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A Tsunami Washes Away 10,000 Albums, But The Music Plays On

Ken Terui poses with musicians at Johnny's Jazz Cafe.
John Burnett
Ken Terui poses with musicians at Johnny's Jazz Cafe.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami took more than 13,000 lives and wiped whole towns off the map of Japan. One of the lesser-known casualties was the loss of a great jazz record collection — the life's work of one man.

It belonged to Ken Terui, a jazz aficionado who owns Johnny's Jazz Cafe in the northeastern prefectural (state) capital of Morioka, a rural region known more for aging rice farmers than jazz lovers. Discovering Terui's club — everybody calls him Johnny — was the high point of my three-week assignment in Japan covering the aftermath of the tsunami.

The unlikely evening began when my translator, Chie, and I sat down in a tiny restaurant in Morioka for yakatori (skewered grilled chicken) and fell into conversation with a lively Japanese woman named Ritsuko sitting at the counter next to us. She volunteered that she loved jazz — especially Count Basie — and before long she asked us if we'd like to follow her to the city's only jazz club.

We walked 10 blocks in the chilly late-spring night, came upon a brightly-lit pharmacy, descended a flight of stairs, and entered a basement jazz den. The patrons were sipping highballs in a haze of cigarette smoke. The walls of the club were plastered with posters of Japanese jazz musicians.

Ken Terui stood behind the bar mixing drinks. He's a young-looking 64, with a salt-and-pepper beard and he wears a traditional Japanese apron called a maekake. He walked around the bar and introduced himself to us — I don't think he got many gaijin, or foreigners, in his place.

Terui is an authority on Japanese jazz. He lectures, produces records, produces concerts, and collects. His collection of more than 10,000 recordings — mainly vinyl 33 rpm discs — was a treasure trove of Japanese jazz artists such as tenor saxophonist Miyazawa Akira, pianist Honda Takehiro, and drummer Masahiko Togashi.

Ken Terui produced the album Kogun, the debut recording from the big band led by Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin. (Ironically, the cover art to the initial U.S. release features a giant tsunami engulfing several musical instruments.) With Terui's permission, we are posting the title track. --Ed.

Unfortunately, he kept his collection at a coffeehouse he owns in his hometown of Rikuzentakata, a seaside resort town known for its beautiful beaches and 300-year-old pine trees along the waterfront. On the afternoon of March 11, the magnitude-9 earthquake caused the sea to surge in a fearsome black tide that obliterated Rikuzentakata's town center and killed a tenth of its population.

In the ensuing weeks, Terui visited the site of his jazz emporium, which has been run by his ex-wife for the past decade. (She is safe.) So complete was the devastation that he could scarcely find the building's footprint. The only relic he spotted of his beloved collection was the cover of an album he produced years ago, partially buried in a pile of debris.

"Rikuzentakata is a town without a major industry or port," he said. "It is a very quiet and humble town and the people there showed great fondness for culture such as literature, art, and music.

"Now it is washed away," he said, his voice trailing away.

Johnny's Jazz Café is an oasis for jazz lovers in Morioka. The night I was there, every jazz musician in town showed up for the Saturday night jam session. The performers included a young singer, Kanemoto Mari, who took the microphone for a version of "Take The A Train." As far as I could tell, Mari spoke no English, but she belted out, "You'll find you missed the quickest way to Harlem" like a native speaker.

Japanese love jazz. The music came to Japan in the early 1920s by way of Filipino jazz bands who learned it from American GIs during the American occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century. During the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II, Japanese jazz flowered.

In the early fifties, the American hard-bop jazz pianist Hampton Hawes was stationed in Yokohama, where he was leading a U.S. Army band, when he noticed a remarkable young Japanese pianist named Toshiko Akiyoshi. She went on to become Japan's most celebrated jazz artist. As a pianist, composer/arranger and bandleader, Akiyoshi has been nominated for 14 Grammys and named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Now 81, Akiyoshi still plays concerts around the world, and when she's in Morioka she can be counted on to play a set at Johnny's Jazz Cafe. They are close friends. Her picture is posted everywhere in his nightclub.

"Just a minute!" Terui said. He ran into the back of his club and returned bearing a fruitcake tin. It came from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, which is somewhat famous for its Christmas fruitcakes. "Toshiko has sent me a fruitcake every year for 31 years," he said proudly, through my translator.

Terui said Toshiko Akiyoshi is planning to play a concert in Rikuzentakata and nearby Mizusawa on Aug. 9-10 for the benefit of tsunami victims. The name of the concert is taken from one of her songs titled "Kibo," or Hope.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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