Tokyo Jazz Joints Hits #100 – One Day Up North: Part 1

All good things have to come to an end, right? (Well, perhaps not, but more on that later..) Two years and three months into the Tokyo Jazz Joints photo project and we’re near the finish line as my partner on this adventure, photographer Philip Arneill, is getting ready to leave Japan.

A few weeks back after some back and forth about what to do as we approached our 100th jazz joint visited, we decided to forget any geographical designations about ‘Tokyo Jazz Joints’ (and to be honest, we’ve already included some Kansai region joints anyways) and make the trip up north to visit Basie, the mecca of jazz cafe culture in Japan. It seemed like every other cafe owner and customer we’d met on this long jazz project had mentioned Basie, saying we must go visit, that it was the gold standard for jazz kissaten in Japan, etc etc; 縁がある (It was fated) as is said in Japanese.

The Tohoku region is a trek from Tokyo, 460km north to our first stop. We mapped out an ambitious 24 hours aiming to get to at least 5 jazz spots in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, ending the night in Sendai city to reach the 100 mark. With very infrequent local trains in the countryside and far distances, this was going to require pinpoint scheduling.

But Jazz joints don’t open until noon at the earliest so I decided to zoom up on the shinkansen very early to go see Chusonji the spectacular 12th century temple in Hiraizumi village. 5am wake up call, 7am train and there I was making the beautiful walk up a  lovely tree-lined hill towards Chusonji at 0930.

img_6465My buddy Justin lives up in Iwate and came over to Chusonji to meet me; we had a good catch up while walking around the gorgeous temple grounds, then hopped the train back a few stations to Ichinoseki to pick up Philip and start the day. The schedule was tight and I had proposed having an early lunch then getting straight to Basie, but Philip wisely and rightly said since we were here let’s try and fit in the Royce Jazz Cafe first, if only for a few minutes. And what a good idea that was!

Royce is one of the more unique spots we’ve visited, and that’s saying a lot. Way far from Ichinoseki station, Royce is a combination small liquor store on the right, jazz cafe on the left. The owner Mr. Gonbei Nanashima was surprised when I rang the bell (surprised would be an understatement, more like astonished..) and asked me ‘are you here for the jazz?’ Indeed we are, sir. Three tall, lanky foreign guys have taken the bullet train just to come to your fine establishment. Nanashima-san kindly let us in and then explained about his astounding audio system, which includes the same model speakers as used in the famous Abbey Road Studios in London.

Royce itself is really nothing more than a living room with some sofas facing the wall of speakers. It’s a joint for serious listening, no doubt, and given that it’s in the middle of nowhere you can be sure the customers are no just random walk-ins.

In between the audio talk Nanashima-san peppered us with questions about ourselves, then very curiously asked if we were aware of the left-right brain differences between Westerners and Japanese and how this affects the way we hear music…um, no, not really up to speed on that theory but I’ll look it up.

We explained more about our project taking pictures in jazz spots, then said we’d have to zoom to get to Basie, back closer to the station. Nanashima-san insisted on driving us over there, while refusing to take any money for the coffee. What a star, another kind and gracious host in the jazz world, there have been so many over the last several years; never ceases to amaze me.

So we got a lift over to Basie which is a bit closer to Ichinoseki Station, and I started to get excited, nervous, jumpy. Calling ahead to check the opening hours at Basie a few days earlier, my dear Mrs. Jazz had said the owner was quite brusque and unfriendly on the phone…what if he was as intimidating in person? What if the place was a disappointment after all the build up and expectation? The wall of flyers at the entrance was my first hint that, NO, I would not be disappointed here.

img_6478Look at the names there! Hank Jones and Peter Brotzmann were coming all the way up north HERE to play gigs in a cafe?  We entered Basie and immediately, I was smitten. That feeling you get if a beautiful woman smiles at you? Or when you come up from the subway in New York and get your first look at Manhattan and the skyscrapers and feel all the energy? That’s how I get when I enter a gorgeous jazz joint. Look at this:

img_6480The vinyl! And that’s only the wall behind the bar, there were records lining two other walls around the side where we sat. After ordering some drinks, I went up to talk to Sugawara-san, the legendary owner of Basie. This guy is like a god in the insular world of jazz in Japan, as Basie is now world-famous for its JBL audio system, on top of the decades of great live gigs they’ve hosted. I nervously went over to introduce myself and explain our project, and that I know many friends of acquaintances of his…and he smiled broadly, told me to sit down, and call my crew over.

Before we could even say another word more drinks arrived at the table, and Sugawara-san asked us about our project, very kindly answering our questions about Basie’s incredible history. Was that poster over there, did Elvin Jones and Freddie Hubbard really play here? Oh yes, they did, several times. We drank a lot together.  My goodness…and that famous JBL audio system? Oh sure, I get foreign music people coming here every few weeks or so to take pictures and write about it..from the US, week J-Wave (Japanese radio broadcaster) will be here to interview me and profile the shop..What’s this record playing? Oh that’s J.J. Johnson, he never came here but most of his band did when there were in Japan..the casualness with which he talked about all this struck me. If Elvin Jones and Freddie Hubbard played in my bar I would be talking of it constantly.

But it’s not just the old days that makes Basie so special. As the flyers out front advertised, it’s still a vibrant and functioning live spot in addition to being almost the perfect cafe & bar. Having seen so many gorgeous old jazz cafes close down over the last ten years, it was sincerely a great relief to hear that Basie was still thriving.

Phillip stood up to go take pics all round the joint, including the upstairs space that looks down on the main area, while Justin and I sat at the table drinking and talking with Sugawara-san. Then his very old pal Shimaji-san came in and sat down, receiving a glass of wine within seconds. Take a look at these two bosses:

img_64881pm on a Saturday and they’re hitting the wine and cigars, not giving one f#$k about anything. 75 and 76 years old; may we all be living it like that when we get there. (And they kept their sunglasses on the whole time..)

Sugawara-san was kind enough to give me a copy of the Japanese magazine Switch that had a nice photo spread of Basie and interview with him. Even though he’s been interviewed many times and visited by people from around the world, I could sense he was impressed by our project, with our effort and dedication so far, and our deep love for these jazz spots.  Philip and I debated whether to skip our train and wait for the later one but realized that Basie was so hypnotic and perfect that we’d likely stay all day and miss everywhere else. I explained we had to go and catch the next train, we received an  absurdly low bill of only ¥3000 (about US$25, when we easily drank enough to cost three times that) and then the waitress said to come along, she’d drive us to the station. Unreal kindness from everyone up north. I had to snap a pic with Sugawara-san before we left:

img_6485What a thrill. And to think we were debating whether it was worth going up there..

Feeling more than a bit tipsy from the early drinking, and in high spirits from the wonderful experience at Basie, we got a lift back to Ichinoseki station and hopped onto the Shinkansen again to head further north to Mizusawa, on our way to visit the Ray Brown cafe, where more unexpected thrills awaited us..


(Part 2 coming soon..)



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Mr. OK Jazz is a 20+ year resident of Japan and spends all his free time wandering the Kanto area looking for jazz cafes, bars, clubs and record stores. For two years he hosted the OK Jazz radio show on InterFM Radio, currently the OK Jazz podcast. You can reach him at *protected email*