Improvised Music from Japan / Otomo Yoshihide

Leaving the Jazz Cafe

A Personal View Of Japanese Improvised Music in the 1970s

by Otomo Yoshihide

Jazz Kissa

For myself, the most stimulating music in the 1970s was without doubt the Japanese free music of the time. Of course in Japan, as with the rest of the world, there was only a small population of listeners to this type of music, and it was in the jazz cafes of the provincial town of Fukushima, 300 kms north of Tokyo, that I first became acquainted with it.

I was a high school student living in Fukushima in the mid-70s. Even for a high-schooler then, the word 'jazz' had an old fashioned ring to it. It was the music that our parents had been into, and we were mainly of a generation that listened to rock. Still, the 'jazz kissa' (1), a phenomenon which probably existed only in Japan, was the ideal place to hang out and kill time when cutting class.

2.5 by 6 metres space. That and a pair of huge JBL or Altec speakers, a couple hundred jazz records and a bar counter were all that was necessary to open your basic jazz kissa. This was also a place rich with the youth subculture of the day. Avant-garde jazz, manga, music and culture magazines, notebooks filled with the opinions of young leftists, concerts every one or two months, and 8 millimetre film shows. Younger frequenters like myself were after the manga books. (2) There one could stay for hours to read a week's worth of manga over a single cup of coffee, then costing about 250 yen (about one US dollar), and besides, it was a lot more interesting than going to school. Youth subculture revolved around manga.

In the mid-1970s there were many young adults coming into the provincial cities from Tokyo, disillusioned by their defeat in the college student uprisings. This was part of the reason why, even in the smallest of such towns, there was always a jazz kissa. For those of us who were raised in the small towns, the jazz kissa opened a window into the cultural scene in Tokyo.

The jazz kissa would often be run by an arty, interesting man or woman, who would play records on their system all day long according to their own taste. In Fukushima, which then had a population of 270 thousand, there were four jazz kissa, two of which were quite hard core, playing music by Charlie Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and sometimes Derek Bailey or Evan Parker. These two were the ones I frequented. In time, I became a hard core jazz fan in addition to being a hard core rock fan. Of the music that I heard, I was especially drawn to Abe Kaoru and Takayanagi Masayuki.

Takayanagi "Jojo" Masayuki (3)

One of the representative guitarists of Japan, Takayanagi was the first to pursue non-commercial forms of improvised jazz. I was especially stimulated by his commentaries which I read in various jazz media. In his somewhat severe writing style, he would scrutinise jazz or improvised music always from the vantage point of its relationship with society.

In the jazz boom of the early 1960s, Takayanagi was also the first to start independent, non-commercialised workshops by musicians themselves (known by names such as the "Gin-Paris sessions"). From these scenes rose some of the musicians who would later represent the Japanese free jazz of the 1970s, such as Togashi Masahiko and Yamashita Yohsuke. However, in the 70s Takayanagi parted ways from that free jazz movement and begin to pursue a style of noise music improvisation unheard of elsewhere.

Takayanagi, who in the 50s to early 60s was a well-known cool jazz guitarist, by the 70s became the guitarist who played the loudest volume and noisiest feedback in Japan. I doubt that he had heard of AMM or Derek Bailey then, and he did not follow any rock style in his performance. Contrasting with this method - which he himself termed "Mass Direction", he had another style, called "Gradual Direction". This was a method that sheared off sounds, a spatial style which was at times performed acoustically. And parallel to this, he had a Tristano-style four-beat jazz guitar combo, and an orthodox free jazz guitar trio. This variety often threw his audiences off. Too extreme for jazz fans, and too inconsistent for fans of free music.

Needless to say however, Takayanagi was indeed consistent throughout his life in his dedication to an independent pursuit of self-expression against the background of society, and the scrutinising of his own identity through improvisation. Apart from an appearance at the Moers Jazz Festival in 1980, his performances were solely in small clubs in Tokyo before small audiences. Up to his death in 1991 at the age of 58, he was a fighter who played the most extreme music in Japan. His solo album of tape collage and prepared guitar, Action Direct, echoes like a lone hammer in the midst of the economic thriving of Japan. I was profoundly influenced by his music and attitude through the 70s and 80s, and his music continues to be a father figure to me.

Abe Kaoru (4)

An independent film director by the name of Wakamatsu Kohji undertook a film based on the lives of Abe Kaoru and his wife Suzuki Izumi, a popular writer. The film was released in 1995 and has been drawing much attention from young audiences. Sax player Abe Kaoru, who died in 1978 of a drug overdose, and left behind many other legends, was a sole charismatic figure in the world of Japanese free jazz. During his lifetime he released a mere 3 or 4 records, yet there have been more than ten CDs released of his solo live performances posthumously. All of these have sold well for free music recordings, and there are at least three books written about him. Abe Kaoru continues to be a social phenomenon in the underground world after his death.

The first gig that I ever paid to see was in fact Abe Kaoru, at a jazz kissa in Fukushima. I was a high school student at the time, and his all-improvised performance on alto and soprano sax was something beyond my comprehension. But his feedback noise performance using the electric guitar that I happened to have that day was perhaps one of the things that led to my starting free music myself. As a teenager watching his performance, I know I must have thought, "I could do something like this".

This solo performance was recorded on video, and I have since had the opportunity once or twice to see this private document. Seeing it from my own vantage today, the sax he played seems to be a certain pure kind of punk, rather than free jazz or free improvisation.

Abe appeared on the scene in the late 60s, at the age of 20. In the 1970s he met Takayanagi through one of the most aggressive and progressive music critics of that time, Aquilax Aida. There remains a single document of their performances together, Kaitaiteki Kohkan, of which only 300 were pressed. The improvisation by the two musicians on this record is much too noisy and extreme to be called free improvisation.

While Takayanagi's purpose lay in honing his improvisational language upon a groundwork of noise, born from his cool observations of society, Abe was concerned with the physicality of the saxophone, and asserting himself as a social phenomenon in the midst of the socio-political climate of the 1970s. This was, looking back on it now, similar to the charisma of rock music or punk.

Alongside many opposing sects in the 1970s Tokyo free jazz scene, Abe eventually came to fall out with Takayanagi, and until his death in 1978 he continued to live a life of solo performances and habitual drugs. I myself cannot relate to his decadent lifestyle, but I can say that his music was what planted the seeds of my later interest in punk and noise music.

From free jazz to non-category improvisation (mid-1970s)

What Takayanagi and Abe shared was an almost stoic negation of modern day society, and their pure approach to improvisation. The other people of the free music scene in the 1970s more or less shared this same attitude. It also widened the distances between the various sects of that same scene.

In the mid-70s, which was around the time that I became interested in this movement, a second generation of Japanese free music was being born, together with new styles of group improvisation. That first generation - which included Takayanagi, Abe, Yamashita Yohsuke (piano), Togashi Masahiko (percussion), Toyozumi Yoshisaburo (drums), Yoshizawa Motoharu (5) (bass), Takagi Mototeru (sax), Oki Itaru (trumpet), Nakamura Tatsuya (drums), Yamazaki Hiroshi (drums), Sato Masahiko (piano), Midorikawa Keiki (cello), Fujikawa Yoshiaki (sax) - had deep jazz influences; but the second generation - groups such as Shudan Sokai, New Jazz Syndicate and Seikatsu Kohjoh Iinkai - headed toward a more non-categorical direction. From these groups emerged musicians such as Doctor Umezu (sax), and Kondo Toshinori (trumpet).

From a completely different direction, the alternative rock scene of the late 1960s, which did not share that free jazz parentage, came musicians such as Haino Keiji, who has built up an utterly unique style of improvisation with loud guitar and voice. Also those with a background in pop such as Sakamoto Ryuichi and Chino Shuichi (both keyboards), and Kosugi Takehisa from the contemporary classical world. There have also been musicians for whom improvisation itself was the very starting point, such as Takeda Kenichi (taisho-koto), Iijima Akira (guitar), and Hirose Junji (sax). The input from these musicians helped to enrich the vocabulary of the 1970s improvised music scene, which had previously relied largely on free jazz.

By producing a solo album by Abe Kaoru and Yoshizawa Motoharu, organising concerts by Milford Graves and Derek Bailey, writing about musicians such as Han Bennink and Evan Parker in many magazines, and realizing the domestic release of Incus Records, the critic Aquilax Aida worked to bring a wider audience to improvised music. Soejima Teruto, another music critic, organised the first ever free music festival featuring most of the musicians of that first generation, titled "Inspiration & Power"; recordings were later released as a double LP. This critic also travelled across Japan with 8mm film documentation of the Moers Jazz Festival, doing film shows at jazz kissa all over the country. The poet Shimizu Toshihiko introduced and wrote criticisms on free music in various different media, in his trademark dry writing style. His writings from 1960 to today have already been compiled into three books, and this is the best of guides to free music currently available. (6)

These movements in Tokyo were observed by myself in fragments from various magazines, 8mm film shows, gigs and records in the jazz kissa of Fukushima. Between 1978 and 79, the year two central figures of the scene, Abe Kaoru and Aquilax Aida died, I decided to move out to Tokyo to become a musician like Takayanagi Masayuki. I was 19 years old. The age of politics and subculture came to an end, and Tokyo entered an age of great economic wealth in which all subculture attempted to flow into the mainstream. Entering the 1980s, the jazz kissa drastically diminished, and myself, a free jazz youth from the provinces, lost my sense of direction amidst this change. This sense of loss eventually turned me in a direction toward a new and different kind of improvisation. I will talk about this some other time.


  1. 'Kissa' - cafe in Japanese.

  2. 'Manga' - comics. By the late 60s manga were an influential media among youth in Japan, especially avant-garde manga such as Taro.

  3. Takayanagi "Jojo" Masayuki (1932 - 1991). Of noteworthy works, the following are currently available on CD:

  4. Abe Kaoru (1949 - 1978). Currently available:

  5. Yoshizawa's solo bass improvisation record was recently re-released on CD.

  6. Other recordings of early free improvisation in Japan currently available on CD:

Resonance, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1995: Special Japanese Issue
English Translation by Ito Haruna

Last updated: June 11, 2003