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Japan keeps old-school 'big band' sound alive

Jazz orchestras are thriving, despite their decline in the West

TOKYO -- "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air; you can never recapture it again." So said groundbreaking jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy after recording his final album "Last Date" in 1964. Half a century later and half a world away, his comment can be found inscribed on the coasters used at Tokyo jazz club B-Flat.

Music can be recorded or streamed for home listening, but that is not the same as attending a live performance, particularly in the case of improvised music like jazz, which has been dubbed "the sound of surprise."

The experience is not purely auditory. Also important are the expressions on the faces of the musicians, the response of the audience, the smell of curry or pizza, the clink of glasses, the hum of traffic, the sense of being part of a temporary community made up of music lovers. Such moments are unique and transient, as are the musicians themselves, as are all of us. Akira Suzuki, the owner-manager of B-Flat, probably had that in mind when he had the coasters designed.

Suzuki was born in Hokkaido. In high school, he and his girlfriend Keiko attended a concert by the American group Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. It was a transformative event, preparing Suzuki and Keiko, whom he later married, for a lifelong fascination with the music. Much later, his best friend from school quit a job in the financial industry to start a jazz club. When the friend died in 2005, Suzuki took over. Times were often hard, but he kept the music flowing and spirits high even through the COVID-19 era.

Now Suzuki has gone too, knocked over by a taxi near the club on a rainy night. On a late November afternoon, friends, family and musicians gathered at B-Flat to bid him farewell. Reminisces were exchanged, some slides were shown and then there was an hour of live music featuring some of Japan's best players.

The future of the club was left uncertain -- a serious matter for many musicians and fans. For B-Flat is one of the few jazz spots in Tokyo spacious enough to accommodate a full big band, a jazz ensemble usually comprising 16 or more players. Indeed, several big bands consider it their home territory and play there on a regular basis. And big bands occupy a special place in Japan's musical culture.

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