I’ve been fascinated by Japan’s jazz cafes, jazz kissas, or kissaten, for a long time. Not just the music played, which conjures images of beats, bohemians, and noir city stories, but also the people who run and own them. People who follow their own strict code, their own traditions, like samurais of sound. People who at the same time have opted out of mainstream society – the rat race – in a quiet but definite protest as Capitalist Realism rushes on.
For a long time I’ve harbored the idea of putting together a book, a kind of travelogue, visiting these places and preserving their history. As a start, here is hopefully the first of many interviews. Goto Masahiro founded The Eagle Jazz Cafe some fifty years ago, in Yotsuya, in Tokyo`s busy Shinjuku ward. The venue recently played host to the Japanese launch of BBE`s box set release of Charles Mingus` “lost” 1973 Strata Concert Gallery performance.
A big thank you to Ken Hidaka for the introduction.
How old are you?
I’m currently 71 years old.
What did you do before opening The Eagle?
I opened the cafe when I was 20 years old. We’ve been open for 51 years. Before that I`d been a student at Keio University for two years.
Do you run The Eagle alone?
Yes, I the cafe run alone.
Where did your passion for Jazz begin?
It began with a very light curiosity. But then I was introduced to the music of Charlie Parker, opening up my ears. I started to appreciate jazz as “real music”, and from there my passion took off.
Where did you get your passion for Hi-Fi?
At around the same time as I was opening The Eagle, I heard a pair of JBL Olympus speakers – which belonged to the father of one of my friends. It was through this friend that I learnt about jazz and about audio. He taught me that “sound is profound”.
Can you remember the first time you visited a jazz kissa?
I remember it very well – and that experience was great motivation for opening up a my own jazz cafe. I was in high school, it was around 1963, and I went to DIG, which used to be in Shinjuku. It was a big shock – in that the “jazz cafe” provided such a different space, isolated from the world outside. It was this “other space” where the audience was extremely focused on the music. There were no conversations going on. I was young, and I have to admit that it did seem a bit weird.
What inspired you to open The Eagle?
My father happened to own this bar, which he wasn’t using, and I threw a party there for my friends – we were dancing, drinking and listening to rock and soul. My father suggested that if I wanted to open up as a cafe, then it should be a “rock cafe”. Since at the time I was really into soul, it was first going to be a “soul cafe”. But in the end, even though I didn’t know much about the music, I decided on a “jazz cafe”.
Has the clientele changed over the years?
In the 1960s through to the 80s, the customers were mainly young and male. Mostly students from the nearby Sophia University. They were all passionate jazz fans – members of jazz societies, members of the University big band. Moving through the 80s, those customers aged, got jobs and settled down, but they continuing coming to the cafe – so little by little The Eagle became a so-called “Salaryman’s resting place”. However, over the last few years, we’ve had many more young women, and also many visitors from all over Asia and Europe. It seems that more and more people are interested in this “other space” offered by the jazz kissa.
Have you noticed a change in the way that customers are dressed?
In the 60s there was a lot of long hair – influenced by The Beatles – and because it was mainly young students the style was very casual. I wouldn’t describe them as fashionable. Maybe it was fashionable to be un-fashionable.
Can you run through the Jazz Kissa`s Audio Hi-Fi set up?
Speaker / JBL 4344 Mark II
Pre-amp / Accuphase C 280V
Amp / Mark Levinson 23.5L
CD Player / Accuphase DP 67
Turntable / Yamaha GT 2000
Cartridge / DENON DL 103 (moving coil)
Are you constantly updating the set up?
Of course. When I opened, I used an inexpensive speaker called a JBL-LE8T, which was only about 50,000 yen, but every few years they had to be replaced. The amps, players, etc. are also repeatedly upgraded.
What would be your favourite piece of equipment?
In the sense that the music, the jazz, on the records is most accurately reproduced, then it`s the JBL speakers.
What would be your most desired piece of equipment?
I`m very happy with the sound in The Eagle now, so I don’t really desire anything. Instead what is required is maintenance. The overhaul of amps, technical work such as cleaning contacts.
How important is the coffee?
We strive to make something with a distinctive taste, and of a darker hue.
Do you serve food?
Coffee is available during lunchtime (11:30 to 14:30), and during the daytime we serve pasta with a salad. At lunchtime we are always full. At night we serve pizza and homemade chili beans as snacks for those who are drinking (Rob – I had some nice homemade pickles with my mojito when I was there).
Can you tell me more about the events that take place at The Eagle?
We play jazz everyday, but on a Saturday afternoon we also play rock. We hold regular talks, kind of seminars – inviting respected music critics to come in and discuss landmark recordings in their particular field. We cover a wide range of genres – classical, soul, world music, …..The last one we did was our 663rd. They are Q&A sessions so you can hear some really interesting back stories. Personally I believe this to be real musical treasure.
In the 60s and 70s, jazz cafes had a political edge – so really unique people – jazzmen, theatre people, dancers, etc. – all gathered here. Performances, spontaneous events, that could not have happened outside – in public – took place on a daily basis.
Can you list your top three Jazz Records / pieces?
Charlie Parker on Savoy. It was these sessions that got me hooked, put me under jazz` spell.
Kamasi Washington`s Heaven and Earth. Representing the current jazz scene.
Bill Evans` Sunday At The Village Vanguard
When I graduated from Keio University in 1970, I was wondering whether to get a job, or continue with the jazz cafe. It was listening to Parker’s Savoy recordings that helped me to understand jazz, and convinced me to carry on with the cafe. I understood the importance of creating a space that could act as a hub for jazz and jazz fans, and I decided to make this my profession. It was a life-changing experience.
Can you give details of any great jazz kissas that are no longer with us?
Shinjuku’s DIG was an excellent restaurant where really hardcore jazz fans gathered, and it was the one that inspired me to open a jazz cafe. DIG was pulled down a few years ago as the area was redeveloped – but Hozumi Nakahira, who used to run DIG now has a new bar, also in Shinjuku, called DUG. Mary Jane, in Shibuya, was another great bar, which was recently also lost to urban planning.
Is there rivalry between jazz kissas / jazz kissa owners?
There is a sense of rivalry, but it`s good-natured. More importantly there is a sense of solidarity between the people who run and own these special places. I think that the shared love of, the fellowship of, jazz is stronger than any rivalry.
http://jazz-eagle.com; 東京都新宿四谷1-8; TEL 03-3357-9857