Kiyoshi Koyama: A life lived with jazz


“I have lived a life alongside jazz,” says Kiyoshi Koyama, jazz critic, journalist and radio host. This is apparent on a recent visit to his home in Chiba Prefecture, where he and his wife live surrounded by walls of neatly organized records, CDs, books and other archives — a lifetime of research and study.

His many interviews with the greats of jazz — John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Toshiko Akiyoshi — are preserved for posterity in cassette tapes and spiral-bound notebooks in his study and, though into his 80s, he has not stopped searching for new music, ideas or styles.

Born in Osaka in 1936, Koyama came of age in a postwar era defined by American influence in both the political and cultural spheres. Like many Japanese of his generation, his first exposure to American music and popular culture — jazz included — was through the Far East Network of U.S. military radio (and later television) stations created for forces stationed in Japan, the Philippines and Guam. The Japanese listeners weren’t its target audience, but they were among its most attentive.

Around the same time as FEN’s broadcasts, jazz experienced a resurgence in popularity in Japan. It first became popular here during the late 1920s and ’30s, but was banned during World War II, along with other non-German music from the West. After the war, however, Japanese jazz musicians took up their instruments again and began playing bebop, a new style of jazz coming out of the U.S. that was performed by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

By the early 1950s, the Japanese were in love with the genre once again. As the country began to experience 10 percent economic growth each year, more and more people here found the time and money to devote to hobbies like music. They purchased all kinds of jazz records, including older New Orleans-style jazz and what enthusiasts in this country referred to as “modern jazz”: bebop, cool jazz, west coast jazz and hard bop. In addition to FEN, they tuned into the NHK radio program “Rhythm Hour” hosted by jazz critics such as Shoichi Yui and Jiro Kubota.

American jazz musicians, meanwhile, began to tour Japan. At first they came just for the U.S. servicemen, but soon found appreciative audiences filled with Japanese fans.

Koyama’s childhood was marked by these new postwar possibilities. And, when his friend first lent him an album of the genre’s history, he became focused on jazz.

“I would rush home on the train after school to listen to NHK, to the radio,” he recalls.

The first jazz musician Koyama saw live was Louis Armstrong, during the trumpeter’s second tour to Japan in 1953. And as he grew up, he went from listening to music on his parent’s radio at home to running record concerts at local jazz kissaten (coffee shops).

After writing a thesis about the presence of the word “jazz” in American literature, in order to fulfill the requirements of his degree in English literature from Kansai University, Koyama hightailed it out of Osaka and headed for Tokyo to work at the newly launched Japanese version of Downbeat Magazine.

The magazine shuttered after a few years, but Koyama, utterly immersed in the jazz scene, decided to stay in the capital. He had already gained the attention of his peers when at a press conference for John Coltrane’s 1966 tour of Japan he asked the musician: “What would you like to be in 10 years?” Coltrane responded with the now-famous line: “I’d like to be a saint.”

That tour has reached near-mythic status for researchers and fans as it was when Coltrane indulged in some of his most free (and most controversial) music. However, it was also special for Koyama’s career as a journalist since, within a year of his asking that question, Coltrane passed away.

By that time, he had married his wife, also an avid jazz fan.

“She was the only woman in the audience at the jazz record concerts I was hosting, and she turned up again and again,” he says. Together, the young jazz-loving couple moved into a tiny apartment in one of the many newly developed postwar housing complexes on the outskirts of Tokyo.

It was to this apartment that Koyama invited American free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, during his tour to Japan in 1967. Koyama met Coleman through his job at Swing Journal, the Japanese jazz magazine founded in 1947.

“We served him sushi in our tiny home. I felt bad because our house was so small.” According to Koyama, Coleman “liked the sushi, but not the black seaweed.”

Starting in 1969, as part of his job as editor for Swing Journal, Koyama began to visit New York every summer, where he interviewed proponents of the newest forms of jazz that was being performed in the repurposed industrial loft spaces of downtown Manhattan. He would visit Coleman’s Artist House, or other loft music venues, including Rashid Ali’s Alley, Studio Rivbea, the Ladies Fort, Studio We and Environ. At these various locations, musicians were experimenting with their instruments, improvising and creating new forms of music beyond pre-existing notions of jazz or genre.

Back in Tokyo, Koyama would write about the cutting edge of jazz in Swing Journal. Thanks to him, the magazine went from being essentially a tabloid that reprinted previously published American jazz articles and press releases, to one of the go-to sources on jazz in the 1960s through the early 2000s. Swing Journal became a vital source for jazz knowledge for any serious fan worldwide.

In the ’80s, Koyama worked for record labels as a producer of box sets. He would travel to the States and mine archives for recordings. After compiling the box sets, the Japanese record labels would sell the completed package to other record labels worldwide. Through this, Koyama created “The Complete Keynote Collections” in 1986 and “Brownie: The Complete EmArcy Recordings of Clifford Brown” in 1989.

Nowadays, Koyama uses his own personal archive — created from a lifetime of collecting — for his weekly radio shows on NHK. On his show, “Jazz Tonight,” he interviews musicians (both Japanese and foreign) and plays rare records from his collection, as well as new recordings.

When asked about his opinion on the now cliched idea that “jazz is dead,” propagated by plenty of critics and popularized by the 2017 film “La La Land.” Koyama is noticeably surprised: “What do you mean, jazz is dead?”

In his mind, that notion isn’t worth a second thought — it’s obvious to him that the genre is alive and well.

Koyama leaves the room, then comes back with some sheets of paper that turn out to be press releases.

“Have you heard of (Brooklyn-based saxophonist) Noah Preminger? He made a new CD after (Donald) Trump was elected, called ‘Meditations on Freedom.’ This is jazz for me. It’s not just entertainment,” he says.

It’s as good a time as any to reflect on the history of jazz and its future. Last year marked a century since the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded the first jazz tune, which is one place to mark the official birth of the genre as an international popular music tradition (as opposed to a solely Louisiana-born musical genre).

Given his age, Koyama has been present for much of those 100 years and he has played a vital part in Japan’s postwar jazz history. When asked about his pivotal role in the progression of the genre, he takes no credit. “It’s all thanks to jazz,” he says.

Kiyoshi Koyama’s NHK radio show, Jazz Tonight, airs every Saturday night from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. www4.nhk.or.jp/jazz/. For more information on the history of jazz in Japan, check out E. Taylor Atkins’ book, “Blue Nippon.”

Kiyoshi Koyama: A life lived with jazz
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