Tracing a Giant Step: John Coltrane in Japan
by Katherine Whatley
July 2016 marked the fiftieth anniversary of John Coltrane’s 1966 trip to Japan. Due in part to the fact that Coltrane died within a year after his trip, his Japan tour has reached near-mythic status for researchers and fans, both within Japan and around the world. It was a major event in the short life of his final quintet and their post-Ascension free jazz sound. Coltrane’s visit marked a high point in the popularity of jazz in Japan – and of Japanese producers’ ability to bring famous acts to Japan. It was also a dividing point, separating those who dug the new music and those who chose to remain with bebop and the old guard. To this day, older jazz fans will recount what they thought of the quintet’s performances as a testament to their jazz music credentials.
Coltrane visited a rapidly changing Japan. Japan experienced ten percent economic growth per year starting from the mid 1950s through to the energy crises of the 1970s (1). Thanks to increased disposable incomes and access to foreign music, by the late 1960s jazz fans were no longer confined to the major metropolitan centers of Tokyo or Osaka. Swing Journal’s widely read monthly issueslisted jazz clubs and record shops throughout the nation. The quintet’s tour schedule reflects this widespread jazz listenership: The group held seventeen concerts, held over fourteen days, during their sixteen day trip in Japan. They travelled throughout Honshu, the main island of Japan, crisscrossing back and forth on the barely two-year old Shinkansen bullet trains connecting Tokyo and Osaka, and even made it to the southern island of Kyushu. They visited smaller, more provincial cities where they performed in city concert halls and civic centers. Unlike previous big name visitors of the 1950s, Coltrane’s last quintet brought their music to listeners throughout Japan (2).
While jazz listenership was confined to those elite enough to go to ballrooms and purchase costly records in the pre-war period, jazz slowly became a pastime for all classes of Japanese in the post-war period. In the ‘40s thanks to the Armed Forces Radio, Japanese had the opportunity to listen to all forms of American popular music, including jazz. By the ‘50s, many Japanese, particularly those in cities, became serious jazz fans. However, it was not until the ‘60s that jazz really became widespread throughout Japan. In fact, Coltrane’s tour schedule throughout Japan would have been unimaginable a mere ten years earlier – there simply would not have been a big enough jazz fan base outside of urban centers to even contemplate bringing big name jazz musicians like John Coltrane to small, more regional cities. By conducting an in depth exploration of Coltrane’s Japan tour, I hope to add to already existing knowledge on Japanese jazz history as well as on Coltrane discography more generally.
This article is heavily indebted to The John Coltrane Reference (3). In fact, I see the project of this article as an extension of the Reference and I hope to add and augment to the quintet’s chronology laid out in the book. I also consider this project to be a work in progress; there still remain many unanswered questions and gaps in the chronology of Coltrane’s tour of Japan. By publishing this article, I hope to bring to light some of these gaps.
Extended Chronology of the John Coltrane Quintet’s Japan Tour July 8 to 24, 1966 (4):
John Coltrane Quintet:
A press conference was held to mark the start of the tour. In Japan, press conferences with musicians often started with a short welcome piece of music or two, lasting no more than five minutes altogether. According to Ennosuke Saito, a Tokyo-based promoter instrumental in bringing Coltrane to Tokyo, the quintet performed a forty- to forty-five-minute-long ballad before starting the question-and-answer session of the conference (6). Due to the length of the Quintet’s performance, journalists needed to leave the conference before the actual questioning had begun.
Ennosuke Saito was the interpreter for this conference and was with the band throughout the tour as their guide and interpreter. During the press conference, Coltrane answered most of the questions, though all members of the quintet were present for the duration of the press conference. Many established members of the jazz press were in the room, including the dean of Japanese jazz journalists, Shoichi Yui, who had already published many articles on Coltrane and had a wildly successful jazz radio program.
Koyama Kiyoshi, then a young freelance jazz journalist, who went on to be editor of Swing Journal for many years, asked Coltrane what he would like to be in ten years. Coltrane responded with the now-famous comment: “I’d like to be a saint” (7), According to the Coltrane Reference, on the extant recording of the press conference, Coltrane and Alice laugh after this comment (8); take the laughter by John and Alice Coltrane after this comment to mean that it was a joke. On the other hand, when I spoke with Koyama, he took the answer to be a serious statement connected to Coltrane’s spiritual and mystical beliefs. Given that Coltrane passed away roughly a year after this press conference, it is not surprising that the possibly flippant statement has become an important factor for those trying to analyze how Coltrane may have thought about spirituality and the afterlife leading up to his death.
Coltrane also held a decidedly less formal interview session with members of the Three Universities Modern Jazz League from Waseda, Keio and Rikkyo Universities. Interview topics ranged from religion and the black power movement to Coltrane’s new post-Ascension sound (9).
He also held an interview in his hotel room with Kazuaki Tsujimoto later in the day. Tsujimoto recorded parts of all three interviews, some of which were broadcast on the radio soon after and have been released multiple times (10). The interview with Tsujimoto touched on Coltrane’s interest in Japanese music and religion. In the interview Coltrane said that he wanted to listen to Japanese music and visit temples while on tour, as well as see how rural Japanese lived (11).
In addition to the violin and flute that Coltrane brought from the US and was practicing on throughout the tour, Coltrane invited a Japanese instrument vendor to his hotel in Tokyo, where he and Alice Coltrane purchased a shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and koto (a thirteen string transverse harp). Though no known recordings of Coltrane playing the shakuhachi exist, it is said that he played the instrument frequently during his last few years.
John Coltrane’s interest in non-Western musical forms, particularly towards the latter part of his career, is well documented. Those who worked with him have stated that he was inspired both musically and spiritually by a wide range of musics. Elvin Jones says that during his time with Coltrane in the latter half of 1965, “John was studying a lot of the religious philosophies of different parts of the world. He was also interested in Japanese folk tunes [and] ... had a shakuhachi” (12). Alice Coltrane confirms this passion for musical and philosophical exploration; she states that Coltrane was particularly interested in Indian Buddhism and that starting in 1966 he carried with him always a small book entitled Light on the Path, about Indian philosophy and the occult (13). In addition, she says that Coltrane listened music from Japan, India, and Brazil, among others (14).
July 10, 1966 Sunday 6:30 Sankei Hall, Tokyo
There were significant problems with turnout throughout Coltrane’s tour. Even their first concert, at Sankei Hall in Tokyo, was only about half full. The regional concerts apparently had an even worse showing. Still, Coltrane and his quintet performed long intricate concerts regardless of the turnout. The first concert of the tour reportedly lasted between one and a half to two hours without a break, and many of the following concerts seem to have been of similar length. Multiple sources have discussed the length of the concerts; critics like Shoichi Yui were in awe of Coltrane’s stamina and control over long periods of time (15). Others wondered if these lengthy concerts contributed to the divided reception that Coltrane received (16). This quintet’s previous performances were limited primarily to festivals and club gigs – as such this tour would have been one of the first times they performed in concert settings where they could play as long as they wanted.
July 11, 1966 Monday 6:30 Sankei Hall, Tokyo
The quintet performed Afro-Blue, Peace on Earth, Crescent and Leo. The concert was recorded by Nippon Hoso radio and was later licensed to Impulse!. This is the most widely circulated audio artifact from the quintet’s Japan tour.
July 12, 1966 Tuesday 6:30 Festival Hall, Osaka
July 13, 1966 Wednesday 6:30 Hiroshima Kokaido, Hiroshima
July 14, 1966 Thursday 6:30 Nagasaki Kokaido, Nagasaki
Coltrane spent his time in Japan travelling between Tokyo and other cities throughout the archipelago. In addition to the urban centers of Osaka and Nagoya, the tour extended to Nagasaki and Fukuoka, both smaller regional cities on the southern island of Kyushu (17).
During Coltrane’s visit to Nagasaki, he offered a prayer at the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Park (18). At the suggestion of a local Nagasaki reporter, upon their arrival in Nagasaki in the late morning, the band visited the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Park in order to pay their respects. Coltrane took the visit seriously, and it was here that the now iconic image of him bowed in prayer was taken. After the visit, Coltrane continued to discuss the visit and the impact American aggression had on Nagasaki with other members of the band during the tour (19).
July 15, 1966 Friday 6:30 Fukuoka Shimin Hall, Fukuoka
July 16, 1966 Saturday 6:30 Kyoto Kaikan, Daini Hall, Kyoto
July 16,1966 Saturday 11:30pm Syochikuza Osaka, Osaka
July 17, 1966 Sunday 6:30 Kobe Kokusai Kaikan, Kobe
The quintet performed Naima, My Favorite Things and Leo.
The Kobe Shimbun newspaper was instrumental in helping bring John Coltrane to Japan. According to Ennosuke Saito, after George Wein insisted that Coltrane should visit Japan, Ennosuke Saito and Tokutaro Honda, a Tokyo-based promoter, were determined to find a way to make the tour economically feasible. Given that the quintet’s performance fee was appropriately high for Coltrane’s stature, they needed outside sponsorship. Honda successfully gained sponsorship from the Kobe Shimbun newspaper, which would later go on to also assist Honda in bringing Art Blakey to Japan. Racked with attendance problems, ultimately, Coltrane’s tour ended 12 million yen in the red – 247,927 in 2016 US Dollars (Saito, 82) (20).
July 18, 1966 Monday 6:30 Koseinenkin Hall, Tokyo
Coltrane’s free jazz performances received both positive and critical reviews in the domestic jazz press. One critical review by jazz pianist Masao Yagi, known for his collaborations with Charlie Mariano and love of Thelonious Monk, was published in the August 1966 issue of Swing Journal. Yagi wrote that the musical influences were “childish” and that “the technique was not always good.” Most significantly, Yagi claimed he was not against free music, but rather that Coltrane’s music didn’t have substance (21).
In contrast, one particular positive review stands out from the rest. Shoichi Yui, a jazz critic and radio host based in Tokyo, attended both the press conference and at least one of Coltrane’s Tokyo concerts. In his review, Yui wrote an impassioned defense of self-expression, improvisation and freedom through jazz and stated that the one and a half hour concert made him happy to be alive [生きてよかった！]. He pushed his readers to listen once again to the new jazz that Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane were propagating and wrote that: “You don’t need swing for the music to have meaning” (22).
July 19, 1966 Tuesday 6:30 Koseinenkin Hall, Tokyo
July 20, 1966 Wednesday 6:30 Festival Hall, Osaka
July 21, 1966 Thursday 6:30 Shizuoka Kokaido, Shizuoka
Sometime during his time in Japan – probably at this concert date due to its proximity to Yamaha’s factory – representatives from Yamaha approached John Coltrane about sponsorship. Yamaha, a Shizuoka prefecture based company, had started as a piano and organ manufacturer which after World War II became known for their motorbikes. Eager to break into the international musical instrument market, Yamaha began production of woodwind instruments in 1965, a year prior to Coltrane’s tour of Japan (23).
At that time, eager to elevate their brand’s image, they were actively seeking sponsorships from American jazz musicians. Ennosuke Saito worked for the company in that capacity, and helped to secure sponsorships from Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. According to Saito, Mr. Ota of the wind instrument division brought Coltrane a number of saxophones to try out, as models for his own custom instrument the company would make. Saito mentioned how impressed he was that Coltrane did not ask how much he would be paid for endorsing Yamaha, but rather freely sampled the various saxophones. Coltrane chose one instrument and then gave valuable advice to the Yamaha representatives abut how they might improve their instruments (24). Coltrane passed away before his custom instrument could be finished.
Coltrane is known to have played the alto sax while in Japan. If that instrument had been given to him by Yamaha, assuming Yamaha did in fact come to see him during his Shizuoka concert, he could only have played the instrument from this concert date onwards.
July 22, 1966 Friday 6:30 Koseinenkin Hall, Tokyo
The quintet performed Peace on Earth, My Favorite Things and Meditations/Leo. The concert was recorded by Nippon Hoso radio and was posthumously licensed to Impulse! for release. The recording has been reissued on LP and CD multiple times along with the recording from July 11.
Jam session with a number of Japanese musicians including: Akira Nakano and Takashi Shibuya (trumpets), Sadao Watanabe (alto sax), Hidehiko “Sleepy” Matsumoto and Jiro Inagaki (tenor sax), Masanaga Harada (bass) and Hideo Shiraki and George Kawaguchi (drums).
July 23, 1966 Saturday 6pm Aichi Bunka Kodo, Nagoya
The quintet performed Peace on Earth, My Favorite Things, and Leo. The concert lasted two and a half hours.
July 23, 1966 Saturday midnight into July 24, Sunday morning Video Hall, Tokyo
The John Coltrane Quintet’s tour of Japan continues to be representative of a certain moment in time for the Japanese and for fans of John Coltrane. In Japan, the late sixties were filled with student protest, turmoil and artistic uprisings – all fueled by massive economic growth. Though the decade was divisive, the late 1960’s are a time for which many Japanese remain nostalgic for to this day. To many jazz fans, Coltrane’s tour is evocative of a time when jazz was not merely a subculture but national obsession. For scholars and fans of John Coltrane, this tour was the apex of Coltrane’s last group. Within a year, Coltrane would die young and become a saint – quite literally for some. The many unanswered (and indeed unanswerable) questions – what did Coltrane think of his time in Japan, did he know he was sick while he was touring, what were his musical and spiritual thoughts at the time – lead many back to the events of this tour looking for answers. Ultimately however, the music is key; fifty years on the Live in Japan recordings remain just as evocative now as they were then.
1) Lucien Ellington, “FSI | SPICE - Learning from the Japanese Economy,” September 2004, http://spice.fsi.stanford.edu/docs/learning_from_the_japanese_economy.
2) The Glenn Miller Orchestra visited Japan in the same month that John Coltrane did. Interestingly, the orchestra also travelled to various parts of Japan, including the southern island of Shikoku, which suggests that there were listeners and fans of all kinds of jazz music throughout Japan in 1966. Though the orchestra toured for a total of seventeen days, they only performed a total of sixteen concerts, compared with Coltrane’s seventeen concerts over fourteen touring days “コンサートへのご案内 [Concert Listings],” Swing Journal, July 1966.
3) Chris DeVito et al., The John Coltrane Reference, ed. Lewis Porter, 2013.
4) The chronology laid out here is based on that in The John Coltrane Reference. Unless otherwise stated, all chronology information comes from the Reference.
5) Unless otherwise stated Coltrane refers to John Coltrane.
6) As discussed below, Coltrane was given an alto sax by Yamaha part way through the tour. Further listening to extant recordings is needed to determine whether he brought an alto sax to Japan, or whether he played the alto sax only after he received it from Yamaha. Similarly, Pharaoh Sanders may also have been provided with instruments while on tour.
7) Ennosuke Saito, “人間コルトレーン [The Human Coltrane],” ジャズ批評 [Jazz hihyo], 1983, 84.
8) Koyama Kiyoshi, June 2016.
9) DeVito et al., The John Coltrane Reference.
10) Chris DeVito, Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews (Chicago, Ill.: Chicago Review Press, 2012), 272.
11) Transcripts of these three recordings are also published in Coltrane On ColtraneIbid., 265–80.
12) Ibid., 278.
13) Leonard Brown, ed., John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music, 1st edition (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2010), 67.
14) Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music, 1st edition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 259.
15) Ibid., 274.
16) Shoichi Yui, “三十年に一度の感動 [Passion but Once Every Thirty Years],” Swing Journal, August 1966, 114.
17) Saito, “人間コルトレーン [The Human Coltrane],” 90.
18) Though Hiroshima and Nagasaki were mid-sized cities and within the range of possibility for jazz acts in the 1960’s to visit, it may strike some readers as surprising that Coltrane’s tour visited both of these cities on adjacent days. I too have been wondering if this was mere coincidence or not – a mere twenty years after the dropping of the atom bombs, I wonder if the spiritually minded Coltrane may have wanted to visit these cities. I have not yet been able to ascertain who exactly determined the schedule for the 1966 tour and this will certainly go a long way in determining to what extent the visits to these two cities were related to Coltrane’s spirituality.
19) Perhaps because Hiroshima is the more famous of the two cities affected by atomic bombs, this image is often erroneously thought to have been taken in Hiroshima, and not Nagasaki.
20) Ibid., 92.
21) The yen was pegged 360 yen to one dollar starting during the post-war Occupation years through 1970. By 1966, thanks to Japanese economic growth, the yen was severely undervalued, which helped with exports but negatively impacted those bringing in goods or services. As such, the dollar value of the 12 million yen deficit of the tour ($33,3333 in 1966, or $247,927 in 2016 terms) may not reflect how serious this deficit really was.
22) Masao Yagi, “彼の目的は＜行為＞のみ？[Is his aim merely to act?],” Swing Journal, August 1966.
23) Yui, “三十年に一度の感動 [Passion but Once Every Thirty Years],” 115.
24) “Yamaha Corporation-Brand and History,” Yamaha, accessed October 22, 2016, https://www.yamaha.com/en/about/history/.
25) Saito, “人間コルトレーン [The Human Coltrane],” 78–81.
26) This strangely named hall was a small concert space located in the old Asahi Building in Yurakucho, Tokyo which sometimes featured the work of jazz musicians and avant-garde artists Miki Kaneda, “The ‘John Cage Shock’ Is a Fiction! Interview with Tone Yasunao,” Museum of Modern Art, accessed October 19, 2016, http://post.at.moma.org/content_items/178-the-john-cage-shock-is-a-fiction-interview-with-tone-yasunao-1; “1958年ジャズコーラスの祭典 [The 1958 Jazz Chorus Festival],” accessed October 2, 2016, http://peanuts-holiday.jp/JAZZ_RECITAL.html.