To say Japan is a nation that loves jazz would be a rather criminal understatement. It’s said that the country’s unexpected relationship with this soulful music dates back to the 1920s, when the genre was first introduced by Americans from the U.S.-occupied Philippines. Yet, like everything that reaches this country, the Japanese have reinvented the local scene to craft their own unique version of jazz culture.
Tokyo is the heart of Japan’s jazz scene, home to the densest population of jazz bars and clubs in the country. No matter the night of the week here, you’ll find a hidden hole-in-the-wall hangout hosting a raucous party until the early morning.
With so many bars scattered across the city, it can be near impossible to select where to visit, so it’s best to consult an “expert” in the field. Marty Holoubek is a jazz musician and member of The Lagerphones, a six-piece collective who’ve been doing the Tokyo jazz club rounds for a number of years now. According to the band, these are the seven clubs you can’t miss on your next Tokyo jazz pilgrimage.
“Located down a side street in Shimokitazawa is the Apollo. The room is intimate, decorated with instruments hanging on the wall, and the owner Miura San is an absolute legend who has been supporting the local live music scene for eons. Head here if you’re feeling anything from old jazz tunes to more experimental improvised music in an up-close and personal setting.”
“The famous Shinjuku Pit Inn is one of the most notorious jazz clubs in Tokyo. It’s a bigger venue than most, and they host both a daytime show and an evening show practically everyday of the week. The bands are always of the highest caliber, and anybody who’s anybody in the Japanese jazz scene has played here.”
“Overflowing with a charming Showa-era atmosphere, this jazz-loving hangout is one of the city’s most unique. It’s filled with cats. Seriously. Cats. Everywhere. Okay, so they’re not real cats, but they’re cat dolls in the thousands! This eccentric bar is worth visiting if not for the music, then for the extensive collection of faux felines.”
“What makes this Kichijoji venue particularly special is punters get to witness bands performing in the round. As in, the band faces each other in a circle and the audience sits above and around the circle for a very unique viewing experience. This is one of the more enjoyable ways of performing as a musician, as you get to interact with all the band members face to face.”
“The team at Salt Peanuts in Ekoda have always gone out of their way to accommodate international touring acts, but if you’re wanting to see Tokyo talent, the venue supports a lot of local musicians, too. Nearby you’ll find the legendary yakitori joint Hishakaku, the perfect place for an after-show snack, but – shhhh – it’s a bit of a secret because they sellout of tebasaki way too quickly.”
“A staple for many international touring acts, the Cotton Club doubles up as a restaurant and a basement jazz club. Given its reputation for being one of the best clubs in Tokyo, don’t be surprised if you bump into some of the country’s biggest jazz names here. The venue itself has a great vibe, a grand piano, and the bar staff make a mean drink.”
“Intro is a very intimate, up-close and personal jazz club that hosts a late-night jam session almost every night. Get drawn deep into this rabbit hole, and there’s a good chance you won’t emerge before the sun does. The bartender, who curates the jam session, often jumps up and rips a wild alto solo in between serving drinks. Definitely a wild vibe.”
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