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All That Tokyo Jazz
The Tokyo jazz scene is one of the world's best, far surpassing that of Paris and New York with its number of venues playing traditional, swing, bossa nova, rhythm and blues, and free jazz. Though popular in Japan before World War II, jazz really took hold of the city after U.S. forces introduced Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk in the late 1940s. The genre had been banned in wartime Japan as an American vice, but even at the height of the war, fans were able to listen to their favorite artists on Voice of America radio. In the 1960s Japan experienced a boom in all areas of the arts, and jazz was no exception. Since then, the Japanese scene has steadily bloomed, with several local stars—such as Sadao Watanabe in the 1960s and contemporary favorites Keiko Lee and Hiromi Uehara—gaining global attention.
Today there are more than 120 bars and clubs that host live music, plus hundreds that play recorded jazz. Shinjuku, Takadanobaba, and Kichijoji are the city's jazz enclaves. Famous international acts regularly appear at big-name clubs such as the Blue Note, but the smaller, lesser-known joints usually have more atmosphere. With such a large jazz scene, there's an incredible diversity to enjoy, from Louis Armstrong tribute acts to fully improvised free jazz—sometimes on successive nights at the same venue.
If you time your visit right, you can listen to great jazz at one of the city's more than 20 annual festivals dedicated to this adopted musical form. The festivals vary in size and coverage, but two to check out are the Tokyo Jazz Festival and the Asagaya Jazz Street Festival.
Tokyo Jazz Festival. On the first weekend in September, the festival takes over the Tokyo International Forum and Cotton Club Tokyo in Marunouchi. Though the forum's 5,000-seat hall lacks the intimacy you might seek in a jazz show, the lineup is usually an impressive mix of local talent and international stars. 3-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 100-0005. 03/5777–8600. www.tokyo-jazz.com.
Asagaya Jazz Street Festival. Held the last weekend of October, the predominantly mainstream affair takes places in some less-than-mainstream places, with venues ranging from a Shinto shrine to a Lutheran church (most within walking distance of Asagaya Station). More than 200 bands/1,300 musicians play, and the previous headliners have included the Mike Price Jazz Quintet and pianist Yosuke Yamashita. The festival gets crowded, so come early to ensure entry. 4F, Wagafurusato-kan, 1-36-10 Asagaya-Minami, Suginami-ku, Greater Tokyo, Tokyo, 166-0004. 03/5305–5075. www.asagayajazzst.com.
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