~by William Minor
Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within, written by William Minor and published by the University of Michigan Press in 2004 as part of its Jazz Perspectives series, is one of the very few major works in English that focuses on jazz in Japan. Although there are many articles and dissertations that address the subject, the only other book that I know of that is specifically devoted to Japanese jazz is E. Taylor Atkins' Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan. Because jazz is such a popular genre of music in Japan I'm a little surprised that more hasn't been written about it. I myself have a background in music and an interest in jazz. Considering that I also have an interest in Japan, it was only a matter of time before I would seek out material combining the two. I've had Jazz Journeys to Japan sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now; the release of the jazz-inundated anime series Kids on the Slope provided the final push I needed to get around to reading it.
Jazz is believed to have been introduced to Japan as early as 1921. It's general appeal increased until World War II when the music was banned in 1943 due to its association with Western culture. Interest in jazz saw a resurgence during the American occupation following the war. Since then, jazz has continued to be an influential genre in Japan. Jazz Journeys to Japan is the result of six years worth of research and writing. During that period, Minor traveled to Japan multiple times seeking out, interviewing, and listening to Japanese jazz musicians, their fans, and others involved in the music industry. Minor, a veteran jazz writer and journalist, wanted not only to discover but to experience just what it was that made Japan's jazz and jazz culture unique. While in Japan he attended festivals, clubs, studios, and concerts. Minor made a point to find Japanese-influenced and inspired artists outside of Japan as well.
Jazz Journeys to Japan is a mix of travel memoir, interviews, history, and music criticism. The individual chapters, some of which were previously published before being collected in the book, are short and easily digestible. Typically a chapter focuses on specific musicians, topics, or themes and doesn't rely too much on what has come before or after it. This makes Jazz Journeys to Japan fairly easy to pick up and put back down as time or interest permits. Minor does assume that the reader has at least some passing familiarity with jazz music and prominent jazz musicians--Jazz Journeys to Japan makes frequent references to songs and artists without going into much detail about jazz standards or more well-known performers of the genre. There are a lot of names and titles to keep track of while reading Jazz Journeys to Japan.
Sadly, my overall enjoyment of Jazz Journeys to Japan was hindered by Minor's writing style which I personally found to be grating; he had a particularly annoying habit of unnecessarily inserting Japanese words and phrases into the text. I also found that I was much less interested in Minor's travelogue and personal experiences than I was in the history of jazz in Japan and the musicians themselves. The best parts of Jazz Journeys to Japan were those that focused on the music and the artists, allowing them to have their own say. It was also fascinating to read about how Japanese aesthetics in traditional art, poetry, and music have influenced Japanese jazz culture. Also extremely valuable was Minor's inclusion of a select discography. There are many musicians in Jazz Journeys to Japan whose music I will be happily seeking out.