Jazz Snack まつ (Matsu) is a gem, a classic old spot that takes you back to the days when Japanese cities had small jazz cafes like this in almost every neighborhood. Even by Japan standards Matsu is small, with 5 tiny seats at the counter and 6 more at the two tables that have virtually no space between them. The decor is vintage old Japanese jazz joint; a rickety shelf full of old albums; posters for events past and present, a chalkboard with ‘Today’s Food Special’ written perhaps ten years previously, and most notably a large blown up photo of John Coltrane live in concert. The photo has a diagonal slash on it, the victim of an angry street gangster that the owner refused to pay protection money to back when that sort of thing was much more common in Japan.
Amidst all the clutter of dishes, bottles and posters there is a turntable behind the counter, and a TV where they show some concert DVDs at times. The music wasn’t loud, as although Matsu is a very old spot, it has never been a standard jazz ‘kissaten’ where mainly solo men customers would sit with head down & eyes closed, listening to vintage albums at high volume. Shop owner Hirano-san from the beginning wanted a more jovial and warm atmosphere, hence the name Jazz ‘Snack’ rather than Jazz ‘Cafe’. (In Japan a ‘snack’ is a neighborhood bar where locals drink, talk and sing karaoke).
Hirano-san is a veteran of the jazz scene in Tokyo, having worked with the original incarnation of legendary live club The Pit Inn back in the late 60s and early 70s. (What his exact role was is unclear, will get more concrete details on this soon as on this visit I spoke mainly to the young college student manning the joint; Hirano-san only came by for a minute to exchange business cards, before returning to the second floor mah-johng parlor he also owns, also called ‘Matsu’). Today he is still involved in event promotion as an organizer with the Shinagawa City Jazz Festival, previously known as the Nakanobu Jazz Festival until 2018.
Matsu is going to be a joy for those who love the real old school Japanese jazz joint vibe, of which sadly there are less and less remaining. It’s living Japanese 20th century jazz culture, which is the highest recommendation I can give. Smoking is allowed so needless to say this is not a spot to linger in for those sensitive to smoke
Jazz Bar Impro is small, even by the incredibly small standards of most Japanese jazz joints. It’s on the first floor of a rickety old building down the Heiwa Kouji Yokocho alleyway next to JR Ooimachi station in Shinagawa Ward. This is the kind of alleyway that used to be found all over Tokyo, full of small drinking dens and izakaya run by the locals, sadly all too few these days. Impro has only been open for eight years but fits right in to the old school vibe of the neighborhood.
The entrance into Impro is a very low door you have to duck into, which immediately puts you next to the bar. There’s room for maybe 4 to stand and drink, with a tiny table at the back corner for a tight 3 to fit. The master Tsukahara-san is a friendly guy and will make you feel welcome even if you’re alone, though I wouldn’t recommend the place if you’re even slightly claustrophobic.
Tsukahara-san plays a mix of older and more modern jazz on both vinyl and CD, everything was solid the last time I visited, some old Django Reinhardt followed by Lee Morgan. He’s got some small snacks on the menu though nothing too elaborate; you wouldn’t come to a place like Impro for the food anyways. Impro won’t be for everyone (did I mention it’s very very tiny and cramped?) but I love the joint. It’s a time warp to Showa-era Japan, where every station area had dozens of standing bars like this. Open from 8pm – midnight most nights.
See photos of Impro here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.com.