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A Temple to Jazz and Jazz Lovers, ‘Lush Life’ Continues to Provide Lifelong Social Bonds



Jazz guitarist Joshua Breakstone shares his experiences of a legendary Japanese Jazz Coffee House, Lush Life.

I’d been coming to Japan for tours twice per year for 30 years before moving to Kyoto about 3 years ago. Since most of my tours were relatively long, usually 10-12 weeks, it’s my feeling that although day-to-day life in Japan is in some ways new and even occasionally surprising to me, Japan itself is not.

Guitarist Joshua Breakstone at Lush Life

There are so many amazing things to appreciate here- art, culture, food, nature, history, kind and generous people and more! Today I want to introduce you to “Lush Life”, a place in Kyoto that I love. It’s a jazz coffee house, and a wonderful example of what is a unique facet of popular Japanese culture. 

Jazz coffee houses (in Japanese, “jazz kissaten”, although often shortened to “jazz kissa”) can be found throughout Japan, and in Tokyo alone there are more than a hundred.

They are temples to jazz and the jazz lovers who frequent and support them form deep, meaningful, and in many cases, lifelong social bonds.

Let’s take a look at the history of the jazz coffehouse “Lush Life” and it’s owner, Tetsuya Chaki. Then, are you up for a little philosophizing? Nothing too heavy- just the meaning of life, stuff like that… 

“Lush Life” owner Tetsuya Chaki became mesmerized by the music of Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis in the early 60s when he was around 14. From that point in his life, in terms of his love of and involvement with music, he never turned back. In terms of his interest in jazz styles, over time he did- from the music of the aforementioned bebop stars of the day all the way back to the roots of the music in New Orleans. He cites John Hammond’s, “From Spirituals To Swing”, Carnegie Hall concert recordings from 1938 and 1939 as having been a major influence. (For us guitarists, this set, which includes performances by Benny Goodman with Charlie Christian as well as a rare pairing of Lester Young and Charlie Christian is especially worthy of attention.) 

Chaki-san opened his first place in Kyoto, “Sugar Hill”, in 1966 when he was only 19 (The name was changed to “McCall’s” the following year and yes, it was named after the classic American magazine). Asked if going out on a limb to open his own place at such a tender age wasn’t a big risk for a 19 year old kid to undertake, he smiled and told me that it was fun and that, in any case, he was already sure by that time that he wanted to make a life in music. The clientele was colorful and consisted of a mix of students, artists, actors, musicians and more- the 60s was an exciting time in Kyoto and the scene at McCall’s must have been electric. In 1969, as a result of the influence of the aforementioned “From Spirituals To Swing”, and particularly the performances of Big Bill Broonzy, Joe Turner, and The Golden Gate Quartet, Chaki-san took a deep dive into the blues and McCall’s became the first place in Kyoto where blues could be heard. The reaction of the customers??? The jazz clientele hated the change in programming, but soon many new blues loving customers found their way to the club to soak up the music Chaki-san was playing.  

In 1973 McCall’s moved to the “Tetsugaku No Michi” (The Philosopher’s Path), a beautiful cherry tree lined path in the northeastern part of Kyoto which winds alongside a serene stream and where temples, gardens and small coffee shops abound. In this new location, coffee was served to tourists during the day, jazz was served for locals at night. 

Ten years later, the location changed again and “Lush Life” was born. The live music and jam sessions held on weekends served as a launching pad for young musicians who went on to make names for themselves. 

When I interviewed Chaki-san recently, he told me that he’s had (and still does) three loves in life: jazz, cycling, and photography. I think it may be typical Japanese modesty that kept him from including his very cool wife Michiyo-san, with whom he works every day, and his two children on the list. In the late 1980s, after having received a bicycle from a friend, he formed a cycling club, “The Rinrin Club”. Composed entirely of customers, they would go on outings en masse- fifteen or twenty persons at a time- riding all around the region. It must have been a great time!

It was in May of 1988 that “Lush Life” moved to its present location, a small park just across the street from Demachiyanagi station. At the time of the move,  the small Eizan railway line was already running to parts north, but the Keihan line, a major railway which runs through the heart of Kyoto and all the way to Osaka, had yet to open. When it did, the following year, it insured the ongoing success of Chaki-san’s enterprise. Chaki-san told me that when he saw the place- only 9 seats at the counter!- plus a table or two outside in the park, he knew it was perfect. And so it is.

It was around this time that I first entered the picture. I had very kind friends living near Demachiyanagi station who provided me the use of their guest room on my bi-annual trips to Japan and it wasn’t long before I happened upon “Lush Life”. In the 80s and 90s there were still many jazz recordings that were available in Japan but either out of print or unavailable for one reason or another in the US, and I was buying up 20 or 30 LPs (gems!) on each trip. And “Lush Life” sold LPs (and still does). Although Chaki-san started by selling items from his own collection, his stock was soon augmented by the addition of a friend’s collection. Then sometime later, after the death of his best friend- a record collector- Chaki-san was contacted by his friend’s wife who informed him that he’d instructed her to send his collection over to “Lush Life” when he was gone. So thanks to Chaki-san and his generous friends, I have many treasures in my own collection amassed from my visits to “Lush Life” over the years.

Chaki-san first became involved in bringing live jazz to a wider Japanese audience when, in 1989, he invited Jimmy Heath and his group to Kyoto for a concert which took place at his best friend’s tofu shop (yes, the same best friend who later passed away and donated his record collection to the cause! You can see a photo of this concert that hangs at “Lush Life” below). Then in 2001, he brought the great pianist Randy Weston for a concert at the world heritage landmark Kamigamo shrine for an audience of roughly 300 persons. This concert was the first of four that he produced with Weston, the last of which took place in 2012, a duo with saxophonist Billy Harper. How did his association with Randy Weston come to pass? Chaki-san told me that he first heard Weston’s music when he was about 30 but that his favorite pianists had always been Errol Garner, Thelonious Monk, and Fats Waller. He had a customer, an English woman who had managed musicians (including guitarist/pianist/vocalist Slim Gaillard whose name makes me stop in my tracks, sorry for this aside! He not only was part of a duo for many years with the great bassist Slam Stewart and the unforgettable name, “Slim and Slam”, but his 1945 recording which included Charlie Parker stands out as the first known recording of Charlie Parker’s voice. Slim’s scatting is referred to in Jack Kerouac’s, “On the Road”- and the citation is definitely worth looking up. Later in life he occasionally appeared as an actor on American TV shows including the hit series, “Roots”). She knew Randy, and when she told Chaki-san that Randy would like to come to Japan, Chaki-san took advantage of the opportunity to both make Randy’s wish come true and to deepen his own involvement with the world of jazz.

(Jimmy Heath and group on the right, Norman Simmons with fans in the photo on the left)

In 2003, again taking advantage of an introduction from his English customer, Chaki-san brought the renowned South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim to Kyoto’s Kamigamo Shrine for the first of five concerts (Ibrahim took the name in 1968 upon his conversion to Islam, having been born Adolph Johannes Brand, but previously known as “Dollar” Brand). Chaki-san was moved by Ibrahim’s music and also by the inspiring ideas and intelligence of Ibrahim the man. He recalls a visit Ibrahim made to “Lush Life” during which, at one point, the Billy Strayhorn recording, “The Peaceful Side”, was playing. Focusing deeply and intently on the music, Ibrahim cradled the record jacket in his arms as he listened, mesmerized- a beautiful image which I can imagine very well in my own mind’s eye. 

Over the course of my recent visits to “Lush Life”, I’ve heard standout recordings by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Billie Holiday, Abdullah Ibrahim (a recent 2019 live solo recording, “Dream Time”), Tiny Grimes, Doc Cheatham, and Earl Hines with Paul Gonsalves, Jo Jones and Al Hall- and more. Also a rather unique recording featuring two guitarists, Al Casey and Billy Butler with Jackie Williams on drums (“Guitar Odyssey”) which was recorded in Europe- without a bassist- and which I’d definitely recommend. Stepping into “Lush Life” is like entering another world. It’s a relaxing break from day to day life, sure to give a lift to the spirit and most definitely educational as well.

Over the years, in addition to numerous well known Japanese musicians, jazz legends from outside Japan have also stopped by “Lush Life” including Don Cherry, Billy Harper, Alex Blake, Norman Simmons, Jimmy Heath, Chico Hamilton and, of course, Randy Weston and Abdullah Ibrahim.

We’ve already touched on music and cycling, two of Chaki-san’s three loves. In 1993 he began his career as a photographer with a successful exhibition at the Beardsmore Gallery in England and has since gone on to show his work on many occasions in galleries in various locales in Japan. His photography is abstract, moving, and intensely beautiful. Like jazz, his photographs capture the feeling of a moment, of a place and a time. He has often taken pictures of crosses in reference to Monk’s “Criss-Cross” (would this be a quote in the visual sense, analogous to what we occasionally do in music when we make reference to melodic material from outside the context of the song we are playing?). When I ask Chaki-san about the source of inspiration for his work, he modestly tells me simply that he knows only jazz. But he’s also mentioned having the music of Fats Waller, Sydney Bechet and Peter Bocage on his mind as he shoots, that he’d like to capture the feeling of their music in his pictures. To me, a jazz guitar player and not a photography critic by any means, there’s also quite a bit of zen attitude in his work which opens our eyes to the beauty which surrounds us but which for whatever reason- maybe we’re in a rush or we’re not attuned to really looking, or maybe we’re just not capable of being 100% “here” or “present” at all times- more often than not goes unnoticed. Luckily we have Chaki-san’s photographs, vibrant with moments, color, visual beauty, an immaculate sense of composition, which serve as a reminder to see, to be present in the moment, to wake up, to be alive!

And, speaking of zen, of existing totally in the moment- what could be more zen than to sit in a quiet place enjoying a coffee or tea while listenening intently- in the company of similar minded people- to jazz? For starters, coffee shops in Japan are unlike those anywhere else in the world in that there is never any pressure to either leave or to buy more- you can pass an entire day in a coffee shop in Japan- and some people really do- enjoying the ambiance and oft-times reading, writing, even working on their computers. At the jazz coffee shop though, there is the shared experience, the feeling that you are with others who, like yourself, value and appreciate something beautiful and rare. Isn’t that shared experience what people have loved and sought out in movie theaters for so many years, not to mention at concerts and sporting events?

As you walk into “Lush Life”, you are immediately greeted by Michiyo-san, Chaki-san’s wife, who he met when she was a customer. They were married in 1991 and by the end of the following year had twins! Michiyo-san is a fixture behind the counter which runs along the right side of the cafe, Chaki-san is normally stationed by the turntable at the back (he changes records all day long- I love the sight of him seated with eyes closed concentrating on the music he loves). Along the left side of the cafe run bins of records above which are records on display, all of which are for sale. He rarely plays CDs (although the moving Abdullah Ibrahim solo recording mentioned above was, in fact, on CD), and confided in me it’s not possible to do so as Michiyo-san has a definite preference for the sound of records….And for many reasons, I love hearing this.

Jazz coffeehouses take on the personalities of their owners, each one, as is so obviously true in the case of “Lush Life”, is totally unique. 

I can’t help but think about the judgements Americans tend to make many times about professions, jobs, what people do for money. Usually the order of ranking- most desirable to least- is based on salary. Most people do whatever it is that they have to do to get by, and their real lives resume either when they walk out the door of their office, or as they walk in the door of their homes. 

Chaki-san is an example of someone who never bought into any of that. He’s made his own way, and has led a happy, satisfying and fulfilling life by staying close not only to the music he loves but to the biking and photography that he also loves. He’s integrated his life, his loves and his work- and yet is his work really work? No, it’s a part of the life he’s made for himself, the life he enjoys, the life he loves.

At the same time, he’s created so much for the people around him- “Lush Life”, “The Rinrin Club”, his family, his friends, his art. He’s enhanced the quality of life for the people around him by creating opportunities for the creation of deep and long lasting social connections.

He’s a major success in every way.

So, finally it’s my chance to philosophize a bit, but only for a short minute….How about the meaning of life and how we choose to spend our limited days (ok, and nights)? If more of us could take a page out of Chaki-san’s book and spend our time doing what we love, the world would no doubt be a more peaceful and better place to live. 

I asked Chaki-san about his philosophy of life and he thought a few seconds before responding, “Live in the way you like”. 


Joshua and Chaki-san

If you’d like to take a look at “Lush Life”’s website, go here:

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