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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT SEPTEMBER 18, 2009 All That's Jazz By JOHN KRICH
TOKYO -- Jazz musicians have often been called "swinging cats." But Jiken Miyazaki, founder of Caf└ Samurai, takes it literally. His "jazz kissaten" (coffee shop) is crammed with 5,000 varied maneki neko, traditional lucky statuettes of a smiling feline with a beckoning upraised paw.
"These cats and the music I play have a common spirit of playfulness and welcome," explains Mr. Miyazaki, a 58-year-old with an untrimmed gray beard who for 29 years has presided over this walk-up refuge from the garish lights of the Shinjuku district. It's a shrine to jazz, complete with prayer flags, Buddhist scrolls and a "mourning wall" that displays record albums by musicians who have recently died -- part of Mr. Miyazaki's personal collection of more than 3,000 vinyl LPs, the heart of the establishment.
Alfie Goodrich for The Wall Street Journal
A saxophone sits ready for action on the bar of Jazz Spot Intro, in the college area of Takadanobaba.
If jazz is America's gift to the world, Japan is the place that knows how to unwrap it. While serious musicians and devotees fret that traditional, noncommercialized improvisation is becoming as esoteric a taste as it is in the land of its birth, jazz in all its forms still pulses through Tokyo. Sixty years after this vibrant U.S. export began to take hold, it's piped into hotel lobbies as a marker of elegance and sophistication, blasted from dingy basement dives in unlikely neighborhoods, spun by club DJs and obsessional bar owners and hawked in innumerable specialty record shops. In Tokyo you can hear jazz of stunning, nearly offhand virtuosity played in clubs that range from among the world's smallest to among its most expensive.
In the words of James Catchpole, a transplanted Brooklyn native who operates the lovingly researched Web site www.tokyojazzsite.com and is planning to catalog the jazz coffee shops in a book, "While New York is the place to go for jazz musicians, when it comes to jazz fans, it just doesn't get any better than Tokyo."
The city's jazz-capital status owes a lot to these coffee shops, unique transcultural institutions -- sometimes called kissa for short -- that were once ubiquitous throughout the country. Many would qualify as historical monuments by now. Back in the 1950s and '60s, when American culture was flooding into the country and most Japanese did not have their own record collections or home stereos, these gathering places started by jazz lovers helped to educate a whole generation, including musicians in the making. In many, purchasing a single cup of java brought the privilege of asking owners to spin the latest or more obscure recordings.
"Those places were like our conservatories -- all we needed was a bowl of ramen and a request card," says 66-year-old trumpet great Terumasa Hino, who has returned home after decades in New York.
"Once we served green tea and such, now we added alcohol, but the main draw is still the music and the sound system," says Yuh Orito, who for 32 years has run the Milestone Jazz Cafe on a corner near Waseda University. Like many, he now sells mint-condition albums and jazz books on the side, but is most devoted to keeping his loyal clientele happy with the selection of coffee and music.
"I have been honored to serve as a cultural gatekeeper," he says. "I'll be here every day until my death because I have learned the meaning of true happiness."
Caf└ Samurai's Mr. Miyazaki similarly asserts the power of jazz. "For the price of a drink, people -- especially women of late -- can come to think deeply about their lives, in a safe place that's a lot more fun than a library."
オランダの公共テレビNPSの取材、今年のTIME誌「Best of Asia」への抜擢と、