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Jazz and the Japanese

Masato Mori

Music critic

 First put on record in 1917, jazz is a musical genre that changed with the times as it progressed in step with the remarkable revolutionary technology of sound recording. Ironically, jazz, which owes its great appeal to improvisation, spread worldwide through the record, a reproduction art. It could even be said that the history of the record and jazz are inseparably linked.

 Japan’s first "jazz band" record was made by the Toyama Military School Band in 1921. But this was music far from what we generally think of as jazz, today. Jazz, as we know it, was first recorded in Japan after 1925 by foreign orchestras, such as the Carlos C. Shaw (Orchestra) Jazz Band, who were exclusive to the stage magician Shokyokusai Tenkatsu’s company, and the Carlton Jazz Band, who were invited from Shanghai. In this same period, the Japanese band, Osaka Shochikuza Orchestra, also enthusiastically made recordings, but often had a hard time acquiring a command of rhythm and key, and still could not get the knack of swing, a quintessential element of jazz. Now, let us trace the growth of Japanese jazz before the Pacific War.

Images provided by Masato Mori.
English version released on March 16, 2018.

1. "Titina" (Leo Daniderff, composer) Ishii Zenichiro (conductor) Cosmopolitan Novelty Orchestra Girls’ Choir (singers) Nipponophone 16842-B

record label

 This is a recording that preserves the form of early jazz performance in Japan. The Cosmopolitan Novelty Orchestra was an eleven member jazz band put together in 1924 by Ishii Zenichiro (1896-1978), a landowner in Tokyo’s Kanda district. It was comprised of Ishii (sax, conductor) and his sons, as well as college students from Keio, Waseda, and other universities. "Titina" was an arrangement based on the big American hit record by the International Novelty Orchestra (Victor 19586. Recorded February 5, 1925). The distinctive characteristics of the Cosmopolitan Novelty Orchestra really shine through, including the Girls’ Choir. This band was active until 1937. This was recorded on February 15, 1928. The record was released in April of the same year.

→Listen to "Titina"

2. "Sing Me a Song of Araby" (Horiuchi Keizo, lyrics translator;  Fred Fisher, composer; Ida Ichiro, arranger) Futamura Teiichi (singer) Nippon Victor Jazz Band Victor 50460-B

 Ida Ichiro (1894-1972) was a pioneer of Japanese jazz. Ida was active during the Taisho era in Western Japan, but he branched out to Tokyo in 1928 at the head of his own jazz band and set off a jazz boom. Since he became exclusively contracted with Victor that same year, he made many records under the Nippon Victor Jazz Band name. "Sing Me a Song of Araby", recorded in September 13, 1928, was Victor’s first recording and was released in November of that same year. It is a lively performance along with Futamura’s singing. On "Rekion" (The Historical Recordings Collection) you can listen to a rendition of "Sing Me a Song of Araby" released by Nipponophone in the same period by Futamura Teiichi and Amano Kikuyo (singers) and the Red Blue Club Orchestra (released in May 1938).

→Listen to "Sing Me a Song of Araby" (Victor)

→Listen to "Sing Me a Song of Araby" (Nipponophone)


Victor "Sing Me a Song of Araby"


Nipponophone "Sing Me a Song of Araby"

3. "Collegiate" (Nat Bonx and Moe Jaffe, lyricist/ composer; Sakuma Takeshi, arranger) Sakuma Takeshi (singer) Luck and Sun Jazz Band Victor 51103-A

record label

 College student bands were popular from the Taisho to Showa eras. The most popular among them were Keio University’s Red Blue Club Orchestra and Hosei University’s Luck and Sun Jazz Band. Band leader Sakuma Takeshi was a talent who composed, arranged, played the drums, and performed vocals. "Collegiate" is the rare Japanese jazz song performed with lyrics in English. This is a disc that conveys the youthfulness and joy of a college band playing. It was recorded in September 14, 1928, and released in April 1930.

→Listen to "Collegiate"

4. "Dinah" (Nogawa Kobun, lyricist; Harry Akst, composer; Thomas Missman, arranger) Midge Williams (singer) Columbia Jazz Band Columbia 27874-A

 In 1933, the African-American singer, Midge Williams, (1915-1952) visited Japan by way of Shanghai. She appeared at the "Florida" dance hall in Tokyo’s Akasaka Tameike district. The opportunity to finally listen to genuine jazz vocals should be heralded as a major event in the history of Japanese jazz. During her stay in Japan, Midge made five recordings accompanied by the Columbia Jazz Band. This arrangement of "Dinah" with Rodger Seguire (piano) (who came along to Japan with Midge) and Nanri Fumio (trumpet) really swings and sets off Midge’s vocals. After Midge Williams returned home to America, where she distinguished as a jazz singer, she became active in radio broadcasts and records. This was recorded on February 21, 1934. The record was released in May of the same year.

→ Listen to "Dinah"

5. "Sing Sing Sing" (Kiriyama Reikichi, lyricist; Louis Prima, composer; Hattori Ryoichi, arranger) Miyagawa Harumi (singer) Columbia Jazz Band Columbia 29620-B

record label

 Before the Pacific War, the number of singers who were able to develop a jazz sensibility was limited. Not surprisingly, the majority of these singers were Japanese-Americans who came to Japan from America’s West Coast. Miyagawa Harumi (1914-1992) came to Japan in 1934 and was active in shows and radio broadcasts. Her appeal was her husky voice and her urbane air of swing. "Sing Sing Sing" was a song she recorded in which she specifically called on the arranger Hattori Ryoichi. The Columbia Jazz Band performs Hattori’s seamless arrangement perfectly. In terms of performance and technique, this recording suggests that Japanese jazz has achieved a level that does not pale much at all in comparison to that of American bands. This was recorded on July 16, 1937. The record was released in January 1938.

→Listen to "Sing Sing Sing"

6. "Sweet Jennie Lee" (Mine Tokuichi, lyricist; Walter Donaldson, composer; Mine Tokuichi, arranger) Dick Mine (singer) Dick Mine and His Serenaders Teichiku 15121-A


The Cover of "Teichiku Records New Catalog" (April 1935)
The photo is of Dick Mine.

 Dick Mine (1908-1991) achieved a unique jazz vocal style by imparting the Japanese lyrics with a more English sounding pronunciation. Though he practiced jazz tirelessly, his efforts shine through not just in vocals, but in composing and arranging, as well. The version of "Sweet Jenny Lee" which includes Nanri Fumio on trumpet and Mine on steel guitar is a Mine Tokuichi (a.k.a. Dick Mine) arrangement. The record was released in May 1935.

→ Listen to "Sweet Jennie Lee"

7. "Saint Louis Blues" (William C. Handy, composer; Furuta Hiroshi, arranger) Furuta Hiroshi (trumpet) Victor J-54592

record label

 Japanese jazz entering the Swing era was sustained by excellent players. Many jazzmen became proficient in jazz playing techniques by performing in dance halls and attractions. Trumpet player Furuta Hiroshi performed in the dance halls of Osaka and Kobe, but later moved to Tokyo. He joined the Nippon Victor Jazz Orchestra in 1936. Recordings of trumpet solos were rare before the Pacific War, with the recordings of Nanri Fumio and Ito Tsunehisa being the only in existence, besides those of Furuta Hiroshi. This was recorded on March 25, 1939. The record was released in September of the same year.

→『Listen to "Saint Louis Blues"

8. "Kojo no Tsuki" (The Moon over the Ruined Castle) (Taki Rentaro, composer; Sugii Koichi, arranger) Sugii Koichi (conductor) King Novelty Orchestra King 57008

record label

 Sugii Koichi (1906-1942) was a highly unique arranger active before and during the Pacific War. He arranged swing versions of many popular and folk songs and called it "Salon Music". This is a famous up-tempo stomp arrangement of Taki Rentaro’s "Kojo no Tsuki" (The Moon over the Ruined Castle). The trumpet’s (Kitsukawa Tadashi) rendition of the main melody, the tenor sax’s (Matsudaira Shinichi) ad-lib, and the intermezzo with the clarinet’s quotation of Shojoji no tanuki-bayashi (The Raccoon Dogs’ Concert at Shojoji Temple), and the stand-out solo make this an arrangement that overflows with thrilling build-up and force. The record was released in January 1941.

→Listen to "Kojo no Tsuki" (The Moon over the Ruined Castle)

9. "Kusatsu Bushi" (The Kusatsu Song) (Popular Japanese Folk Song, Arranger unknown)  New Order Rhythm Orchestra Columbia AK-158B

 JOAK (Today, NHK Central Tokyo Broadcasting Station) began short-wave radio broadcasting internationally in 1935. With the intensifying situation of the time, international broadcasting, which bolstered its propagandistic mood, increased its use of high-quality classical music and jazz to grow its listening audience. The New Order Rhythm Orchestra was a big band put together for international broadcasting, and was assembled from top-class players and a core of players from the Columbia orchestra. This name comes from the Shintaisei (New Order) Movement. Today, four musical works still exist from the recordings for broadcast that the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) entrusted Columbia with producing. "Kusatsu Bushi" is arranged in the style of a Count Basie Band blues orchestration. The clarinets and alto-saxes respond to the brass section in mechanical rhythm. The latter half transitions to a walking bass line and climaxes with a piano joining in. This recording may represent the pinnacle of performance and sentiment in Japan during the pre-Pacific War period. This was recorded in February 1941.

→Listen to "Kusatsu Bushi" (The Kusatsu Song)


  • Mori Masato, Nippon Suingutaimu (Swing Time in Japan). Kodansha, 2010, p. 317.

(Masato Mori, Music critic)

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