Sunday, September 9, 2012


Yesterday, I woke up, got ready and headed out the door to go to Ishinomaki.  I picked up some bread and juice from the Family Mart next to my house and headed towards the shopping district and Clis Road which is a straight shot to the Sendai train station.  About two or three blocks into my journey, I noticed a large crowd joining to watch a band playing and singing from the rafters of the roof that houses the shopping district and, interestingly enough, they were singing in English.  I was intrigued and stopped to listen.  Then they sang "Leavin' on a Jet Plane".  "Blowin' in the Wind" "500 Miles"  What is this?  I wondered.  These are the songs my mother used to sing to me when I was a kid!  Who knew I would ever find them again, in Sendai of all places?

After they finished, I turned and continued my journey to the train station.  But then I got distracted by another group.  This time the group was a rock band.  They sang only in Japanese but they had a nice sound to them.  After each song, their bass guitarist would raise his guitar where he had used white-out to write the name of the band and yell, "Jiyuu desu!"  By the time their set was over, the entire crowd was laughing every time his bandmates even happened to glace his direction because we all knew what was coming.  At one point, he even looked at me and said, "In Japanese, our band name is Jiyuu!"  I started laughing as everyone turned to see me, standing there and called back, "Wakarimashita!"  (I understand)  I should have yelled back, "Freedom!" because that's the name of the band but that didn't occur to me until later. 

In what should have taken a fifteen minute walk, it wasn't until three hours later that I finally arrived, anxiously alternating between looking at my watch and the train schedules, debating if a trip to Ishinomaki was going to happen.  Besides, what I thought would be a well-contained jazz festival ended up seeming like a big party that I didn't want to miss out on. 

I decided to stay in Sendai and experience the magic of the Jozenji Streetjazz Festival.  To give you a little bit of background, this festival is one of the largest in Japan and this is its 22nd year running.  Around 800 bands come and play on 40-something different stages around the city for two days.  These stages range from a roped off section of the shopping sidewalk to an entrance of a business building to a full stage set up with lights and acoustic shell but all of these stages (with the exception of the lobby of the train station and the lobby of the Mediatheque) were outside, meaning the streets literally were filled with music.  As you walked around the city, as soon as one stage faded from hearing, another could be heard. 

Once I decided that I was staying for the festival, I decided to take advantage of it.  I headed out to Nishi Park where I got to listen and clap my hands to some surprisingly good Gospel music.  Then I headed up to Jozenji for some great, great jazz and some big band music.  I slowly made my way down Jozenji and over to Kotodai Park, where I stopped to listen to a full set by the ANA Haneda Orchestra.  Their leader (who plays an awesome jazzy fiddle) introduced the band, which comprised of captains of airplanes to people in charge of airplane food service.  This kind of made me chuckle but I found myself the only one smiling.  Moving away from some of the loud, tightly packed stages in Kotodai which played just about everything including blues, ska, folk, and rock, I found my way over to a random building where one man (a jazz saxophonist) was giving the audience (and others) the chance to participate in creating jazz.  Anyone who wanted to go up and try to jam was allowed to.  The man leading them was brilliant at making it a great experience for everyone.  If someone was hesitant about how to improvise, he would grab another instrument and help them play off of each others' melodies.  Those in the audience who were even less musically inclined were given drums and shakers and he effectively got those on the drums to improvise and jam too.  It was amazing! 

Everywhere I went, there were groups and bands of all talent levels and genres creating music and hundreds and thousands of people appreciating that music.  It was fun and absolutely inspiring.  Sendai knows how to throw one rocking party! 

I think one thing that impressed me about the festival though too is the lack of distinction.  I didn't know which groups were professional and which ones didn't.  There was no preference, from what I could see, to groups of lesser talent on smaller stages - it was based more on instrument requirements (full bands were reserved for the bigger stages - obviously) and generally fit with the feel of the musicians themselves.  Also, the musicians themselves didn't fit into any stereotypes.  Men that looked like hard rock cover band types played the blues.  A young 20 something year old man played the accordion.  Based off of Suwa-san's explanation of Gospel groups in Japan, I'm not entirely sure if the members of the groups I listened to were Christian or even understood what they were singing but they sang their praises to Jesus with soul.  My only complaint with the Gospel groups was the large lack of audience participation.  All in all, it was amazing. 

And listening to the swing music on the way to the train station after church today and the acapella on the way home from the train station, I'm pretty sure this festival had me in mind when they made it.  :)  Seriously, so much of my favorite genres of music in one place. 
 The group Peace of Mind, playing in the rafters. 
 "Jiyuu desu!"  The one in blue was the one who kept yelling.  The main guitarist and vocalist was awesome but my favorite was the second guitarist - his harmony was amazing.
 Some of the bands sparkled. 
 A glimpse of the streets literally filled with people just to listen to one jazz band. 
The man in pink helped direct everyone to become better at jazz improv.  It was so much fun.  

I'm a fan.  A pretty big one.  And based off of the crowds that I rubbed shoulders with yesterday, it looks like the fan base is hundreds of thousands strong.  Good company.  Good music.  Good job, Sendai. 

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