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Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan

Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan

by E. Taylor Atkins, E. Tayloratkins, Atkins

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Japan’s jazz community—both musicians and audience—has been begrudgingly recognized in the United States for its talent, knowledge, and level of appreciation. Underpinning this tentative admiration, however, has been a tacit agreement that, for cultural reasons, Japanese jazz “can’t swing.” In Blue Nippon E. Taylor Atkins


Japan’s jazz community—both musicians and audience—has been begrudgingly recognized in the United States for its talent, knowledge, and level of appreciation. Underpinning this tentative admiration, however, has been a tacit agreement that, for cultural reasons, Japanese jazz “can’t swing.” In Blue Nippon E. Taylor Atkins shows how, strangely, Japan’s own attitude toward jazz is founded on this same ambivalence about its authenticity.
Engagingly told through the voices of many musicians, Blue Nippon explores the true and legitimate nature of Japanese jazz. Atkins peers into 1920s dancehalls to examine the Japanese Jazz Age and reveal the origins of urban modernism with its new set of social mores, gender relations, and consumer practices. He shows how the interwar jazz period then became a troubling symbol of Japan’s intimacy with the West—but how, even during the Pacific war, the roots of jazz had taken hold too deeply for the “total jazz ban” that some nationalists desired. While the allied occupation was a setback in the search for an indigenous jazz sound, Japanese musicians again sought American validation. Atkins closes out his cultural history with an examination of the contemporary jazz scene that rose up out of Japan’s spectacular economic prominence in the 1960s and 1970s but then leveled off by the 1990s, as tensions over authenticity and identity persisted.
With its depiction of jazz as a transforming global phenomenon, Blue Nippon will make enjoyable reading not only for jazz fans worldwide but also for ethnomusicologists, and students of cultural studies, Asian studies, and modernism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Blue Nippon focuses on jazz in Japan but is actually much more far-reaching. It reminds me of The Modern Jazz Quartet—scholarly yet swingin’!”—Phil Morrison, Jazz Bassist and Composer

“This is a powerful gem of a book. Atkins’s mixing of voices is wonderful and his scholarship impressive. Moreover, his complex argument is communicated in language that is straightforward, engaging, and compelling.”—Christine Yano, University of Hawaii, Manoa

Blue Nippon is the fullest account of the history of jazz in Japan to appear in any Western language to date. . . . [G]roundbreaking. . . . Atkins's attempt to open up jazz discourse and history to the contributions of non-black non-Americans is a brave and well-argued one.
The Wire
Library Journal
In this absorbing study, Atkins (history, Northern Illinois Univ.) effectively deals with the development of authentic jazz styles and even more extensively with the sociology of jazz in Japan from the 1920s to the present. That an African American art form could firmly take hold in Japan is fascinating in itself, but Atkins goes beyond the initial interest inspired by his subject with a fluid writing style and extensive research (which includes interviews with several Japanese jazz musicians). The author also achieves a balance between a Westerner's view of jazz in Japan and the Japanese perspective of the art form. This book will appeal to readers with a general interest in Japanese culture and counterculture as well as those specifically interested in Japanese jazz. Highly recommended for specialized music collections and for all public libraries, especially those with significant jazz or Japanese cultural holdings. James E. Perone, Mount Union Coll., Alliance, OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Blue Nippon

Authenticating jazz in Japan
By E. Taylor Atkins

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2721-X

Chapter One


AKIYOSHI TOSHIKO: How do you play the blues that way? How can I learn to play them so authentically?

HAMPTON HAWES: I play the blues right because I eat collard greens and black-eyed peas and corn pone and clabber.

AKIYOSHI [sighs]: Where can I find that food? Do I have to go to the United States to get it?

HAWES [laughs]: All you need is the feeling. If you have the feeling, you could eat Skippy peanut butter and play the blues right. And if you don't have that feeling, you could eat collard greens and all that so-called Negro food all the time and sound corny.-quoted in Nat Hentoff, The Jazz Life

I was born with Eric Dolphy for a father, and Billie Holiday for a mother. So in my alto performances, I must somehow surpass Eric Dolphy. That is my duty.-saxophonist Abe Kaoru, quoted in Morita Yuko, Abe Kaoru, 1949-1978

While touring Japan in 1977, some members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago made the following indelicate if not ungracious remarks: "We have listened to performances by Japanese groups, but they are making music that stands atop Afro-American traditions. So it is not original." "Only black people's music has progressed with the times," the AEC musicians continued. "In the past we(black people) made music in Africa. We were making music in times of slavery. With the times it has progressed in different forms. Our (black) music moved with the world. If you (Japanese) don't start from this, you'll never create original work. It takes five hundred years." Now, while many Japanese jazz fans must have had no quarrel with this statement, others took it as well as a poke in the eye. A similar response met saxophonist Branford Marsalis nearly two decades later when he made the following remark in the December 1993 issue of Playboy, in reply to a query regarding his band's popularity in Japan:

The Japanese, for whatever reason, are astute in terms of [jazz's] history and legacy. Unlike many other people, they have identified jazz as part of the American experience. But I don't think they understand it most times, especially at my shows. They just stare at us, like, "What the hell are they playing?" But they come to hear me anyway. It's almost like classical music: Somebody told them it's necessary and that we're good. So they come and scratch their heads and clap and they leave. The audiences are strange when you play those big concert halls. The clubs are much hipper and the club owners are great. They'll take care of you. They take you out to eat, and they'll even get a great-looking girl for you if you want one. I've declined.

While the Art Ensemble's statement questioned the authenticity of jazz performed by Japanese, Marsalis's remarks challenged the much-heralded Japanese understanding and appreciation of jazz, arguing that they are super perficial at best. Coming as they did in the wake of a torrent of American invective against Japan ("Japan bashing"), Marsalis's comments (and similar remarks made later by saxophonist Kenny Garrett) wounded a substantial number of devoted jazz fans, who recognize that Japan has done more than its part to keep this art alive and viable in the merciless 1990s marketplace.

Who made the statements was as important as what was said. The Art Ensemble is the product of 1960s black militancy in the arts; Marsalis and Garrett are major figures in a new generation of African American jazz artists with a somewhat politicized view of jazz, its history, and its future. It is unfair to portray the predominantly black "Young Lion" movement (of which the Marsalis brothers and Garrett are leading lights) as a monolith, but it nevertheless has acquired a reputation for obsessing about authenticity and for equating that virtue with African American ethnicity. Thus to many Japanese jazz fans, who by virtue of their chosen hobby are for the most part unusually well-informed and sensitive to racial injustice in the United States, Branford Marsalis and Kenny Garrett's statements sounded uncomfortably like the popular T-shirt slogan "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand."

Some responded angrily: "The reason that audiences are cheerless at your [Marsalis's] concerts is because they know 'this guy's not putting himself into it,'" Terajima Yasukuni, owner of the Meg jazz coffeehouse in Kichijoji, retorted. To Garrett, who had criticized Japanese fans for being too conservative in their tastes, Terajima said mockingly: "He says, 'it's strange that records with standards sell better [in Japan] than our personal originals ... do these people really understand jazz?' It's because we understand jazz that we buy records with standards on them. What is so 'personal'? You write boring originals with stupid melodies.... Try to write a melody better than a standard. We're all waiting for that." Other responses were more coolly analytical. In an essay in the intellectual journal Gendai, Murakami Haruki argued that, given Marsalis's base of support within a militant, "aggressive" black middle class for whom racial pride is paramount, the saxophonist's remarks were to be expected: "If Branford Marsalis had said in an American interview that 'Japanese are a wonderful audience who understand jazz as well as we black people do,' he probably would have been booed down harshly by his supporters in his home country." But Murakami conceded that Marsalis may have had a point: he urged Japanese who listen to jazz, rap, or blues to appreciate them as more than music, and to "pay a bit more attention to the totality of the history and culture of black people in America."

Certainly there are many American jazz artists who vociferously dispute the opinions of Marsalis and Garrett. The liner notes to Cannonball Adderley's 1963 LP Nippon Soul noted "a special quality that Japanese fans bring to adulation of their heroes, an intensity of feeling that many jazz artists have said they often experience as a physical sensation when they perform for Japanese audiences." "[The Japanese] treat jazz as a high class art form," drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey has said. "They know, they really know about jazz.... They knew more about me than I knew about myself." In his liner notes to the 1988 live album Pick Hits, guitarist John Scofield complimented Japanese fans for their "understanding and appreciation": "When we play in Tokyo we always think the audience is a little more sophisticated than in other places, a little more 'in tune' with what we're trying to do." Expatriate pianist Tom Pierson also rejects Marsalis's statement: with a sense of wonderment that years of experience have yet to erase, he tells of Japanese fans who treat him "like a soccer star" and kiss his hands in gratitude for his music. In his autobiography, Miles Davis remembered warmly the reception he received on his first visit to Japan in 1964, in spite of his rather inauspicious entrance:

Flying to Japan is a long-ass flight. So I brought coke and sleeping pills with me and I took both. Then I couldn't go to sleep so I was drinking, too. When we landed there were all these people to meet us at the airport. We're getting off the plane and they're saying, 'Welcome to Japan, Miles Davis,' and I threw up all over everything. But they didn't miss a beat. They got me some medicine and got me straight and treated me like a king. Man, I had a ball, and I have respected and loved the Japanese people ever since. Beautiful people.

Ultimately the accuracy of Marsalis's and Garrett's allegations about audiences is less important than the assumptions that produced them and the reactions they elicited. The angst that the Marsalis-Garrett controversy engendered in many Japanese jazz devotees was rooted in their historical ambivalence or "complex" about the authenticity of their own jazz culture. The implication that jazz, a music that has touched them deeply, was not really theirs but someone else's was understandably frustrating, for not only were the remarks made in the wearisome context of "Japan bashing," but they also forced many Japanese to rethink the various attempts they had made to "authenticate" or legitimate the meanings jazz held for them and the music they produced themselves. Many had grown comfortable with the idea that jazz was a "universal language," and that one's appreciation of jazz was as unique as an artist's "voice." Many felt that their very obvious preference for the music of black American artists showed that they were "down," that they understood. Now they were being told that they had missed something, that the meanings they found in jazz were not real, and that their efforts to study, collect, and support the music had amounted to no more than a superficial comprehension.

We might regard the AEC and Marsalis-Garrett controversies as nothing more than examples of the dissonance between artists' and audiences' expectations: artists, the conventional wisdom goes, want to press forward into hitherto unknown realms of expression, while audiences want to hear what they already know they like. On the other hand, we might view them as additional manifestations of the contemporary Japanese obsession with their image abroad. One can scarcely watch the television news in Japan without seeing the results of some poll taken among people in foreign countries, which asks them to sum up their impressions of Japan in ridiculously simplistic terms. But these controversies were also the product of particular historical experiences. The respective uproars were products of the Japanese jazz community's special history of negotiating and defining its own identity in relation to Japan and America. They challenged the dominant narrative of the jazz community's history, which traced a linear development of artistic progress from "imitation" of American models to "innovation" of original, Japanese music. In sum, the controversies seemed to invalidate, or at best render ineffectual, a consistent, century-long campaign to authenticate jazz in Japan.

Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing: The Authenticity Fetish

If we think of "jazz" not only as a music but as a relatively self-contained and identifiable culture, we are unlikely to discover other cultures as consumed with the idea of authenticity. It is an obsession that potentially undermines the rhetorical universality of jazz, as expressed here by Down Beat contributor Michael Bourne in 1980: "Jazz, more than ever before, is a universal language. Around the world, more than the classics, more than rock and roll, jazz has become a universal language, what all music is supposed to be, especially among the young. The spirit of jazz has endured even when outlawed."

Though authenticity by definition favors the particular over the universal, it is interesting to note, as have Ingrid Monson and Charley Gerard, that universalist and particularist rhetorics coexist in jazz discourse, often in the same person. "An individual speaking to an interlocutor who underplays the role of African American culture in the music ... might choose to respond with ethnically assertive comments," Monson observes. "In a context in which something closer to racial harmony prevails, a musician might choose to invoke a more universalistic rhetoric."

What does authenticity mean? It appears that there is no authentic definition of authenticity: it is so malleable a trope that each author can and does construct a plausible definition appropriate to virtually any historical or artistic subject. While there seems to be general agreement that the idea of authenticity was invented as a peculiarly modern response to the perceived erosion of particularized heritages and identities in an era of globalization, there is otherwise a considerable diversity of definitions and applications. Anthropologists investigating how authentic Third World cultures represent themselves to First World tourists, or how historical sites and artifacts are presented to the public, have defined the concept as verisimilitude, credibility, originality (as opposed to a copy), or authoritativeness. For ethnomusicologists, authenticity means preserving the social contexts of performances, original performance practices, and the spiritual and cultural meanings of music-in other words, accurately representing unfamiliar "world musics" in a manner faithful to their original contexts. Edward Bruner adds that authenticity implies that someone has the power or authority to "authenticate" a representation; the concept of authenticity thus privileges one voice as more legitimate than another. Musicologist Peter Kivy's analysis of authenticity as an aesthetic standard in music suggests roughly two conceptions: "historical authenticity" (authorial intention, contemporary sound, and contemporary performance practice-the kind of authenticity valued by practitioners of "early music"); and "personal authenticity" (emotive "sincerity," expressiveness, or assertiveness). Kivy acknowledges that one kind of authenticity necessarily entails sacrifice of the other: "Personal authenticity comes into conflict with a composer's performing intention or wish, even though the composer may have intended personal authenticity as well." Philosopher Joel Rudinow offers yet another aesthetic definition of the term as "a species of the genus credibility ... [whose] most precise, formal, and fully institutionalized application in the artworld is to distinguish from the forgery a work 'by the author's own hand.' ... More broadly, less precisely, but in an essentially similar way, 'authenticity' is applicable to the artifacts and rituals which are a culture's 'currency,' conferring value on those 'acceptably derived' from original sources.... In such applications authenticity admits of degrees."

In keeping with established practice, here I adapt and refine the term authenticity to reflect its meaning(s) in the jazz culture. Authenticity in jazz, as in other folk arts, implies that an artist must possess specific qualities-educational background, life experience, ethnic heritage, motivations, or artistic vision-which confer upon the artist the right not only to work unchallenged in a particular medium, but to establish the standard by which all others working in that medium will be judged. Those who are influenced by such work may be deemed "authentic" or "inauthentic" depending either on how closely they adhere to the aesthetic standards enshrined in the "original," or how closely their personal profiles match the specific experiential, ethnic, or motivational qualities of the "original's" creator. The standards for determining authenticity may change or be contested, yet some such standard is always in operation and its power is significant.

Authenticity, in this sense, is aestheticized as a criterion in the judgment of taste. Conceptualized thusly, it rather resembles what Pierre Bourdieu has called the "aesthetic disposition" in the reception of art: "Any legitimate work tends in fact to impose the norms of its own perception and tacitly defines as the only legitimate mode of perception the one which brings into play a certain disposition and a certain competence.... [A]ll agents, whether they like it or not, whether or not they have the means of conforming to them, find themselves objectively measured by those norms." But whereas Bourdieu (with reference to Jose Ortega y Gasset) describes an aestheticism in the "legitimate" arts that actively distances itself from human emotions and realities-favoring "form over function"-jazz and other folk or "black expressive" forms value precisely those human qualities that constitute lived experience: earthiness, funk (bodily odor), pain, anger, carnality, and joy. Neither an aristocracy nor a bourgeoisie with aristocratic pretensions establishes these aesthetic norms, but rather a historically despised underclass -whose aesthetic values are then interpreted, translated, codified, and communicated by bourgeois bohemians (jazz critics) who explicitly reject the value system in which they were brought up. These aesthetic values, ideally rooted in real life experience, represent a standard of authenticity that holds for all who would dare engage in the creative activity in question.


Excerpted from Blue Nippon by E. Taylor Atkins Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Christine Yano
This is a powerful gen of a book. Atkins's mixing of voices is wonderful and his scholarship impressive. Moreover, his complex argument is communicated in language that is straightforward, engaging, and compelling. -- Christine Yano, University of Hawai'i, Manoa
Phil Morrison
Blue Nippon focuses on jazz in Japan but is actually much more far-reaching. It reminds me of the Modern Jazz Quartet--scholarly yet swingin'! -- Phil Morrison, Jazz bassist and composer

Meet the Author

E. Taylor Atkins is Associate Professor of History at Northern Illinois University.

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