Herbie is the kind of jazz bar you stumble upon randomly on the way home some night and end up staying in for three hours. Located in unfashionable Machida (about 25mins south west of Shinjuku on the express Odakyu Line), it’s a tiny basement bar that seats 20 people max, though it’s rarely that full. The room is a small rectangle with a mix of counter seats and 4-seat tables, but is more suited for quiet drinks & jazz time rather than a noisy get-together.
Owner Fukuoka-san is a cool cat with a taste for whiskey; there are 75 different brands of whiskey, bourbon and rye behind the bar. The music is anything from classic jazz from the 50s up to current releases; last time there I heard some 1990s fusion back to back with Horace Silver. Although you wouldn’t think it, Herbie does host the occasional live gig; check the website for the schedule. It’s a fairly dark room and may be slightly claustrophobic for some, but it’s pretty much a perfect neighborhood jazz bar to hit after dinner or for a late night-cap. Look for a picture of Herbie on the wall near the door, otherwise it’s mainly Miles on the walls.
More pics of Herbie here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Milestone sadly closed its doors at the end of July, 2019 after 45 years in business.
As the name gives away, you’re going to hear a lot of Miles Davis at this place. Milestone is another classic jazz cafe perfect for when you have two hours to kill. Master Orito-san is a soft-spoken, kinono-wearing, really nice guy who keeps the vibe there mellow but swinging.
What really stands out about Milestone is the wall of books and magazines on the right side as you walk in. Although most are in Japanese, there are enough jazz photo books that even if you can`t read Japanese you can still spend a fun hour or so doing some browsing. Orito-san keeps the place open fairly late and there’s booze on the menu so it’s also a great spot for a few early drinks in the evening.
Takadanobaba is a “student town” so there’s always a few college kid jazz fans in here, along with a few random salarymen. I spent a lot of my student days at Waseda University “studying” at places like this in Tokyo, and Milestone is one of the best.
Tokyo Jazz Joint photos of Milestone are here.
Houdenasu (ほうでなす) is a small 2nd floor bar located right in the heart of Shinjuku 3-Chome, a neighborhood packed with great music bars and places to eat. Opened 16 years ago by master Satodate-san, it’s an intimate, no frills jazz bar with mostly regular customers. There are periodic 2 or 3 piece live shows, mostly standard type stuff. Satodate-san has a nice collection of CDs and vinyl; I was pleased to see an original Hank Mobley album hanging behind the bar.
Satodate-san was a pleasure to chat music with and he invited me back anytime to check out one of the live shows and talk with some of the regulars. Houdenasu is a another great spot in 3-chome and I’m happy to have discovered it after many years of visiting the area. English menu so it’s an easy place for tourists to order in. ¥1000 seating charge.
Oh, Satodate-san told me with a smile that ‘ほうでなす’ is a bit of Tokhoku regional slang for ’ばかやろう!’
Volontaire moved to its current location in Akasaka a few years ago after more than three decades in the heart of Harajuku. (Read about the old place here)
There’s nothing too memorable about the interior of the new place but though it lacks the charm of the old one, it’s certainly more spacious and comfortable. Nice collection of vinyl, mostly standard stuff with nothing too heavy. Good spot for either afternoon coffee or a night-time whiskey, and a welcome addition to the otherwise dull Akasaka area.
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.
Eagle is really the prototypical jazz cafe. It opened in 1967 in Yotsuya, right down the street from Sofia University, so four decades worth of college students have passed through the place along with the usual sleepy afternoon salarymen and jazz freaks. Its got all the usual jazz cafe bits (magazine reading material, fliers, expensive coffee) and a massive record collection. In the afternoons they put up a sign on the door announcing a ‘No Talking’ policy, keeping the focus on the music.
Last time I was there I got lucky as they played Grant Green’s”Matador” album on Blue Note, then Eric Dolphy`s “Live at the Five Spot” with Booker Little on trumpet. These sounded like completely different records to the ones I play at home on my tiny system. The music in the Eagle is kept loud and the sound system is crystal clear, so hearing old records in there is a whole new experience. It’s completely worth blowing off work for the afternoon to spend a few hours in there immersed in classic jazz records. The interior of Eagle has been redone so it doesn’t feel as old and atmospheric as some other cafes, but still has a place near the top of any Tokyo jazz joint list.
See photos of Eagle over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Jazz SPOT Intro in Takadanobaba is a tiny basement bar about 2 minutes walk from the station. In addition to the long-running Saturday night jam sessions (which go till 5 in the morning), there are live jams now Tuesday – Thursday from whomever shows up. It’s a very mellow place with no set line-up, the only regular being bar manager Inoue-san on alto sax. There’s a real old-school ‘jazz workshop’ vibe to the Intro, with the musicians communicating freely while running through standards.
Inoue-san acts as bandleader and bartender, pumping out swinging solos and then running behind the bar to refresh your drink while the band vamps. Try to make it on a Saturday as Japanese and foreign jazz musicians often pop in to sit in with the band. The level of play ranges from amateur/students up to professionals who stop in after midnight. Be prepared to give up some personal space and get there early if you`re in a larger group.
There are about 1500 vinyl records and 1000 cds placed around the bar for nights when there’s no live sets. I`ve heard everything from solo Keith Jarrett to the latest Japanese bossa-nova compilation there, so feel free to request anything. Intro is a unique place, and I have very fond memories of my weekly visits there during my student days.
Tokyo Jazz Joint photos of Intro can be seen here.
CLOSED Fall 2013.
Music fans know that Japan is a country filled with dedicated, serious, almost manic record collectors. Misho Yasushi, the now 76-year old owner of Jazz Pub Michaux is one of this breed. He’s a fan of hard-bop & soul-jazz and has over 4500 records in this genre, almost all of which are originals. Misho-san has a knowledge of obscure hard-bop/soul-jazz players and albums that is just stunning..I’ve been in the bar with professional jazz musicians who were blown away by the vinyl he kept pulling out. Baby-Face Willete, Willis Jackson, Melvin Sparks, Groove Holmes, Wilbur Harden, Bobby Hutcherson (yeah!)..you can sit for 5 hours and not stop dancing off your seat, it’s THAT funky here.
Just as good as the awesome music is the conversation with Misho-san. Bearded and usually in kimono with a Mongolian hat, he is full of stories about the 50s and 60s in Tokyo. Hanging out with Black American soldiers in the various jazz joints around town, drinking with Horace Silver, interviewing Thelonious Monk during his Japanese tour..Misho-san loves to chat. Unfortunately it’s only in Japanese so bring a friend who can translate if you don’t speak (though he’ll talk to you anyways even if you don’t).
Jazz Pub Michaux is really small even for a Tokyo jazz bar, so get there early if you want to stay for awhile. There really isn’t a more friendly or swinging jazz bar in town, so check it out while you still can. ￥1000 seating charge, as there’s only about 8 seats remember, the table charges help keep these special places open in a city with stupidly high rents. Just pay up and enjoy the chance to get a masterclass in 1950s and 60s jazz.
Hashi no Shita (橋 の下 means “Under The Bridge” in Japanese) is in Akasaka-Mitsuke on the main road outside the subway station, a long row filled with hostess bars and restaurants. Open as an afternoon “cafe” and evening “bar” they serve a lot of food and is particularly popular with the neighborhood business people for lunch.
They used to have small live sets of duos and trios with no table charge, but that doesn’t seem to happen much any more. It’s open till 4am so it’s a good spot to remember if you miss your train and need some jazz to get you through the night. Be sure to check out the wall of vinyl album covers.
Gate One is a small bar run by the husband and wife guitar-vocal duo Hashimoto-san and Kajiwara-san. They have live music at least three nights a week here with a ￥2000 cover-charge, very reasonable. Hashimoto-san sadly passed away in July 2021, but the bar remains open with a regular schedule of live sets.
The vocal+instrument live show is very common in Japan, often because of the limited space in the bars where having a full quintet can sometimes be difficult. These kinds of spots may a bit soft for some jazz fans, but they offer the most authentic ‘local’ feel of what many customers in Japan experience on their way home. The Gate One is warm and friendly and well worth a visit if you’re in Takadanobaba. Be sure to stop upstairs in Bar Stereo for a drink on your way out.
Body & Soul is one of the most historically important jazz clubs in Tokyo. Featuring many of the top local musicians but also regular groups from the US and Europe, B&S is along with the Pit Inn and Alfie one of the three most famous live spots in town. Owner Ms. Seki Kyoko is a major figure in the jazz scene for more than 50 years, knowing everyone in the jazz world here and overseas. (Visiting American jazz musicians will often stop by Body & Soul just to pay their respects, even if they are playing at another club.)
Different styles depending on the night (mostly mainstream, with a few more adventurous groups on occasion) and always packed, B&S is also the rare jazz joint with exceptionally good food, so you can plan on dinner & drinks along with the gig.
Unfortunately after 30+ years at their Omotesando location, Body & Soul is moving to a new space in Shibuya, right up the street from Tower Records, with the first gig scheduled for October 10th, 2021. Details coming soon on the new venue!
Jazz Nutty opened in 2009 next to the campus of Waseda University. The wonderful Mr.& Mrs. Aoki ran their own flower shop for 26 years before deciding to open their own cafe. It’s a small narrow place dominated by two out of this world speakers; this is a cafe for some serious jazz listening and not idle conversation.
All the drinks, including beer, are 500 yen. Closed on Tuesdays. All rejoice! A new jazz cafe is born in Tokyo, let’s all spend some money there so it survives!
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.
Kiri is a wonderful little basement spot in between Hibiya, Ginza and Yurakucho stations. It’s a small, square room that can seat about 15-20 people max. There’s live music on Saturday’s but other nights just master Naito-san’s vinyl collection. (Hank Mobley playing when I went in, major points for that.)
The vibe in Kiri is quiet and sophisticated without being snobby. Over 200 bottles of whiskey/scotch/bourbon behind the bar are an added attraction for serious drinkers. Pricey, so bring cash.
The Owl cafe in Ikebukuro was a great mystery to me as the first three times I went by it was closed, but a recent trek up to Ikebukuro on a Friday afternoon was a success as I finally made it inside.
It’s fairly small place with just a few tables and a long counter. Owner Ooshiba-san was welcoming though not particluarly chatty, sitting behind the counter and reading while I checked the out the joint. There is a corner wall unit full of records, CDs and jazz magazines, plus some great old posters on the other walls. The music ranged from vocal/swing to fusion while I was there; he seems to have an all-round collection.
There is the usual beer and whiskey on the menu but the Owl’s specialty is coffee (and the cake sets looked better than the usual jazz cafe snack options). Though the interior of the cafe seems quite old, Ooshiba-san said he’s been open for only 12 years. This was a surprise, it feels like a Showa-era jazz cafe. It closes early at 8pm so don’t go by expecting a long drinking session (it’s also closed on Saturdays).
Located on a dreary street in the shadow of the huge Sunshine City building, the Owl is a perfect spot to escape from the grime of Ikebukuro over coffee and good tunes. You’ll see the sign out on the street next to a Chinese restaurant and the posters lining the stairwell up to the shop.
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.
Montgomery Land opened up a couple of years ago just a short walk from Ikebukuro Station. It’s a standard issue narrow, basement bar with an incredible sound system. Master Iwasaki Yoshitsugu and his wife Kimiko-san run the place and are warm, chatty hosts. Within minutes of sitting down we were immersed in conversation about music and the Tokyo scene.
Iwasaki-san has a good collection covering all genres, with a lot of hard-bop records (and of course, a lot of Wes Montgomery albums.) Although it’s a small place they host semi-regular live events at very reasonable prices, usually 2000-2500 yen. Ikebukuro has a surprising number of nice jazz joints and Montgomery Land is another great addition to the list.
Paper Moon (ぺーぱーむーん) is a 15 seat L-shaped counter bar opened and run by the friendly Yamamoto-san since 1982..and except for the cds scattered around the place the decor or furniture doesn’t seem to have changed since ’82. And that’s a good thing, I like my jazz bars to have soul and to feel lived in.
Yamamoto-san plays a wide range of music here, from free to Latin to local Japanese musicians. The beer was cold and you can bottle-keep if you want to be a regular. The window was open and the lights were kept fairly low, just a perfect spot for night-time drinking and jazz listening. Paper Moon is classic, one of my favorite places in town, and no table charge makes it just about perfect. Warning: not for people who are put off by a bit of dust.
Photos of Paper Moon over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
I was walking through the back alleys of Kagurazaka, the “little Kyoto” area of Tokyo, and saw the magic word (jazz) on a sign. Unfortunately it was only 3pm so I had to come back at night to investigate further, but the Corner Pocket was worth the return trip. It’s a small hole in the wall which can’t hold more than 15-20 people but has a real warm vibe. The owner Matsura-san is incredibly friendly; within 30 seconds of me sitting down we got into a conversation about jazz and his little bar.
Matsura-san plays the trumpet, and opened the Corner Pocket in 1982. He spent some time in NYC soaking up the scene then came back to work as an “event producer”. He’s a huge swing fan but his collection of over 4000 records covers all genres, though you’ll often walk in to find him watching some concert DVD on his TV.
Amazingly for such a small place, Saturdays frequently have jam sessions with Matsura-san and a revolving cast of players. Matsura-san said on jam nights he clears out the two or three tables that are in the place and has people stand; with most of his customers regulars no one seems to mind and the atmosphere is always welcoming. I spent about half-an-hour just chatting with him and before leaving (but after using the “meditation room”, i.e. bathroom) promised I would come back soon for one of the jam sessions. Corner Pocket is no frills and don’t head there expecting a varied drinks menu or formal service; instead it’s a warm, cluttered, unpretentious joint where you’ll immediately be treated like a friend. Three cheers for Matsura-san!
Recent pics now up at tokyojazzjoints.com
Kenny’s Bar is by far the hippest place in not-so-hip Ikebukuro. It’s a small, dark joint with superb speakers and occasional live gigs. Many bonus points for the super-cool Mingus and Coltrane posters up in there, and for Kenny (Katakura-san) himself being so welcoming. Lots of hard-bop classics on the stereo and good chat sitting at the bar. One of my favorite places in town for a beer and some good music.
Big Boy is a tiny cafe/bar on a side street off the main road through Jinbocho, the old book shop area of Tokyo. It was opened ten years ago by ex-advertising man Hayashi-san, a very serious jazz collector. He right away started telling us about his large collection, as well as the names of other jazz cafes all around Japan. We immediately felt at home with the warm welcome by Hayashi-san and his wife.
The space is a small one, seating maybe a max of about 15 people. Hayashi-san has taken great care with his audio system and as a result, the sound in Big Boy is incredible. (Details on his web page about all the equipment.) There’s a vast amount of vinyl along with CDs behind the bar, all genres though Hayashi-san points out that unlike a lot of other jazz cafes, he plays a lot of contemporary jazz from Europe. There was a new CD by a Polish piano trio playing when I last visited, very swinging.
Big Boy isn’t the kind of place to go if you want to have an extended chat; the music is loud and the sound system so crisp, you’ll want to just sit back and enjoy the music. Open until 5pm as a cafe, then from 7pm as a bar. Take note: ￥1000 table charge at night. Photos of Big Boy over at Tokyo Jazz Joints
Kissa Ko is one of the older cafes in town but had a facelift in 2012 so now has an all new decor. It’s in the is back streets of Jimbocho in an Edo-style wooden house that seems to be one of those buildings that survived the war.The owners have kept some of the original furniture in the small second floor tatami-space, a very relaxing spot to linger in.
They specialize in gourmet coffee here and are open from 7:30am during the week for breakfast. The jazz is mostly standard stuff with some vocals, nothing too challenging but nothing too “lite” either. Kissa Ko is a great place to stop by after browsing the book shops in Jimbocho or even a late morning coffee before hitting the streets.
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.
The Adirondack Cafe is a unique jazz cafe and bar just off the main road through the Jinbocho area of Tokyo. It opened in 2008 and soon became well known among the town’s jazz fans for its food menu (burgers, Philly cheese-steaks). Most jazz cafes don’t focus too much on tasty grub, especially of the sandwich variety.
The room is small but warm, with a lot of great memorabilia hung on the walls. The couple that run it obviously have a liking of all things New York as there is a huge print of the Flatiron Building on one wall, in addition to the name of the place. (The Adirondacks are a range of hills in upstate New York). The music in the joint is a mix of classic vocal jazz albums and some more modern stuff, nothing too extreme and pretty much the perfect volume for both listening and conversing. There’s live music once or twice a week, mostly trios or duos who play by the piano along the wall at the back of the shop.
I didn’t get to speak with the owners on my last visit to learn more about them and what they did before opening Adirondack, will have to go back soon to get the scoop. Photos of Adirondack over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Jazz Olympus was opened by the very friendly Komatsu-san in 2009. It’s a sleek cafe/bar that is already well known in the area for it’s lunch-time menu (rare is the jazz cafe with good food!). Komatsu-san has a nice collection of about 4000 records and CDs in the place, with some beautiful album covers hanging on a few of the walls. His collection is mainly from the 50s and 60s but not exclusively, and he’ll play any genre of jazz depending on the time of day. When I was there on a sleepy, rainy Monday afternoon it was Anita O’Day coming out of the exquisite sounding speakers.
Komatsu-san also has record sharing and record release events at the cafe about once a month. There are flyers by the front door but don’t be afraid to ask him about them if you can’t read Japanese. Olympus is another great spot on the now plentiful Ochanomizu jazz joint map.
Non-smoking until 2pm.
Grauers is a new cafe/bar opened August, 2011. Owner Furusho Shinjiro is a long time jazz journalist in Tokyo whose major project in recent years was a massive documentation of the complete Riverside Jazz Records discography. This book and many others by Furusho-san and other jazz writers are in a cabinet in the cafe available for customers to poke through.
It’s a fair sized cafe with one counter area as you walk in and some non-smoking seats in the are to the back. There’s a lot of wine and fancy snacks on the menu and with the minimal decor I think it works better as a nighttime bar rather than an afternoon cafe.
The space is dominated by two huge speakers along the back wall. Furusho-san informed me these are not for sale to the general public and were acquired from a recording studio. The sound was exquisite. Overall, Grauers is a happy new addition to the Tokyo jazz scene.
Naru in Ochanomizu first opened in 1969 as the sister live spot to the Naru jazz cafe in the Yoyogi neighborhood, and remains a popular live spot after 50 years for the high quality of local musicians that appear nightly, both Japanese and other nationalities. It’s a small, dinner-club type of jazz club and the food is actually very good at Naru so it’s worth stopping by at lunchtime just to eat and listen to some records. The chef is from Madagascar and cooks up a range of dishes, mainly Italian but the menu changes often.
Owned by sax-player Ishizaki Shinobu, the lineup features some of Tokyo’s best gigging jazz musicians hosting monthly gigs, with the occasional one-off shows as well. There is no stage and the tables are all very close together, some close enough to touch the grand piano along the back wall. (Like many Tokyo jazz establishments, some overseas customers may find the room slightly claustrophobic). But this greatly adds to the intimacy, and listening to a band grooving so close to your table is an unbeatable experience.
Naru is one of the best no-nonsense live clubs in town for jazz that’s not too light, but won’t scare away those customers who can’t handle free/more experimental jazz styles. A bargain too at only ￥2500 (US$ 22) plus drink charges for all three sets.
Jazz Bar Gugan is a small bar in the east side of Tokyo, near both the Ochanomizu and Jimbocho areas. It was opened about 8 years ago by the friendly Yamamoto-san. You wouldn’t think it possible in such a small bar but there is live music once a twice a month. Yamamoto-san has a big collection of CDs (he was playing some live Wes Montgomery when I was last there) and quite a lot of whiskey. It’s a great place to stop by for a couple of drinks after some dinner or shopping in Jimbocho or Kanda.
(“Gugan” is a song by famous local pianist Yamashita Yosuke)
Root Down moved down the street just 30 meters from it’s original spot, it’s now
Root Down is worthy of its funky name. (For those who don’t know look up the song “Root Down” by Jimmy Smith.) It’s a small bar opened about eight years ago by the very friendly Yoshikawa-san. The place is dark but cozy with several thousand records and CDs, and two speakers that just..I don’t have the technical audio vocabulary to describe how good these speakers sound. When you sit at the bar, the speakers are up high behind you meaning the sound comes down and surrounds you from the back. Listening to Ba obby Hutcherson record there, the sound of his vibes was like nothing else.
Double extra points for the brass plaque next to the bar with a quote from Sam Cooke. Yoshikawa-san plays a lot of different styles of jazz to please all kinds of tastes, all on vinyl, and his happy to talk about the music despite the late-night atmosphere. Check his Twitter feed for a real-time update of what’s being played. Root Down is dark and expensive so is best experienced late at night for an extended drinks session. Cash only. See pics of Root Down over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
The Eigakan (映画館 “Movie Theater) is a jazz cafe for both jazz lovers and cinephiles. Owner Yoshida-san has worked in the film world for several decades and made several documentaries. He has filled the Eigakan with vintage European film posters from the 60s and hundreds of old film journals and magazines. (Be sure to ask him to show you the three-volume photo book by Takase Susumu, the pics of old movie palaces around Japan in the 50s & 60s were amazing.)
Yoshida-san opened the place “sometime in the late 70s” (he couldn’t remember the exact date) and said the name comes from when he and some film friends first found the space for a showing of Imamura Shohei’s film “Pigs and Battleships”. It slowly transformed into a jazz cafe and now has only the rare film showing.. I’m tempted to ask him to pull down some of the dusty 16mm film cans he has on the shelves to get some film events started again..
Yoshida-san is a huge Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy fan and also features a lot of rare Eastern European jazz records in the cafe. He’s very chatty when the place is not busy and will be happy to talk jazz, films and art with you. On my last visit he pulled out a map of the neighborhood to show me two more jazz spots I had not heard of..guys with the warm heart of Yoshida-san really do make the world a better place. Viva Eigakan. Photos of Eigakan over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Open from 1600 most days.
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.
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.
Charmant opened in 1955 and certainly looks and feels its age. It’s a tiny bar on the second floor of a rickety building in Nippori, right at the edge of the Yanaka Ginza Shopping Street, a very old part of working-class Tokyo that is filled with traditional mom & pop shops (and some hip coffee houses, a sign of gentrification perhaps?)
The original owner died last year, but 4 years earlier had sold the bar and all its records to a long-time customer, dentist Ishioka-san. Ishioka-san is some kind of character; he immediately greets you in loud English while pouring drinks, dancing to the music and sneaking a smoke or two. He told me he still owns his dental clinic so only opens the bar three nights a week (Wed, Fri, Sat) for now as a hobby. In addition to the usual liquor he keeps the bar stocked with some rather rare and expensive bourbon, and kindly gave us a free shot on our first visit.
The music in Charmant is loud so don’t go in expecting lengthy conversations. Ishioka-san told three Japanese customers, clearly first-timers, that ‘sorry, I can’t turn down the volume’ when they requested such. Now THAT’S a jazz bar owner. The music is all vinyl, all classic and modern jazz. A regular customer in there told me on Friday nights after 8pm, some of the regulars will come by with vinyl to put on the bar, which Ishioka-san will then play. It’s that kind of joint; the music comes first.
Words can’t capture the magic feeling inside an old jazz bar like this. If you’re at all a fan of old jazz joints then Charmant is a must-visit. You’ll easily feel yourself transported back to 1961 when Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers visited the bar while on tour in Japan. Check pics of Charmant here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
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 & Coffee Swan first opened in 1965 and still retains every bit of ambiance from that golden age of jazz cafe culture, right down to the large portrait of John Coltrane hanging in the front corner near the door. Located in distant Shin-Tokorozawa just over the border of Tokyo within Saitama Prefecture, Swan is a place spoken of often by jazz kissaten customers I have met around town, referred to as one of the few remaining cafes from the old days.
Swan feels fairly roomy; the space is rectangular shaped with the bar along the right side and a small area by the back for live performances (about twice a week, with occasional jam sessions on Sundays). There are a few tables along the left wall, and some seats at the counter; if full the place could fit about 25 or so. Behind the bar are about 5000+ original records, partially hidden by one of those sliding shelve units with bottles of booze and glasses stacked on it. First Bud Powell, then Art Pepper was playing when I went in.
The current owner Sutou-san is a genial host; he was happy to chat with me about the joint and other jazz spots around western Tokyo and Saitama, answering all my questions and introducing me to one of the regulars (shout out to Mr. Hiroo there for buying me a beer.) Sutou-san took over Swan from the original owner about 15 years ago, inheriting all the records and keeping the place pretty much as is. Being much younger than many jazz cafe owners though he’s fully engaged online with both a Twitter account and Facebook page, making it easy to get updates about events and opening times.
Swan really does have it all; the records, the booze, the conversation, and that gorgeous Coltrane on the wall. It’s well worth the trip out west for an afternoon or evening there. See more pics of Swan over at Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Nefertiti lives up to its very lofty name as it’s one of the finest jazz spots in the entire Tokyo metro area. The owner Kurita-san is an extremely friendly host; he is an ex-teacher who opened the cafe after retiring several years back. (He has a long history with jazz and told us some hysterical stories of working in a ‘jazz curry’ shop when younger, then meeting his wife there as she was a regular customer).
The joint is quite a bit larger than the average jazz spot with plenty of seats and a small stage toward the back window where there are live sets once or twice a week. There’s a lot of natural light too, a nice change from the usual dark and dingy jazz bar feel. But by far the main attraction in Nefertiti is the ridiculously good sound system; Kurita-san proudly showed us several profiles of Nefertiti in Japanese audio magazines. (For those who know, here are the specs: JBL S4700, fet cr-nf equalizr amp MODEL FET99 / marantz SUPER AUDIO CD PLAYER SA-14S1 / Stereo control center C-200L)
Kurtia-san has a huge collection with some especially rare experimental/free jazz albums; I was really surprised and impressed to see a live Don Pullen bootleg album from the 70s just casually lying on a table. It’s not just heavy free jazz on the system though; the first record he put on for us to hear the audio system was some fusion-guitar from the 80s and there are plenty of jazz vocal albums hanging up above the seats so you’ll get all styles of music here.
Nefertiti is a bit of a trek as it’s a little far from Masuo Station but it’s more than worth the time it takes to get there. Opening hours may be a bit flexible so if you’re planning on going for a bit of a session then good idea to call or send a message ahead of time. See pics of Nefertiti 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.