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.
Located in the in historic Bashamichi area of downtown Yokohama, Airegin is one of the best live clubs in the Tokyo Metro Area. Owned by the friendly Umemoto-san,who took over from the original owners in 1980, Airegin has since 1972 been one of the key spots in Yokohama for live jazz, particularly for those groups and musicians on the more experimental side.
The history inside the club is remarkable, with a who’s who of Japanese jazz legends like Yamashita Yousuke and Hayashi Eiichi having played their regulalry for years, but with also an incredible number of overseas musicians like Mal Waldron and Woody Shaw having done gigs. Airegin has also for many years been the spot to see some of Europe’s top jazz musicians (the website currently features rotating photos that include Peter Brotzmann from Germany and Han Bennink from Holland, though of course during the pandemic there have not been any acts visiting from overseas).
The space is a cosy room that can seat up to 30 fairly comfortably, though seating arrangements can change depending on the lineup of any given gig. The decor is everything you expect and love about classic old Japanese jazz joints, with the walls covered in old posters and framed portraits. Tables are small so be ready to sit very close to others in the audience. The live charge is usually ￥2500 (about USD22) though can be higher for special events; check Umemoto-san’s blog for the updated schedules and live rates. (Note: the website is a little confusing and sometimes not updated right away, so check the twitter feed for more up to the minute announcements)
Yokohama has a long history with jazz and Airegin remains perhaps the best place to experience that history, while also listening to cutting edge live music. Now Non-Smoking during all gigs.
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!
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.
Someday is a nice, spacious club in Shinjuku, well known for their various big band and Latin jazz nights. Plenty of foreign musicians on the roster as well as local acts, a fairly good food menu and you only pay one entry fee for both sets. Great place for some live tunes before doing some late night jazz bar hopping in Golden Gai or Shinjuku San-Chome neighborhoods. Extra bonus points for the ‘classic’ website that has a lot of friendly English on it.
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.
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.
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
The ‘New Dug’ in Shinjuku is a cafe/bar with a complex back story. It was the annex bar to the original Dug, a legendary jazz bar/club in the heart of Shinjuku, owned by photographer Hozumi Nakadaira. This version of Dug opened a few doors down the street but without live music; sadly several years ago the original Dug closed its doors for good as the building it was in was torn down..in some of Nakadaira-san’s photographs you can see the original place hosting some of jazz’ greatest musicians as they dropped by while in Tokyo.
What do you need to know about this version of Dug then? It’s small, dark, and underground with a great whiskey selection to go with the usual beers and cocktails. There are several of Nakadaira-san’s photographs hanging around the cafe, as well as a large Miles Davis painting. The music is always good, with a special emphasis on hard-bop albums.
Dug is a perfect escape from the bustle of Shinjuku, suitable for some quiet time with jazz and a drink or a chat with a friend. It gets two extra points for the great postcards of jazz musicians on sale for only ￥100, all copies of Nakadaira-san’s original pictures. I strongly recommend you drop by Dug as part of a Shinjuku jazz joint crawl, it’s an essential part of the jazz history of Tokyo. Open daily from 12noon. See more pics of Dug over at tokyojazzjoints.com
Jazz Room Stick is a great old jazz joint in the heart of Shinjuku, located almost directly behind the Studio Alta building. It was first opened in 1970 (‘When Shinjuku was burning!’) by the wonderfully jovial Wariya-san. The place seats about 25, either at the bar or at the low tables towards the back wall.
The room is dominated by the print on the back wall, a photo of fusion-era funky Miles Davis and Jack DeJohnette. On the other side are numerous under-water photos; Wariya-san is a licensed scuba-diving instructor and even at age 74 still dives now and then. The right wall has postcards featuring movie-posters from all of Kurosawa Akira’s career. Quite a random and cool mix of decor, surrounding some vintage 1970s furniture.
Wariya-san has a good-sized collection of vinyl behind the bar, though I have noticed that when it gets busy he puts on a mix-cd of jazz “classics”. I’d prefer he hit the vinyl of course but the atmosphere makes up for it as the Stick is a lively place, perfect for those times you want to drink and be merry in a jazz joint..and probably get a bit loaded when Wariya-san brings out some of his home-made umeshu (plum wine) on the house or starts pouring from his collection of Polish gin. Stick is old school; get down there for a drink while you still can. No website, twitter or Facebook. ‘I’m an analog man, no internet!’ – Wariya-san
Photos of Stick here at Tokyo Jazz Joints.com
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.
The Old Blind Cat in Shinjuku has a long and fascinating history, as much as any jazz bar in town. It’s located down in the second basement (B2) of a building right across from the East Exit of JR Shinjuku station, and dates to 1945 when it opened amidst the rough blackmarket that sprung up the day the war ended.
The bar passed through several owners’ hands before the current owner Kikuchi-san acquired it in 1965. Longtime bartender Nishizaki-san ran the place while Kikuchi-san ran another joint over in the Shinjuku-San Chome neighborhood. (Nishizaki-san has been ill recently and is taking some time off; both these guys are in their mid-70s) During this time the OBC was a popular jazz bar amidst the chaotic Shinjuku streets of the 60s & 70s. World famous author Haruki Murakami even worked there briefly during his student days and loved it so much he opened his own jazz bar before focusing full time on writing.
The bar itself is old and charming, a railroad-car shape with a long counter bar along the left side, small booths along the right side. It’s dark and there are no windows; this is not a bar for anyone even slightly claustrophobic or cannot be around second-hand smoke. The music is standard jazz though with a lot of contemporary live DVDs showing on the large TV hung above the bar. Last time I was there a Roy Hargove live set from Smalls in New York was playing.
The OBC is probably a bit heavy for casual jazz fans (B2, smoke, etc) but if you’re a veteran jazz bar hunter then you will love it, as I do. See pics of OBC 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.
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
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 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.
It’s all about vinyl at Hal’s Jazz. Owner Ikeda-san keeps a few racks of cds in the corner but pretty much concerns himself with the wax, and he’s got a serious selection packed into the small shop. The range of classic, original Blue Note albums, as well as the 70s free jazz section is very impressive as is the Japanese Jazz rack. The most unique thing about Hal’s is probably the large number of European jazz albums available. I was really tempted by an orignal Polish issue of Krystof Komeda’s ‘Astigmatic’, one of the best European jazz albums ever recorded and on sale for ￥8000 (about US$90). I wasn’t so tempted by an original copy of `The Artistry of Nunzio Rotondo` selling for a tidy ￥420,000..forty-five hundred dollars for Nunzio? Seeing albums like this for sale, and having Ikeda-san confirm that he sells such expensive albums regularly, really shows you the love and appreciation Japanese jazz fans have for the music.
Ikeda-san or his son, who is there more often these days, are happy to chat with you and to put stuff on the store system for you to give a listen. Their knowledge is unmatched; I brought my free-jazz label boss friend from Chicago there for a visit and he was stunned that Ikeda-san was familiar with even the most obscure acts on his roster. Both father and son speak some English so it’s worth a visit just to have a browse and some conversation. The Ikedas are proof of how jazz in Tokyo is never going to die.
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.
Samurai is located in the building that used to house the Shinjuku Pit-Inn before they moved to their current location. When you enter to the left off the elevator you immediately are taken into another era, face to face with a 5-foot manneke-neko (招き猫`lucky cat figurine`). These cat figurines are omnipresent at the entrance to Japanese eateries and shops, beckoning in customers with a raised paw. Inside the Samurai are more than 2500 of these lucky cat figurines spread throughout the interior, hanging from the walls, piled in cabinets, in paintings and in photos. Some frowning, some scowling, some with a serene smile..it’s an awesome site. Hanging on the walls are scrolls of haiku calligraphy, left wing underground theater posters plus some seemingly right-wing nationalist Japanese propoganda..a bewildering mix that adds to the mysterious atmosphere.
In between the cats and the scrolls there are signed album sleeves on the wall, from owner Miyazaki-san`s time in New York in the 1970’s. The music reflects Miyazaki-san’s maverick character; in one visit I heard John Zorn, James Carter, Count Basie, Abdullah Ibrahim and Big John Patton..quite a mix of styles in one sitting, and all glorious. Dark, quiet, extremely peaceful..with the cats making it just a tiny bit unsettling,the Samurai is a place that lends itself to contemplation.
Miyazaki-san is usually there early on Saturday afternoons for “cafe time” but call first. And be sure to look for the postcard on the front door, it will explain the origin of the name “Samurai”..and it’s not what you think..
Tokyo Jazz Joint photos of Samurai can be seen here.
I found this tiny gem of a jazz cafe amidst the chaos that is Kabukicho in Shinjuku. It is a small place run by Kawashima-san, an exceptionally friendly lady with a taste for free jazz. She’s got a nice vinyl collection in the wall cabinet, the usual Japanese jazz magazines for browsing, and some surprisingly delicious coffee on the menu. (Bonus point for the vintage pink payphone which may or may not work.)
What really knocked me out about the place were the photos to the right of the bar, some old, out-of-focus shots of guys playing by the window in the front of the cafe. I thought I recognized one of the musicians..a guy with dreadlocks playing the trumpet..it was Leo Smith! Then in another picture a guy with a huge grey beard blowing into a sax..Evan Parker! Turns out that up until a few years ago, Kawashima-san would have live solo gigs in the cafe, featuring some really extreme players like Smith, Parker and even Charles Gayle. Imagine hearing Charles Gayle play a live solo gig in that space… Unfortunately Kawashima-san said they stopped doing the gigs (no reason offered when I asked)..Maybe we can get a petition going to start them up again? The world needs more free-jazz cafes.
Photos here at tokyojazzjoints.com
In 2013 Black Sun moved from it’s long time home in Nishi-Shinjuku to the heart of Kabukicho. Now in it’s 41st year, owner Ujie-san has been there from the beginning. He’s an extremely mellow and friendly guy who will drink and smoke along with the customers while chatting. I hadn’t been there for maybe five years but he remembered me.
The new Black Sun is a bit different to the old place, more open and with space for some live music (once a week, generally.) The tunes are all genres and the crowd of regulars are very welcoming. Considering that a lot of the bars in Kabukicho are either boring chain-type ones or those catering to ‘adult’ tastes, having a first-class jazz bar open up there is super welcome. I always enjoyed the old Black Sun and look forward to enjoying the new one as well on subsequent visits. ¥1000 charge.
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.
How can I describe this place? It’s small, dark and old; owner Otsuka-san was surly and uncommunicative the first three times I went; it’s expensive and the seats are uncomfortable..yet I quickly fell in love with Shiramuren. There is a certain kind of jazz-bar cool that is hard to convey in words; think of any Japanese film from the 1960s, where the main character was downing whiskey and peanuts in a dark joint called something like “Bar Luna”, with the bright sign hanging out the front window..this is Shiramuren for me.
Otsuka-san is unique, even for a Tokyo jazz bar owner (you`ll notice right away that he only has one arm.) He’s owned the place for more than thirty years so is by now used to making drinks and changing CDs (CDs only in Shiramuren). My first time there “No pictures” was all he said when I tried my best polite Japanese, asking for permission. By the third visit he warmed up a bit and though he went on a bit of a rant saying that “Jazz was dead in Tokyo, and young people don’t know the music, etc etc” he seemed to appreciate my interest. He also was very open about recommending other bars around town.
He has a very diverse collection of music behind the bar; the Frank Wess CD he played (tenor sax quartet + harp) my first time there really blew me away. After that was an electric klezmer cd, then some down-home Jimmy Smith. Sunday evenings at Shiramuren used to be ‘free jazz night’, but it doesn’t always happen these days. Otsuka-san will probably mix in some experimental stuff anyways even if it’s not an official ‘free jazz night’ so be prepared for it.
I am sucker for 1960s jazz nostalgia and have also watched way too many Japanese movies from that era..it was a given that Shiramuren would be one of my favorite jazz bars in Tokyo.
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.
Curtis is one of my favorite bars in Tokyo. As the name gives away, this is a soul music bar with an impressive collection of vinyl. Owner Ryutaro-san keeps the tunes flowing, jumping back and forth from behind the bar to hit the two decks. He also hosts DJ nights and parties; although it’s a small space there is also a roof patio where people can hang out and still hear the music.
I had many great nights in Curtis over the years, chatting music with Ryutaro and his very knowledgeable regular customers. Highly recommended spot.
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.
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!’
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 Tweeter was opened a couple of years ago by long-time hotel restaurant chef Ishizuka-san. He’s a real friendly guy that spent three years wandering Tokyo’s jazz joints, collecting information and learning before opening his own place. Obviously we hit it off and chatted immediately.
Being a chef, Ishizuka-san takes pride in his lunch menu (note:lunch not available on Saturdays). He also emphasized that he built the entire speaker system (as well as the bicycles and fishing equipment hanging on the walls)from scratch by himself. He takes pride in knowing audio equipment and the sound in the cafe is indeed amazing, with the volume just at the right level.
Tweeter is open on weekdays from 1130 and closes at 2330, operating as a local lunch spot, afternoon cafe and evening bar. Be sure to check out the extensive Blue Note collection on CD near the kitchen and the great collection of jazz photographs hung around the walls.
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.
The Vagabond is a classic joint right next to the West Exit of Shinjuku station. I think the review from the Japan Times in 2002 pretty much says it all. Have a drink downstairs to start, then head up for some food when the live music starts. Lots of good pictures on the website.
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.
Pearl Bar is a real sleek “grown up” jazz bar in the center of Shinjuku. Lots of cocktails, nightly piano & vocal/instrument duo live music, ‘romantic’ view out the long bar window. It’s a nice place to take your customers or a first date to. The music is fine, nothing to write home about. A quick look at the website is enough to tell you all about the place.
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!
This is a quiet piano bar with live music nightly though more BGM style, not really a live club. Nice for a relaxed drink though a bit soft for my tastes..more for a client or romantic pursuits than real jazz listening.
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.
Kissa Sakaiki gives me hope that the spirit of the Japanese jazz-kissaten will survive. Owner Fukuchi-san is a passionate and dedicated guy who represents the new breed of jazz kissa owners. In his mid-30s, Fukichi-san has a great awareness and respect for the jazz kissa tradition in Japan, but is also fully engaged with the modern scene. He’s created a space for people who love music and art to gather and engage with one another, something not always easy to do in a city that can be as alienating as Tokyo.
There is simultaneously a very Japanese sensibility and European aesthetic at Kissa Sakaiki. Be prepared to remove your shoes and navigate a beautiful Japanese-script menu (someone will assist you if you can’t read it), while soaking in the tea-salon like decor. My favorite thing to look at is the wooden chest along the back wall, upon which lay an extensive collection of vintage match books from old jazz kissaten in Tokyo, many of which are now closed down. The music leans toward the experimental side of jazz with a lot of European hatOLOGY and ECM label recordings alongside American free giants like David Murray.
Kissa Sakaiki is a small space with a side room that is used for live performances, art exhibitions, “record concerts” (people bringing records to listen to and talk about) and calligraphy lessons. The customers are usually regulars including many musicians, artists and designers. Fukuchi-san will always take the time to introduce you to everyone in the place, making conversation easy and relaxed. It takes a special kind of talent to create such a vibe: I think all Tokyo jazz fans are lucky that Kissa Sakaiki exists to take us into the 21st century jazz scene.
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.