Big On Japan Author Ashley Kahn on how jazz crosses over into the Land of the Rising Sun


Jazz author and historian Ashley Kahn

To jazz aficionados around the world, the name of Ashley Kahn is nearly sacred. Most fans know him through his books on the making of two seminal jazz recordings of the last century, in what some call the Golden Age of jazz: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. He has also published countless articles in Downbeat, Jazz Times, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and GQ in Japan.

Perhaps fewer music lovers know him also as a road manager for an array of musicians spanning several genres, such as Cassandra Wilson, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and Britney Spears. In addition, he is a concert producer and TV music editor for VH1. He is regular commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Ashley Kahn wrote the liner notes for the recent Impulse!/Resonance recording Offering: Live at Temple University, a November 11, 1966 performance by John Coltrane and a quintet that took place less than a year before he died and that has been heralded as a clue to where Coltrane was headed musically before he died the following year.

The following interview was conducted in the fall of 2011, not long after Kahn appeared as a guest lecturer at The Sock Hop and the Loft: Jazz, Motown, and the Transformation of American Culture, 1959-1975, an NEH summer institute for schoolteachers at Washington University.

Wayne Zade: When did you first become aware of the music scene in Japan? How did that happen?

Ashley Kahn: Well, for me, Japan, and I mean no disrespect, seemed to start out as a punch line. I’m referring to the very ending of the movie Spinal Tap, where the band’s falling apart, their fortunes are in the gutter, no one’s coming out to hear them in the U.S., and their record company is going to drop them. At that point, their old manager bursts into the locker room, after they’ve done this coast-to-coast tour and says, “Guys, We gotta keep going. It’s not over—we’re Number Five with a bullet. IN JAPAN!”

Even on a humorous level, I think it’s really kind of revealing that there is in Japan this adoration and enduring dedication to music that, here in America, is often discarded and left by the wayside.

So that was my first real awareness of Japan and music. But wait, I’ll add to that and mention the Japanese pressings from back in the ’70s, the glory days of vinyl. They were always looked upon as being something to be found and cherished because of the superior audio quality. There was an attention to quality with those editions that always seemed to outdo album releases here in the States.

WZ: Those records were actually how I got interested in studying Japan and jazz.

AK: They were another way of seeing how Japan treats the culture of this country better than we do ourselves, especially when it comes to things that are historic. And certainly, except for museum shows and a few fashion designers, we do not return the favor. If it’s not about sushi or electronics, much of Japanese expression doesn’t translate.

I learned that there’s a Japanese word for this level of appreciation of artistic excellence. When I was writing the end of my first book Kind of Blue, and I was trying to explain how the Miles Davis album , despite certain problems with the audio recording quality and slight gaffes in the performances, that those imperfections are part of its defining beauty. Plus there was this sense of aging elegance, a mature kind of feel to the album, like a fine wine. And it was in Japanese that I found a term for that elusive quality: shibui.

In that one word I suddenly found this intellectual basis of appreciation for what many people kind of dismiss facilely as a Japanese way of just going for something if it’s old and American. No. It’s very well thought out and it’s a big part of how they look at important traditions in their own culture! The American music that the Japanese choose to spend their time, money, and attention on is very well thought out, whether it’s rockabilly, or classic soul music—or jazz.

Jazz, obviously, is something that has been around ever since the meeting of Japanese and American cultures, during the occupation after World War II. It’s no mistake. It’s very important, to consider the timeline, and realize that modern jazz was just beginning to happen as World War II was ending.

WZ: And the Japanese wanted to be in on that.

AK: Exactly. The enthusiasms of the servicemen who were over there was passed on to the Japanese —the sounds of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, all the new stuff that was new here—took root, at a time when jazz was pivoting away from that swing, big band kind of feel to modern jazz to the soloist’s art that we now think of as mainstream jazz.

WZ: Japanese musicians have often commented on their struggles to create original jazz music that draws on Japanese music and cultural sources as well as on traditional Japanese instrumentation. It seems hard for them not to copy famous American jazz players. But do you think that jazz has become something like world music now?

The American music that the Japanese choose to spend their time, money, and attention on is very well thought out, whether it’s rockabilly, or classic soul music—or jazz.

AK: Oh, absolutely. The thing about jazz, if you break it down to its elemental parts—what defines jazz as being jazz? There’s a lot that is shared around the world. The idea of improvisation. The idea of blues-type structures, upon which an individual can put a personal creative stamp. That idea is in Indian ragas, it’s in flamenco music, it’s in Japanese wood flute performances. And there’s the idea of playing off of scales, rather than an established melody pattern all the time, or chordal path, or whatever. Again, it’s there in Japanese music too.

I would say that in jazz the challenge that the Japanese feel—and I’m speaking only anecdotally here, there’s a copy-cat aspect that jazz asks a musician to push against. I think that is in the experience of making the music no matter where you are. And the Japanese don’t have a lock on this either. You can find it in America too, when you go to see a bluesy bar band and see them trying to work out a Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters tune as closely as they can get it to the original Chess recording, right down to the same guitar that was on the original recording, or the same harmonica microphone. Well, the Japanese have this desire for authenticity too.

So for the Japanese, because America is so foreign a culture, there is this impulse to see how close they can get to the original model while also understanding that in jazz there’s this balance between reverence for the tradition but also innovation, plus the idea of achieving an individual voice. You know, you can go out to hear jazz in New York, the mecca, and you hear musicians struggling with that, night after night.

So I think it’s only natural that the Japanese would be dealing with the same kind of challenge, and that, with the added cultural gap, many musicians have truly worked hard to earn the respect they achieved. The fact that they’ve taken on the challenge, and that they’re aware of it, means a lot in and of itself. It speaks to a certain sophistication and deep understanding of jazz by Japanese musicians and their commitment to the music.

… the artists that I know who are Japanese only happen to be Japanese. They’re such accomplished artists that I don’t think of them particularly as being Japanese, like the way that I think of Enrico Rava—first I think of him as a trumpeter and as a jazzman, and then as an Italian.

WZ: Would you care to mention particular Japanese jazz players who have been successful in the States?

AK: I’m thinking first of the pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto; he’s an unbelievable player. And another pianist, Hiromi! I just saw her at Newport, performing an unbelievable virtuoso solo set, and then one she did the next day with her trio. It was all acoustic, but with her trio she sounded like she could have been on synthesizer. It was so muscular, and was in tune with the fusion period of the late ‘70s. For someone who is as slight as she is, there’s so much power in her playing. Her virtuosic approach to the piano speaks to her classical underpinning, as well as who her jazz heroes are.

Speaking about the Japanese individually, the artists that I know who are Japanese only happen to be Japanese. They’re such accomplished artists that I don’t think of them particularly as being Japanese, like the way that I think of Enrico Rava—first I think of him as a trumpeter and as a jazzman, and then as an Italian. So I see less of a connection between Hiromi and the pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi than I do between Hiromi and some of the post-’60s artists that she’s coming from musically. Toshiko I would link more with some of the earlier jazz pianists, like Bud Powell.

WZ: With Hiromi, it’s Chick [Corea].

AK: Well, there you go. With a lot of Keith [Jarrett] thrown in! Sakamoto, Hiromi, and Toshiko are so accomplished in their own individual voices that one doesn’t hear a Japanese connection as the priority.

By the way, with regard to Japanese influence on jazz in general, the idea of Japanese modes, feeling and sound, the two tunes that immediately come to my mind are “Shinjitu,” by Elvin Jones, which was actually written by Elvin’s wife Keiko, and then of course Dave Brubeck’s “Koto Song.” It’s just unbelievable how he uses Western instruments in Western tuning to get the feel and flavor of Japan.

WZ: That whole album [Jazz Impressions of Japan] is fabulous.

AK: Oh my God, I know! What an ear and what a mind Dave Brubeck has. So you asked me if I thought jazz is a world music. Well, it is, because it’s always been this very curious, very porous, very resistant to absolute definitions kind of music. It is wanting to innovate, change, and is always hungry for new ideas—the way some individuals for many years led the charge, like a Miles Davis. Always curious, always moving forward. That is really what is at the heart of jazz.

Yet there are a lot of purists out there who might say about something, “Well, that’s not jazz.” I would never use those words, for fear, absolute fear, of someone reading my words 20 years from now, and saying, “Boy, was he off-base.” That’s been proven again and again. The more you try to define or confine jazz—the more you risk denying jazz one of its most defining qualities. The reason why it survives and why it isn’t just this old style that we pull out of the closet and wipe the cobwebs from, why it’s so active and vibrant and important to so many people, why there’s still a jazz community, is because of that meandering, experimental quality, that willingness to go into the new. Jazz stays relevant because it stays curious.

Never mind the great performances, which I absolutely love. Never mind the great recordings, and the great players. In addition to all of that, there’s this essential quality of curiosity, and I think that is another reason why jazz would speak to people in Japan, why they would embrace it so tightly and with such dedication.

The more you try to define or confine jazz—the more you risk denying jazz one of its most defining qualities. The reason why it survives … is because of that meandering, experimental quality, that willingness to go into the new. Jazz stays relevant because it stays curious.

WZ: What can you tell me about the jazz record business in Japan, as opposed to the jazz record business in the States?

AK: When I think about the jazz record business in Japan, for the most part I think first of the idea of reviving older labels, such as keeping Blue Note going during a very hard period for the label, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Also during that time, jazz in general was going through a period when the most exciting jazz being recorded outside of the U.S., was for labels outside of the U.S. In Europe it was like Black Saint, Soul Note, and Enja, and in Japan it was DIW, Denon, King—which was issuing Blue Note albums before Toshiba took over the catalog—Venus …

WZ: Venus even seemed to specialize in piano trio records; still does.

AK: Yeah. And it got the point where some of those labels eventually became part of Sony Music or other majors. The Japanese saw what was going on in the ‘80s, that a lot of the musicians were still relevant and deserved to be recorded, while the American music industry was moving on or not paying any attention to them. So that’s the first thing I think about regarding the Japanese record industry.

I also think that the one small complaint I might have—well, you can say this about almost any country, Japan does not own this—but certain things in the music business don’t translate well. For an American-born musician to speak with say, an American-born producer about music or record-making, and get across their desires is sometimes difficult enough. The language and cultural gap sometimes in talking about music by an American artist who’s been paid to record for a Japanese company—and again, this is totally anecdotal—that certain jazz musicians were not happy with a resulting mix, or the cover image, or the final outcome of their recordings.

I believe with issues such as deadlines, creative miscommunication or some such problems could easily arise, especially when the raw tracks are recorded here in the United States, and then they’re mixed in Japan by someone with a different set of ears and priorities. So what can be done about that? It’s up to the artist, and the artist’s representatives, to follow that process the whole way through despite the geographical distance. It’s easier now of course with the Internet, but still the language and cultural gap that exists doesn’t make it any easier.

Yet for the most part, the service that Japanese record companies provide in keeping older recordings out there, as well as recording artists who desperately deserve to be recorded, is without reproach and utterly sincere.

WZ: I’d like to ask you about your experience in meeting your colleagues or counterparts, Japanese scholars or critics of jazz, in Japan, or for that matter in the States. Have you had that kind of opportunity?

AK: No, not enough. This is no comment on the Japanese approach to jazz, no question of their dedication or their ability to appreciate the music—this only has to do with certain aesthetic aspects. With my books, for example, I’m involved from A to Z, the design, the choice of photos, etc. Now, I don’t read or speak Japanese, so I don’t know how they’ve been translated; but the way that they’re laid out? I’ve seen some of my books come out in Japan, and they look like academic treatises. I know from seeing Japanese jazz magazines that graphically, they are on the cutting edge. So why did the Japanese editions of my books end up looking like something you’d read only if you were taking jazz as a post-graduate course? I don’t know.

Then again, the French are like that too, and there are a lot of jazz books that look like that in the States. After a certain point you shrug your shoulders and say, “Maybe it just doesn’t translate, not yet.” I was hoping that they would make the reading experience, with images and text flowing together with a sense of style, a lot closer to my original vision.

WZ: Have you traveled to Japan to speak about your books?

AK: I have not. When I was there in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was tour managing music groups. The experience I had in Japan was that the promoters of concerts were very, very fastidious, very attentive to detail. They were sure to have read the contract riders, they made sure that the show I was working on went like clock work. I’m still friends with the guy I first worked with there, a guy named Keizo Maeda who worked for a promotion company called Conversation & Company, and Keizo was working with world music groups, with dance groups, avant garde stuff and with more mainstream stuff. His cultural radar, his ability to know what was going on halfway around the world—in Europe, the States, etc.—always amazed me.

In addition, evening by evening, show by show, I saw that this guy and his team were dedicated to making sure that by 8 o’ clock everything was in place. For a tour manager, that’s exactly whom you want to be working with. Most of the time a tour manager is troubleshooting stuff before it becomes trouble. In Japan, I could relax and know that almost everything would be ready and locked in place.

WZ: Were you involved there in jazz concerts, or other music too?

AK: I was tour managing various African musical groups there.

WZ: A final question. Could you give me your sense of the state of the art of jazz in Japan, in 2011?

AK: Actually, not really. For the past 10 years, because of the work on my books, I have been absolutely distanced from various places—not by choice, but just by circumstance. I haven’t tour managed for over 10 years now.

I will say this. For many years, I think that Japan was looked upon as the place where one could get, whether one was performing or recording, say, double the amount of money they would get anywhere else, that they might overpay for that privilege. I believe that perception was one fueled by a few instances of over-eagerness, but one that was generally untrue and that the Japanese came to resent. Jazz clubs and promoters in Japan were very aware of that idea, and they did not have huge budgets. The yen was very strong in years past, and artists like, you know, Michael Jackson benefited from that kind of big money. I know Miles turned down an offer for a million dollars to reunite with his famous quintet —Herbie, Wayne, Ron and Tony—and tour Japan in the ‘80s. But the reality was that the rest of the music business was very normal and closer to the economics of jazz around the world.

There is, however, the idea that if you played certain festivals, like the Mt. Fuji Festival, you could make good money. But really, it wasn’t different from Umbria Jazz or Barcelona Jazz Festival, or Montreux or Montreal. Those are the really nice-paying gigs that are all on a similar level.

But all of that’s been dealt a major blow by first, Japan’s recent economic downturns which preceded our own, and then by the earthquake last March, with all the human and economic tragedies, and necessary re-prioritizing that came out of that. All one can wish for is that they recover fast and get back on their feet. Here in New York, it was heartening to see the kind of grass-roots response that immediately followed those tragedies—“jazz for Japan” fund-raising concerts, and the like. To me, it really spoke to how close the two communities have become, that they are part of one global circle, rather than “us here” and “them over there.”

With all the cultural bridges that have been erected over the years, these recent events take the whole process a few steps back. It’s still expensive to get jazz over to Japan. These challenges have to be overcome before the usual sort of constant run of jazz artists over to Japan and Japanese artists to the United States, and the recording of jazz, can return to its regular pace.