Of late, I’ve been having a recurring dream. Actually not a dream, but a serial reminiscence. Dream-like in my desire for it (or something similar) to happen once more, as it did two years ago. Dreamy in my wish for COVID lockdowns to end, and travel to open up once again.
Imagine if you will…
My wife and I are visiting Fukuoka and walking along a narrow side street in the Tenjin area. It’s late morning. We could use a coffee, or perhaps even a light lunch. To our left, we see a sign in front of the door of an old, nondescript, two-story building. “Modern Jazz & Coffee JAB” says the sign. “Jazz & Coffee JAB” says the red awning above, almost covering the building’s second floor. The sign is out, and the steel roll shutters are up, so JAB must be open for business. We open the door and step inside.
On entering, the first thing we see immediately inside the door, in an alcove to the left, is two huge JBL speakers. Close to four feet high and three wide. Huge woofers and full-width horn diffusers. 4560s from the ‘70s. The sounds of Ella Fitzgerald waft from those speakers, not too loud, but delivered with authority. A great welcome.
Beyond the speaker alcove, the door to the washroom, and beyond that another alcove with a table and seating for six; three on each side. A magazine rack separates the alcove from the main space, and in back of the alcove next to the table a bookshelf with rows and rows of novels, jazz books, and manga; the bounty of reading material a sign that customers are welcome to settle in, relax, and make themselves at home.
To the right of the entrance, along the front wall, a row of three tables with seating for three, four and seven. Two middle-aged Salary Men (company office workers) sit at the three-top, and four more at the seven. All enjoy cigarettes and coffee – smoking is allowed but cell phones aren’t. Both groups discuss business in hushed tones. There is a window with mesh shutters pulled firmly down; ambient light enters, but passersby can’t see in, and customers are protected from the hustle and bustle of the modern world outside.
Separating the main floor area from the master’s (proprietor’s) domain is a low, L-shaped bar counter with stools, all empty for now. On the rear wall behind the bar, shelves containing audio equipment and records. 1975 Luxman PD-131 turntable, Zaika tube pre- and power-amplifiers, and other ‘80s pieces (back-up amp, CD player, tuner). Nothing blingy but producing wonderful sound vibes.
Still behind the bar, to the right, shelves with shochu and sake, whisky and other spirits, glasses, coffee cups, and other supplies. A shelf of records across the top. A small fridge with cold beer. Behind this wall, hidden by a long noren (Japanese curtain) covering the entrance, a small kitchen space. And between the kitchen and front seating area, a wall of records from floor to ceiling (picture a 5 x 5 IKEA Kallax, but sturdy, solid hardwood), a massive air conditioning unit, and another 2 x 5 ceiling-height unit with more records.
There are records – all jazz – literally everywhere, both in the main shelving units, and in every spare nook and cranny.
Lighting is dim. Air mildly smoky. Mood nostalgic. It could easily be 1969, which is when this shop first opened. All that has changed since then (seemingly) is the pristine wooden bar- and table-tops, and some of the audio equipment. The current owner – in his 70s and a customer in student days and through his early career – has been in charge since 2000 when the first owner passed. He changed careers and dedicated himself to preserving the spirit of JAB and playing jazz classics for as long as he is able.
We choose the rear alcove. There’s nobody there, and we can escape the main brunt of the cigarette smoke enveloping the two groups up front. We order two drip coffees (¥400 each) and settle in. My wife grabs a magazine and begins browsing. I soak in the atmosphere, drinking in everything with my eyes and ears. The coffee when it comes is delicious. We sit sipping and relaxing, each in our own way. The Ella album ends and is replaced with a Duke Ellington big band recording.
Even in the back corner, the sound in this space is wonderful. One might wonder about having two huge speakers so close together in a corner, but since bass is non-directional and most of the music played was recorded (or pressed) in mono, positioning doesn’t really matter. Bass goes low, with lovely texture. The horns produce beautiful, crisp detail. Sound overall is wonderfully organic, and what I long to reproduce in my home system someday. Sonic goals.
Noon comes and seats begin to fill with customers stopping in for lunch. The fare is simple, home-style Japanese, like omu-rice (rice wrapped in an omelet), yaki-soba (fried soba noodles with simple sauce and toppings), meat sauce pasta, and curry-rice (an unsung Japanese delicacy). We decide to order lunch; I choose the curry (¥600) and my wife the pasta (also ¥600). We’re on holiday, so I order my favourite Japanese beer, Yebisu (¥700). All super reasonable, even after 7:00 pm when all prices go up by ¥100. As with the coffee, the food is hearty and tasty; we savour it slowly while watching the lunch crowd enjoying their meals and relaxing before heading back to their offices.
By 1:00 JAB is almost empty again. We linger a little longer. An early Art Farmer album is now spinning and accompanies the last of my beer. One other customer remains – a university student in his early 20s. He studies silently and will likely pass the afternoon here while others come and go quietly. Perhaps the next Master?
We have places to go and things to do, so pay our bill and rejoin the world. Our time slip ends, but the relaxed calm remains and sustains as we go about our day.
And so back to the reality…
The Japanese are known to be some of the busiest, hard-working, singularly focused people, living in one of the densest, noisiest, pressure-filled environments on the planet. Yet somehow they have a penchant for escapism and knack for escaping. Gaming, massage, karaoke, onsen (hot spring baths and resorts), seasonal rituals like hanami (cherry blossom viewing), regional festivals, golf, personal audio, and jazz kissa (jazz coffee shops and bars) all provide distance and relief from multiple stressors like crowds, work, school, cramped living space and commuting.
Not all jazz kissa are like JAB. Some are noisier and less strict about customer chit chat and general boisterousness. Others are draconian in their disapproval of any sound that disturbs musical purity and enjoyment. Some are spacious, modern venues hosting DJs and live bands in addition to spinning records, while others are ramshackled holes in the wall with seating for only a few. Some feature the highest of high-end audio systems – McIntosh, Mark Levinson, early Luxman, Thorens and Garrard – while others cobble together systems of unknown heritage. The more popular kissa have been frequented by jazz notables over the years, and are akin to museums, with signed photos and memorabilia everywhere. All different, but unified by a love of and appreciation for jazz by owners and patrons alike.
I long for something like this close to home. Sure I can sequester myself in my basement with my vintage audio system and records and with eyes closed, achieve a similar vibe. I wouldn’t give that up for anything, but there’s something about listening to jazz in the commune of others, in a space ripe with atmosphere and history, where control of what is played is surrendered and the music lottery delivers both old favorites and new discoveries.
In the absence of a local kissa, I thank the stars that I have ties to Japan that take me back from time to time, and count the days until travel is again possible and another trip can be made.
For more of the jazz kissa vibe, check out the following Instagram accounts: @jazz_kissa, @eagle_jazz, @tokyojazzjoints and @audiokafe_gafu. And if you have suggestions for other kissa accounts to follow, message me at @audioloveyyc.