Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Japan Jazz Fans Bid Farewell To Historic Cafe

I found the following news story written by Aiko Wakao to be sad:

YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - 01/28/07 - Once a haven for Japan's earliest jazz fans, cafe Chigusa is packing up its thousands of vinyl records.

"These days, kids don't listen to jazz, and they walk down the street with iPods, which makes the whole idea of 'place' irrelevant," says Michael Molasky, author of "The Jazz Culture of Postwar Japan."

Seventy-three years after first opening its doors, Chigusa, among the oldest and the most cherished of Japan's jazz coffee shops, has become a victim of the electronic revolution.

For its patrons, mostly male and alone, the cafe was a place of learning and of comfort. The unspoken rules, which they followed faithfully, included listening to the music in silence and waiting in turn to make a request, jotting it down on a scrap of paper. And no alcohol or snapping fingers.

"Filled with sound, smoke, and hundreds of records, jazz coffee houses used to be a space for young people who came looking for a proper understanding of the music," says Molasky, professor of Asian languages and literature at the University of Minnesota.

Chigusa enjoyed a glorious epoch in the 1960s and early 70s, when students and musicians gathered to listen to imported albums that were otherwise beyond their means.

"Now we only have about 10 regulars, who've been coming for years," says Masatomi Kaneshige, a 65-year-old retiree who often helps out at the cafe.

"Young people hardly come here. This place must look so strange and dark to them, with old men sitting quietly, sipping coffee and listening to vibrant jazz."


But on its last Saturday in business, the small cafe was full from before its official opening at noon. Around the six tiny tables sat 10 customers, half familiar faces and the rest newcomers -- both young and old -- who came for their first and last Chigusa experience after hearing about its closure.

Kaneshige gazed at the 40 record covers pasted on Chigusa's walls and pointed at the signed copy of Bill Evans Trio's best-selling "Waltz for Debby," a favorite, he recalls, of the cafe's founder, Mamoru Yoshida, who passed away 13 years ago.

Chigusa, soon to be replaced by a new building complex, was opened in 1937 by 20-year-old Yoshida, who fell in love with jazz at public dance halls and began collecting imported records.

World War Two brought great troubles for Yoshida, who had to hide his 6,000 records in his basement at a time when many jazz coffee houses were raided and most dance halls closed.

A U.S. air raid in 1945 destroyed the cafe along with all the vinyl albums. Yoshida reopened his cafe soon after the war, creating a refuge for occupying American soldiers and musicians who played at nearby U.S. bases.

They also brought Yoshida many of the latest 12-inch records, valuable additions to his new collection.

Chigusa, located in an old nightclub district in the port city of Yokohama, also became a classroom for young Japanese talent, such as pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and trumpeter Terumasa Hino -- now world-class artists - where they listened to rare John Coltrane LPs and learned to write scores.

"There was a huge jazz boom triggered by the arrival of French new wave movies and Hollywood films that used modern jazz," Molasky said.

"Suddenly, jazz coffee shops sprung up everywhere."

In the 1970s, even popular writer Haruki Murakami, then a student, set up his own jazz cafe, where he began work on his first novel. His later works are peppered with jazz references.


But then, rock and punk came along, as did CDs and better personal audio systems. The fever for jazz began to fade. After founder Yoshino passed away, his younger sister Takako Yoshida took over Chigusa. Lately, though, Takako, now 77, found it difficult to run the place on her own.

For long-time regulars like Masayuki Isozaki, everything from the walls yellowed by cigarette smoke to the simple menu of 500 yen ($4) coffee, tea and soda were the reasons that drew him to Chigusa almost every week since the age of 20.

"Last week at work, the thought of saying goodbye to all this brought tears to my eyes," said Isozaki, 54.

But jazz coffee houses are not only about what went before.

"Yes, times are changing and many old cafes are closing," said 36-year old Yusuke Miyamoto, who grew up in the neighbourhood. "But there are some new ones opening up and many young people like jazz too, including me, who picked up the alto saxophone after I started going to these coffee shops."

Yukio Saito, 31, started an online community for jazz coffee shop owners and customers in 1997. There are now around 100 listed on the Web site, which posts events and reviews.

"I am sure there are people out there who would love to take on a place like this, or at least, carry on the tradition," said 29-year old Megumi Saito who stepped into the cafe for the first time. "It has such a wonderful atmosphere."


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