Jazz in Japan
Other than one student trip while I was at Berklee, my first international tour was to Japan with the George Shearing Quintet in 1963. That was only 15 years after the end of WW II, and Shearing’s group was one of the first American jazz bands to tour Japan. When our plane landed at Haneda Airport, hundreds of fans ran out onto the runway to greet the plane, with flowers and little flags. It was like we were pop stars. Even then, the Japanese public embraced jazz with great enthusiasm that has continued to this day.
Shearing’s tour spanned five weeks and we played in almost every major city in the country. One of the most memorable things about Japanese fans is that they are crazy for autographs and snapshots. After every concert, much of the audience lines up with CDs and photos to get your signature, at least several hundred at every performance. Based on that first visit to Japan and another tour with Stan Getz in 1964, my popularity in Japan has been solid for all the years that followed, leading to tours every year or two right up to the present.
In addition to turning out great audiences, Japan has also produced some very excellent musicians, and I have been lucky to work with a few of them over the years. Trumpeter Tiger Okoshi was in my band in the early 80s, for instance. Then, in 1983, I crossed paths with pianist Makoto Ozone. Makoto came to Berklee to study jazz piano and composition, and he was already an impressive player, loaded with technical mastery, and displaying a quick mind when it came to new concepts. Soon we started getting together for regular jam sessions, and when he graduated, I invited him to join my working band. That was 30 years ago, and we have enjoyed a very productive collaboration ever since.
Makoto remained in the USA for a decade, and then returned to Japan to establish himself as one of the major players in his home country. Today, he is certainly the most well-known jazz musician in Japan, maintaining a regular schedule of concerts and clubs with either his trio, his award-winning big band, and via his popular long-running radio show in Tokyo. During his decade in America, he recorded for CBS Records, eventually moving on to the Verve label, for whom he continues to record. His newest release, just coming out now in honor of our tour, is called Time Thread, featuring our piano and vibraphone duets. More about that later.
In addition to his outstanding skills as a jazz pianist and songwriter, I am especially impressed by a new venture Makoto took on when he got into his late 30s. He became interested in classical music and started learning the repertoire. He studied for a while at Eastman School of Music and now performs regularly as a guest soloist with symphony orchestras around the world. Makoto had only played jazz previously, so it was no small feat to achieve credibility as a classical performer. This expansion of his range led to one of my favorite recording projects, titled, VIRTUOSI, in 2001. We were discussing what music to use for a new record we were planning and somehow we got to talking about classical music. So we decided to try using classical pieces for improvisation and we selected pieces by Brahms, Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Gershwin and some others. Once the CD was released, we were nominated for a Grammy award in the Classical field, a singular honor for a couple of jazz guys.
Today Makoto maintains one of the busiest schedules of any musician I know. He is always performing, doing his radio show, and even writing and performing music for plays in cooperation with his wife, Yuriko, a well-known actress in Japan. For the month of June, we are embarking on a 17-concert tour taking us all over Japan, celebrating our 30 years of making music together. In honor of this milestone, Makoto composed a suite of music recalling highlights of our three decades on stage. The titles include “One Long Day In France, Luna Park (about a trip to Buenos Aires), Stompin’ At The BPC (we played many times at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston), and so on. So, now we are touring Japan with Makoto’s new music, along with some of our long-standing repertoire, and we are having a great time with the Japanese jazz fans.
Touring in Japan is always a treat (Japan is one the best countries for jazz, right up there with the USA and the European countries). Not only are the audiences very focused on the music and great listeners, but the whole country seems to reach out to you when you come for a tour. I also like to play tourist whenever I visit Japan. Of course, I have gone to their most historic city, Kyoto, a number of times, visiting temples and beautiful gardens. However, on this trip I am looking forward to a new tourist experience. In recent years I have developed an interest in the Japanese art of bonsai gardening (I have ten trees in my collection now), and it turns out there is a small town near Tokyo called Omiya, that is home to a half dozen or so of the most famous bonsai nurseries in the world. I have set aside a day to make a personal pilgrimage to Omiya to see the beautiful miniature trees, and I’m sure I’ll be taking a lot of photos. Even after fifty years of trips to Japan, there is always something new to discover and admire.
Gary, en route to Tokyo