Jazz Spot Candy is a gem, one of the finest jazz joints in the entire Tokyo metro area. It opened in 1976, then moved to its current location in 2002 and has been run since the beginning by the ebullient and kind Hayashi-san.
It’s a small room but does not feel as claustrophobic as many other jazz spots due to its high ceiling and natural light. There are a few tables and some bar counter seats, with the right wall dominated by Hayashi-san’s impressive and varied collection of vinyl. She’s happy to take requests and talk about the music or anything else; within minutes of being there we were trading stories about how we first came to love this music. (For Hayashi-san, it was working in an electronics store as a teenager and hearing John Coltrane play on the radios and stereos.)
The left wall of the room acts as a ‘stage’ for weekend live shows, usually featuring more experimental/improvisational groups. Hayashi-san has good connections with both American and European musicians (the late, great Billy Bang was a regular visitor), as well as local ‘free jazz’ players. Cafe and bar time though you’ll hear any and all genres; during my visit Hayashi-san played B.B. King & Diane Schur, Jack DeJohnette, then some heavy Norwegian improv group.
I was so happy to finally find Jazz Spot Candy, it’s now firmly in my Top Ten Jazz Joint ranking. See good pics of Candy here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Little John is a well known jazz bar/tiny club in the Yokohama scene, yet its erratic opening hours can make it tough to visit. It’s a small rectangular room with about 15 seats and a back wall ‘stage’, another 6 or so seats at the back counter bar. There’s live music often but not nightly so you can drop by for a drink after 7 most days. It also takes part in most of the local Yokohama-based jazz events/weekends based on the posters hung around the room.
Even after finally entering the joint for the first time (for a gig as part of the 2015 Yokohama Jazz Promenade) Little John remains a bit of a mystery. Master Furukawa-san is friendly and chatty, but not the actual owner. He didn’t really share the whole story with me but from what I gathered the owner is kind of ill and doesn’t come by much, leaving it in the hands of Furukawa-san. He assured me he’s there daily at 7 but several times I’ve been by and they were closed..the story seems incomplete, I’ll keep investigating.
Regardless, Little John has that dark, divey old school jazz bar feel to it that many customers will enjoy, a place to run into to escape from a cold rainy night. You can easily make a night of it in Yoshida-cho visiting Little John, Jazz Ad-lib, Rock Bar Sid and some of the other music bars along those back streets.
Lady Jane has a very cinematic feel to it, the kind of joint that a lot of people outside Japan would envision upon hearing the words ‘Japanese jazz bar’. It’s dark, but clean and sleek, and the staff are immaculate, the drinks poured perfectly. The music is present but not overwhlemingly loud like in a cafe. If you grab one of the tables by the windows you can have some privacy or you can sit at the bar and chat with the bartender while sipping some drinks.
With all that you could think that it’s simply another cool & maybe slightly stuffy jazz bar for some quiet drinks, but Lady Jane also has weekend live gigs featuring a huge variety of local and foreign acts, including some unexpected experimental musicians. The vibe of the place completely transforms then into an intimate club with dedicated fans. It manages to keep a very fine balance between sophistication and true dedication to the music, something not many joints can do.
Lady Jane celebrates its 40th anniversary this year in 2015 and looks to continue to bring a grown-up jazz vibe to the funky, crowded Shimo-Kitazawa neighborhood in western Tokyo. Open until 3am most nights so it’s a perfect spot for that night-cap whisky.
Tokyo Jazz Joints photos of Lady Jane are here.
Absolute Blue is a new club opened in Feb 2015 by Ayumi Hoshikawa, previously a club owner in New York City. Hoshikawa-san has brought a NYC sensibility to her new venue (see the website) including not only nightly live performances but workshops and jam sessions as well.
Ex-Brand New Heavies vocalist N’Dea Davenport does Sunday afternoon vocal lessons, local bassist Derek Short hosts twice monthly jam nights and well known bassist Kenji Hino does bass lessons and also performs regularly in a duo with Takashi Sugawa.
Hoshikawa-san speaks excellent English and is making a real strong effort to make her club a spot for both Japanese and visiting foreign musicians to gather and perform. It’s a basement space quite far underground but looks sleek, with all seats close to the stage. I’m hoping she can keep it going as Absolute Blue is a welcome new addition to the live jazz scene.
Koen-Dori Classics is a small performance space located underneath a church in the heart of Shibuya. It seats maybe 30 people max, with all seats facing the performance area (there’s no stage).
The lineup of events leans towards the experimental; fans of improvisational music and dance will love this place. It’s a unique spot right in the heart of commercial Shibuya madeness. There’s performances almost nightly but check the website for details; the space is available for private rental so if you have an event you’d like to hold this could be a great spot for it.
Ad-Lib is an old club in Yoshida-cho, a block of dingy streets between Kannai and Noge in Yokohama. Live music nightly with Saturday afternoon cafe/record listening time. It’s a no-frills jazz & whiskey joint, down to earth and authentic.
The Room is one of Tokyo’s best clubs, if not THE best for fans of funky/groovy music. It’s home base for the Kyoto Jazz Massive and owners the Okino Brothers often DJ there, alongside DJ Kawasaki and Tokyo’s funkiest DJ, Kuroda Daisuke.
There are frequent live performances as well (very crowded) and the vibe is kept friendly and not at all elitist by manager Sato-san. The Room needs to be your first stop if funk and funky jazz is what you are looking for. Events almost every night so check the homepage; some may feature Latin/House/Hip-Hop DJs and not funky jazz.
The B Flat in Akasaka is a great straight-ahead jazz club in an area without many other options for good music. There is a healthy mix of acts on the schedule with both local and overseas groups playing in a variety of styles.
B-Flat is large, so spacious that it’s one of the few clubs in town that actually feels like it could be in New York. It’s a long rectangular space with the stage along the right side as you walk in. Look out for the brick wall behind the stage with the signatures of all the visiting musicians throughout the years.
There’s a substantial food and drinks menu so you can have dinner during the show but the best thing about B Flat is that unlike some other clubs in town that will remain nameless, once you enter you can stay for both of the evening’s sets. Highly recommened club. Keep an eye out for the owner, a real dandy gentleman who sits by the door chain smoking while cooly greeting customers. Good pics on the homepage.
Jazz Live Bar Independence is another great joint located in the surprisingly hip neighborhood of West Ikebukuro. It’s a really narrow bar with a stage at the back, live music every night with a mix of pros and amateurs.
Independence has been open for 10 years and is now a mainstay of the Ikebukuro scene. Highly recommended.
Cygnus is the sister club to Aries in Ueno but a bit more upscale. Live shows three times a night, almost always local vocalists. A bit heavy on the jazz standards for my tastes but always high quality and a popular spot in Ginza.
Every Swing is a small friendly club in the barren back streets east of Ueno Station. This is not an area full of music so it’s all the more welcome to have someplace representing the jazz army.
There is no set genre at Every Swing so expect to hear anything from West Indian steel drums to chanson here. Every Tuesday is the “Service” Jam Session night, open to all levels from beginner upwards. At only ￥1000 it’s a good deal as many jam sessions in Tokyo charge a lot more to join. The crowd here is usually a bit younger than many other jazz clubs, which is kind of nice. The usual drinks and light snacks are available, and check out some nice photos at their website here
Aries is a very local jazz live-house in the back streets of Ueno. By “local” I mean both the artists and customers; Aries feels like a place that people walk from their homes to. It’s a small square room with all the seats facing the stage, which is on the left when you walk in.
The nightly schedule almost always features vocal-led groups but in a variety of genres, not just standards and lite-bossa covers. Jazz spots like this are totally authentic and completely unpretentious, just some local artists and regulars enjoying music and drinks.
Hot House is the world’s smallest jazz club! Maybe 8 or 10 customers max in this place. Make a reservation, get there early, and be ready for a really intimate show. The owner Aki-san behind the counter will provide little snacks (and some stern warnings to be quiet..don’t get on her bad side..) This is an only in Japan experience, you have to go at least once.
Jazz, Funk & Soul are on tap at Miles’ Cafe. The Ikebukuro area is not known for having a great music scene but Miles’ Cafe is well worth a visit. There’s live music every night with frequent jam sessions in all genres. The place is divided into the B1 “Blue” section, and the B2 “Agharta” section.
Miles’ Cafe is also a good spot for non-smokers, as smoking is only permitted at a counter near the elevators, the rest of the venue is non-smoking. There’s a couple of good videos on the website that give you a look at the place. Keep a look out when there for a trumpet player in sunglasses who calls himself “Miles”..he’s the owner..
Blues Alley Japan. is a sophisticated club with great food and an eclectic live schedule. It’s basically what the Blue Note is trying to be but isn’t; a fancy place to take some customers, but where the business crowd does not overwhelm the music.
The website has a useful guide on their live calendar letting you know exactly what genre is being featured that night, anything from straight-ahead jazz to World or even lite-soul. Lots of good pictures of the interior on their site too. Reservations are recommended, and bring your credit card..
Yoidore Hakushaku (よいどれ伯爵-the name translates as “The Drunken Earl or The Drunken Count”, take your pick. Locals just call it “Yoidore”) is classic old basement joint in jazzy Kannai, Yokohama. It’s got a very vintage sense of style..I was reminded of my old neighbor Mrs. Bodenheimer’s s apartment in Brooklyn, which will make sense to some of you..Soft sofas around the room along side a bar, with the musicians up against the back wall. Owner Sato-san is usually behind the bar and up for a chat between sets, keeping the vibe very friendly (not always the case in live venues..)
It’s vocal groups almost every night at Yoidore; don’t go here expecting to hear any Pharoah Sanders covers. It’s great value for the usual 3000 yen entry as there are three sets nightly from 7:30. 10 bonus points for serving Guinness!
Kamome means “seagull” in Japanese; it’s an apt name for a venue in the port town of Yokohama. It’s a great new-ish restaurant club in the historic but recently downtrodden Kannai neighborhood, not far from Chinatown or the baseball stadium. There’s live music every night with a really eclectic mix of styles..be sure to check the schedule (and have a Japanese reading friend confirm the genre of the evening) before going. The food is very good here and all the seats face the stage for the most part. The gigs usually end about 10pm so Kamome is a good first stop on a jazz-hopping evening in Kannai.
A reminder: there is no smoking inside many (not all) establishments in Kanagawa prefecture, to which Yokohama belongs. Certain bars still allow it but many places with food do not.
Very supper-club type place, most nights featuring vocal-led bands. The food is good, the service rude and the prices are a bit high..so no, I’m not a big fan. Good place for business dinners & drinks though. The is the younger sister branch of the original Satin Doll in Kobe.
Organ Jazz Club: the name gives it away, doesn’t it? One of the few places in town with a real Hammond Organ, this place is a must-visit if you like your jazz to be funky. Live gigs almost every night.
Rooster is a great little live-house that features jazz, blues, funk, New Orleans..basically all the best stuff. They have a 2nd small space on the north side of the station too, for jam sessions and extra gigs.
Very small place that is really just a bar with live music every night of the week. I’ve got it in the “Club” section because the vibe is more like a club than a bar where you can sit and chat while drinking; at KoKo the live music dominates the space. There are often jam sessions on Weds and Sundays.
Good Italian food at this restaurant/bar/club. The schedule on the website shows the genre of each night (vocal, fusion, Latin, etc) which is helpful if you are not familiar with the artists. Strings is a good way to start a jazz-bar crawl night in Kichijoji.
Body & Soul is a large club with really good food, though the music can be a bit mainstream for my tastes. Good pics and a real easy to follow map on the website. Body&Soul has been around for more than 30 years in a few locations, check the website for the interesting history of the owner, Ms. Seki Kyoko.