Jazz Has Endured
Jazz has always held a tough position in music. Housing a long and complicated history that has endured pivotal social movements, pointed racism, and tensions with tradition and the roles of womxn throughout its time.
When the casual listener doesn’t “get it”, it’s often dismissed and written off as too complicated to approach.
Sometimes we don’t know if we’re rushing or dragging. And if it isn’t something that’s easily accessible, it already has the space to create barriers for a connection to audiences. But like a work of art, it is difficult to understand everything that is packed into such a small space at face value.
From Japan With Love
Tied to elements out of European and African regions, jazz came out of New Orleans well over 100 years ago. With so many musical elements and ways of innovation, the genre is often hard to capture in the length of an elevator pitch. The main thing to know about jazz when you first meet is how a performer can perceive a song at an individual level. The same composition isn’t always played the same way twice. Performances can change drastically “depending on the performer’s mood, experience, and interaction with band members or audience members”. These are what made live performances and albums so special in its early days. You could only attempt to describe what you experienced if you didn’t have the luxury of owning it on a pressed vinyl. Earning the title “America’s Classical Music”, jazz has remained a staple of cultural and musical expression in our time.
So where is the connection for Japan? Just how does an Asian country take so well to a genre born out of an era of Black expression? Simply put: access. Japan’s cultural landscape changed in a way that paired well with the timing of jazz’s Golden Age. Access for the Japanese to travel to the United States allowed for continued exposure to jazz at its height.
The Japanese cities of Kobe and Osaka quickly became the central hubs for jazz to thrive. Osaka housed a large number of dance halls that would host emerging jazz artists. Because of the time that this developed in the complicated relationship between the East and West, Japanese government officials sought to disrupt jazz’s “Americanness” and shut down the various dance halls across the city. This caused the scene to shift to Tokyo where it was able to reach mass appeal far beyond any further attempts to silence it.
Maki Asakawa was born in Mikawa during World War II. Originally trained on the guitar and piano, Maki (like many of the Japanese fans a few decades prior), quickly fell for the range of talent within singers like Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith.
Maki moved to Tokyo after graduating from high school. She explored her voice in various bars around the city as well as local military bases. While these aren’t necessarily venues that you would think to hone your craft and build your sound, Maki made the most of what jazz in Japan was at the time. When the time came, she released her first single “Tokyo Banka/Amen Jiro” in 1967. This along with active performing resulted in Maki signing a record deal the following year and released her debut album, Asakawa Maki no Sekai, in 1970.
The album was positively received and she became a stable voice in the conversation. It gained attention for what became a part of her signature image: classic black outfits, always paired with sunglasses and a cigarette all housed in styled black-and-white photographs. Maki went onto a steady flow of released over a 20-year period, dabbled in acting and went on to compose with Akira Sakata, Bobby Watson, and George Harrison.
Appreciation and Understanding Takes Its Time
In 2010, when Maki Asakawa passed away from heart failure, at age 67, she was at the tail-end of a three-day residency in Nagoya, Japan. Releasing more than 30 albums before becoming known for her live performances past the 1990s. Maki Asakawa did not have a sensational story with a sweet or bitter end. She was consistent and deliberate in her music career which can many times be a rarity in this business. Like jazz as a genre, appreciation and understanding for what Maki offered will indeed take its time. Her influence carries forward as Japanese Jazz hasn’t slowed its interest since her beginnings.
Due to her scarcity in this part of the world, Maki Asakawa’s discography isn’t available on any of the traditional streaming platforms. Instead, I’ll point you to some links here and here to buy her music (available on vinyl and CD).