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A Real Life Jazz Tour in Japan

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Jazz guitarist Joshua Breakstone shares his experiences from a real-life tour in Japan from October 16-27, 2020.

I’d been living in Kyoto, Japan for about a year before going back to the US in September of 2019 to do a tour for the release of my latest recording, “Children of Art”, a tribute to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, which was released in October by Capri Records. The tour lasted 2 months and I played all over the US from the east coast to the west coast. Since the tour ended in LA at the end of November, and Japanese houses are chilly, my wife and I decided to rent an apartment in San Diego for the winter- and so we were happy to be in sunny, warm southern California.

Joshua Breakstone

We returned to Kyoto on March 1 and were, we feel, very fortunate to have left the US before the covid-19 crisis morphed into a total disaster and only days before Japan closed it’s borders.

Staying in San Diego, I’d decided to take 3 months off from playing publicly. I loved the time that I had to work on my own various musical projects, but at the same time, it was also a somewhat strange experience having never in my life gone three months without playing a gig. But I was also thinking that I’d be preparing myself mentally (and physically as well?) for the very busy schedule I would have upon returning to Japan, where I play often around Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and other places close to Kyoto and also do a lot of touring- usually every month. However, when I got back to Japan, even though the corona situation never approached anything like what transpired in the US, people were being extremely cautious…and most definitely avoiding enclosed spaces like jazz clubs.

The October Jazz Tour 2020

The first time I played publicly after returning to Japan turned out to be in the last week in June on a short two night trip- it had been roughly 7 months away from live performance! Then in July I did a tour to Tokyo and another to Sapporo and since that time I’ve been working regularly as jazz fans are slowly coming back while, at the same time, clubs are enforcing social distancing, club employees (customers too, for that matter) are wearing masks, and there is hand sanitizer wherever you look. All good.

I’ve just boarded a bus from Osaka to Okayama where I’ll be playing tonight at one of the oldest clubs in Japan, “Bird”, with a trio. Why on earth would I be taking a 3:30 minute bus ride when I could be going on the bullet train and be in Okayama in an hour? Yes, it’s less than half price by bus. But even better is that the busses in Japan have wifi and bus travel gives me time to catch up on all the computer stuff with which I’m always so hopelessly far behind. Additionally, the bus will arrive in Okayama at 4pm; check in time at the hotel, and since I don’t have to play until 8:30, the timing is perfect….and timing is everything (didn’t someone once say that?). I’ll report on “Bird” tomorrow…..

“Bird” in Okayama

“Bird” is a great old place (with a cool new sign) in an area not too far from Okayama station. It’s on the 2nd floor. Upon climbing up, you are greeted by the sight of old woodwork and tables which extend from an area in front of the stage to both the right and left sides, so it’s actually a pretty large club by Japanese standards, I’d estimate that it seats around 50 or 60 persons. My trio- bassist Akahoshi Keita and drummer Morishita Kei- played great, it was all good.

I want to mention that I stayed at a small and fairly old and grimy hotel located just a short 5 minute walk from “Bird”. Like so many cafes, bus stations, public places, restaurants, shopping malls, grocery stores, etc in Japan, there was jazz playing on a sound system throughout the hotel. On checking in I could make out the guitar of Kenny Burrell, on my way out of the hotel to walk to “Bird” it was one of my all time favorites, Freddie Hubbard playing “You’re My Everything”, and this morning at breakfast, it was Sonny Stitt.

I took a local bus to the station and am waiting on my bus to Matsuyama (on the island of Shikoku) where I’ll play tonight at another old club (called “livehouse” in Japan), “Gretsch”. I’ll report on “Gretsch” tomorrow….

“Gretsch” in Matsuyama

After finding my hotel in Matsuyama and getting into my room I soon realized that there was no bath or shower!- and after a day of traveling I, for one, love to take a shower before heading over to the gig! This being Matsuyama, an onsen (hot springs) town and home to one of the most famous hot springs in Japan- Dogo onsen- I understood the reason for the lack of bathing facilities in the room and headed over to the sento (public bath). I love sentos. Upon walking in, you take off your shoes and stash them away in a locker. Then you go into a room with more lockers where you take off your clothes and lock them up for later. In the bath area in Matsuyama there were 3 tubs- a hot one (42 celsius) with a button to push for a very strong jet massage, a slightly cooler one with natural water brought up from many hundreds of meters below, and a cold plunge. Before going into a tub to soak, you always wash, and there are stations with shampoo, conditioner, and body wash where you sit and scrub. Then it’s tub time! You leave the sento totally relaxed and feeling cleaner than you have ever felt before in your life!

Joshua Breakstone at Gretsch

I had been booked to play at “Gretsch” many months earlier, and when I contacted them just a week or so before the date of the gig to confirm the arrangements, they sounded surprised and maybe even slightly reticent about doing the gig. Clubs throughout Japan have been experiencing a lack of customers due to the corona outbreak, and they asked me if I would come and host a jam session. I have never been a big fan of jam sessions and normaly turn down jam session requests as I prefer to play my own music. But I love the people at “Gretsch”, have played there many times over the years, wanted to help them out and, incidentally, wanted to keep the date- so I agreed.

I’m very glad that I did! When I showed up at the club at about 7:15, there were only 2 people, one of which was Takahashi-san, the long time owner. But by 8pm the club was packed and the saxophones were out. We had 3 drummers, 3 bassists, 2 pianists, and 3 saxophonists, all of whom played with lots of energy and enthusiasm and what I really loved was that when they were not playing, they were listening closely, concentrating not only on what I played, but on everything their friends and colleagues were playing as well. Not one person left “Gretsch” until I was ready to go, and I bumped fists (no hand shaking during covid!) with everyone before going off, happily, into the night…Tomorrow I’ll take a train to a ferry where in 3 hours I can cross over from Shikoku to another island, Kyushu, where I’ll be giving a workshop tomorrow night (in Beppu, another very famous onsen town) and playing for the next 9 days. I’ll report on Beppu tomorrow…..

My ferry from Shikoku to Kyushu

I took a wonderful 3 hour ferry cruise from Shikoku to Kyushu and the city of Beppu where I had just enough time to check into my hotel and take a quick shower before being picked up by my bassist and promoter for the next 5 nights, Kimura Hideo. We drove to Oita City, only 20 minutes or so away, where I gave a workshop to 4 local guitar fanatics! I spoke for about an hour, had a chance to play with them all, and then played duo with Kimura-san for about 30 minutes or so.

Afterwards, Kimura-san took me to a very local and very wonderful restaurant in Beppu for a dinner of mostly fish and rice and sake. I thought I was in heaven until….I got back to the hotel and went up to the bath which looks out to the sea and the small marina below. After a good soak- It really WAS heaven- I was ready for bed. Tomorrow- no travel, we’re playing here in Beppu and the club is only a 5 minute walk from my hotel.

My day in Beppu started with a huge buffet breakfast at the hotel. To enter the breakfast room you must not only be wearing a mask, but are required to spray your hands with sanitizer and put on a pair of thin plastic gloves. Despite all that, it was a great breakfast with a view of the Pacific Ocean and the boats tied up at the docks below. Lunch was at a small restaurant- I had okonomiyaki, which is normally described as a Japanese pancake, but is really a wheat and flour batter stuffed with whatever you like, in my case it was shrimp and pork and cabbage and some other unidentified vegetables. With a sauce on top, it was great.

‘Funk’ sign

At 6:00 I met my bassist at “Funk”, a club that, despite it’s name, has been a jazz-only club for 40 years and is a great place to play. They were worried that there would be (due to covid) a very small audience, but people kept rolling in and by 7:30, when we started playing, the place was full. The audience was totally attentive and there wasn’t a sound in the place other than the music. Afterwards we went out into the night happy and, best of all, having made many new friends. A late dinner of sushi, sashimi, and cooked fish washed down with some great sake and I headed home. Tomorrow I’ll play for my first time in the town of Miyazaki, a 3 1/2 hour drive. I’ll report on it tomorrow!

In Miyazaki we played at “Lifetime”, a nice place with a truly jazz loving owner. I didn’t know anything about this place or what this place was going to be, but their credentials were established, at least for me, when I spotted their signed Sonny Rollins poster and the wonderful photos above the bar of Sonny when he visited Miyazaki and went out on the beach to practice. I met several friendly local musicians including three or four guitarists and got back into the car for the return trip- 3 1/2 hours, oh my God- too much car travel time!!!! Tomorrow will be in Oita, much closer to where I’m staying, at “Naima”, I’m looking forward to it!

“Naima” is a real jazz spot which occupies the ground floor of the owner’s house (he’s a drummer). It’s cozy and the food is great. They have the same Sonny Rollins poster hanging on the wall that I saw last night at “Lifetime”, but unsigned. The room is lined with jazz magazines and CDs. There’s a beautiful and very friendly calico cat who will jump into your lap and demand attention! We played to an audience of many guitarists plus a few others thrown in for good measure and we were served meals both before and after we played. I recommend this spot if you’re looking to experience the truly warm feel of a real local Japanese club run by gracious and welcoming people. Tomorrow night we play in Nakatsu (about 1 1/4 hours drive from my hotel in Beppu) at a club called, “Choiwaru Usagi”, which translates to “The Bad Bunny”. (Could it be a reference to Johnny Hodges? I’ll let you know if I find out)

Choiwaru Usagi is a very local jazz club with some very friendly customers, most of whom were musicians. Nakatsu is far, definitely off the beaten track, but Kimura-san knows Oita (the “state” in which all of our 5 nights together- except for the night in Miyazaki- have taken place.) We played 2 sets, and the club was absolutely silent while we played. I had a chance to talk to a pianist, drummer, vocalist, and harmonica player, all of whom were interesting, interested in what I was doing, smart, and very friendly. Upon leaving, everyone stood to applaud for us. It was a nice night and became even nicer when Kimura-san and I stopped off at a ramen place for the most wonderful ramen I have ever eaten, I didn’t know it could be that good! I’m off to the big city- Fukuoka- tomorrow! And goodbye to Kimura-san until next March.

Playing with Kimura Hideo at the cozy “Naima”

The first night in Fukuoka was at one of it’s best known clubs, “Golby”. Great people and I enjoyed it all! Of particular note: Sometime the English language names of clubs in Japan are beyond my ability to fathom (there’s been “Rugtime”, “Hermit Dolphin” and many others in a long list). I asked the owner of “Golby” (who was wearing a mask) why the club was named “Golby”. Taking off his mask, he explained with a big smile on his face that it was due to his resemblance to Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union! Can you imagine a very thin Japanese man resembling Gorbachev in any way? Wow!- I really had to laugh!

The second night in Fukuoka (which is a town but is also the name of the province within which the city of Fukuoka lies) was in Kurume at a club called “Vino and Dig”. The owner is the best known bassist in the area, Nakase Tooru. I always look forward to playing with Nakase-san. His club is very small and dark, playing there to a small, quiet and focused audience is always a good experience. After Nakase and I finished our 2 sets, I had 3 local guitar players come up and played a duet with each one. The story of the name: Nakase had a club called “Vinoteque” and his girlfriend had a club called “Dig”. When they got together, they combined the two clubs into one- “Vino and Dig”- enough said!

Last night of the tour with bassist Nakase Tooru (photo takes at “Cafe Style Jam”- we also played together at Nakase’s club, “Vino and Dig”)

On my third and fourth nights in Fukuoka, I played at “Cafe Style Jam”, the first night with Ono Toshitaka, a young bassist with whom I’d played many times before and who can really play! (I’d also played with Ono-san the first night in Fukuoka, at “Golby”) On the second night- the last night of the tour- I was joined by bassist Nakase-san and two singers, Inoue Aly and Kobayashi Setsuko. I played a few duets with Nakase-san and then played several songs with each of the singers. The place was packed and the audience seemed to love it. After the concert, the owner sent out to a Chinese restaurant for two enormous plates of wontons which were delicious beyond belief. I walked back to the subway in the cool night air and could hardly believe that the tour was at an end!

I’m on the shinkansen (“the bullet train”) as I write this, speeding back to Kyoto at about 200 miles per hour. It’s very comfortable, you might even say luxurious! It was a great and busy trip, I’ll return to these parts of Japan in March and am looking forward to visiting some of the places I played on this tour again, to seeing some new places, but especially to have the chance to see old friends again and to play music every night.


 UPDATE FROM JOSHUA REGARDING UPCOMING CONCERT: I’ll be playing with the great pianist Phillip Strange and if you’ve never heard him, you’re in for a treat- you’re going to love him. We’ll be playing “The Music of Duke Ellington” and “The Music of Thelonious Monk”, what could be better than that!

Please check it out online – I’m looking forward to seeing you on the internet! You must be signed up for the concert by the day before the concert (at the latest) in order to check out the livestream…. Here’s the link to the streaming site, (One additional tip: after choosing the number of tickets, you must register with Peatix): 

Link to concerthttps://20201211theduo.peatix.com/

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