Big in Japan: A night out at Tokyo’s jazz clubs

While first timers on the Tokyo night scene can’t seem to get enough of Roppongi and Shibuya, at some point the binge drinking and skirt-chasing has to stop. So, if you’re looking for a slightly more sophisticated night out on the town, here’s a quick introduction to Tokyo’s blossoming jazz scene…

Jazz is an American musical art form that originated in the early 20th century in the southern United States. A confluence of African and European music traditions, jazz erupted on the scene, launching successive generations of iconic performers from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis.

Although you may be surprised to hear this, jazz in Japan actually has a long history dating back to the 1920s. While American soldiers where occupying the nearby Philippines, jazz performers started touring the dance halls of Japan, particularly in Osaka, Yokohama, and Kobe. However, jazz was subsequently banned in Japan during World War II due to its overwhelming “Americanness,” though it had strong resurgence during the post-war years.

Given this lengthy history, it’s no wonder that jazz continues to thrive in Tokyo’s night spots. While there is no shortage of underground clubs and small bars where you can hear live music, today’s column is about the big hitters on the Tokyo jazz scene, namely the Cotton Club and the Blue Note.

Perhaps the most famous jazz club in the history of the movement, the Cotton Club in New York City’s Harlem operated during Prohibition, and featured some of the greatest American entertainers of the era including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and many more.

Since 2005, Tokyo’s installment of this American classic has been attracting some of the finest domestic and international jazz sensations. The ballroom at the Cotton Club is also a nostalgic throwback to the original Harlem theatre, though the expansive dining menu featuring such items as ‘Braised Abalone and Cabbage in Yuzu Flavor’ is decidedly Japanese. With that said, you can always get a highball of fine Kentucky bourbon if you suddenly feel nostalgic for a bit of Americana.

While not as historically significant as the Cotton Club, the Blue Note in NYC’s Greenwich Village first opened in 1981, and is today regarded as one of top jazz venues in the world. The Blue Note has also been site of several live recordings, including The Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio Live at the Blue Note, Arturo Sandoval’s Live at the Blue Note and Jose Feliciano – Live at the Blue Note.

Tokyo’s highly-acclaimed installment of the Blue Note opened to rave revues in 1988, and continues to attract some of the world’s most famous jazz performers. The auditorium itself is an Art Deco-influenced minimalist space of richly hued woods and pale blue hues, while the menu features an eclectic assortment of Japanese and European classics from foie-gras terrine to bamboo shoot salad. Of course, jazz is music is best appreciated over a martini glass filled to the brim with a potent brew.

Both the Cotton Club and the Blue Note certainly aren’t cheap nights out, though they offer a nice change of scene from the Tokyo club circuit. Besides, we all need to grow up sooner or later!

The Cotton Club is located near the South Marunouchi exit of Tokyo station. For more information, check out their website at or contact them at +81-3-3215-1555.

The Blue Note is located near the B3 exit of Omotesandou Station. For more information, check out their website at or contact them at +81-3-5485-0088.