The Japanese are fascinated with things American.
Baseball has become the island nation’s favorite sport. McDonald’s hamburgers are selling by the billions. American pop stars sell out Tokyo Stadium in a snap.
And American jazz--which went through a boom in Japan when Sony was still mainly in the transistor radio business and Ford was bigger than Toyota--has now settled into a comfortable niche in the Japanese cultural consciousness. It has achieved a solid, relatively high level of public support that, by some measures, far exceeds its position in the United States.
--By some estimates, jazz recordings account for as much as 15% of the $2-billion-a-year Japanese record business.
--Jazz musicians from superstar Miles Davis to the far lesser known saxophonist Michael Brecker often appear in Japanese TV commercials. Davis, who has appeared in ads in the United States, appears in commercials for the Suntory liquor firm. Brecker does the same for All Nippon Airways, the country’s largest domestic carrier.
--Japanese reissues of a classic American jazz albums--with their perfect cover reproduction, extensive liner notes and gorgeous fidelity--set an industry standard and are of a quality rarely found in U.S.-released albums.
--Swing Journal, the country’s thick, ad-filled monthly jazz magazine has no equal in the United States. Its August issue ran 344 pages.
“The Japanese audience for jazz is the largest it’s ever been,” claims record producer and journalist Kiyoshi Koyama, “though I don’t know if the quality is better or worse.”
Once, however, there was little doubt about the audience.
In Japan during the ‘60s and ‘70s, American jazz music was greeted with an almost feverish response. The era was called the Funky Boom.
“In 1961, when (drummer) Art Blakey’s quintet first appeared in Tokyo, it was a sensational success,” recalled Koyama. “There was a good chance that the delivery man from a fast-food store could whistle ‘Moanin’ ’ (a popular, blues-based tune by then-Blakey pianist Bobby Timmons).”
These days, many observers believe that Japanese interest in jazz--both mainstream and jazz/fusion--has leveled off, if not waned.
“Jazz is not really that popular in Japan,” said Toshiko Akiyoshi, the Japanese bandleader-composer-pianist who has lived in the United States since the mid-'50s. “It has about the same kind of following there that you find anywhere in the world.”
“Jazz used to be rare; now it’s almost common to see three or four American groups performing somewhere in Japan. There’s not the same impact as before,” Koyama said from his home in Tokyo.
Koyama will participate in a panel discussion on “Japan and Jazz” Friday, part of the seventh annual JazzTimes convention. The convention, an industry-wide gathering, is being held on the West Coast for the first time. It runs today through Saturday at the Universal Sheraton in Universal City. (See accompanying article for details.)
Jazz has always played back-row fiddle to pop music, and in Japan, things are no different.
“Sting, Bon Jovi, acts like these are 100 times more popular in Japan than any jazz artists,” said Koyama.
To compare concert attendance, an estimated 40,000 fans attended the mainstream-oriented, three-day Mt. Fuji Blue Note Festival held in late August. Pop stars Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson and Madonna packed 50,000-seat venues, with many fans turned away, on their recent tours.
It makes sense, then, that jazz/fusion artists like Chick Corea and Dave Sanborn outdraw most mainstream artists, though some people like Sarah Vaughan “always do well,” said Koyama.
Most American artists look forward to touring there, for a variety of reasons.
“It was beautiful just being over there,” said saxophonist Harold Land, who played in Japan twice last year.
“Musicians are well-received and treated as artists should be, with respect,” said Akiyoshi.
There are fringe benefits to appearing in Japan. “Many musicians are getting lucrative on-camera work,” said Don Lucoff, head of national publicity for MCA Records and moderator of the “Japan and Jazz” panel.
“Michael Brecker, who tours Japan two or three times a year . . . (will) probably never do a TV commercial (in the United States).”
Both Akiyoshi and saxophonist Sonny Rollins go to Japan about once every two years. “We don’t want to wear out our welcome,” said Lucille Rollins, the reedman’s wife and manager.
“Since concert ticket prices are high ($20 to $40), listeners have to pick and choose,” said Akiyoshi. “People write me, saying ‘Last year we went to hear Oscar Peterson, this year we’ll go see you.’ ”
Concerts are often sponsored by major corporations like JVC, Sony, Budweiser and Suntory, and these most often feature name American artists. “You don’t see many Japanese on those,” said Koyama.
If people don’t always attend concerts, they certainly buy recordings. Koyama estimated that jazz’s share of the 80-million unit record market is 5% to 15%, a figure comparable to estimates given by the Record Industry Assn. of America, which keeps statistics on domestic recorded music sales.
When it comes to recordings, Japanese are setting the pace, even in the United States. “We try to emulate them in our product,” said Richard Seidel, president of PolyGram Jazz, which distributes Verve, Soul Note, Emarcy and other important jazz labels.
Keen public interest or not, there is still a feeling among some Japanese that jazz is, as Koyama put it, the Messenger From the West.
As Pat Britt, producer for L.A.-based Vee-Jay Records who has dealt with Japanese firms since 1972, put it, “They treat jazz like it’s a vault full of gold they’ve found.”