UNESCO has designated April 30 as “International Jazz Day.” We introduce some of the enthusiasts keeping jazz alive at Kobe University in 2023, 100 years on from the formation of Japan’s first professional jazz band, right here in Kobe.

AKITA Akira, 59: Keeping the tradition of Kobe U Band Club JAZZ alive as the chairman of the alums jazz association

Kobe U’s Band Club JAZZ brings together jazz lovers from the student body. With nearly 60 years of history, the Kobe U Band Club JAZZ has had Hawaiian, folk, and blues sections, and is currently divided into jazz and rock sections. The jazz section has an active group of alums who perform once in Tokyo and once in Kobe each year. In September of 2022, Kobe U Band Club JAZZ celebrated the 55th anniversary of its founding (though two years late due to Covid-19) and the retirement of Professor Emeritus SHŌJI Ken’ichi, who served as the section’s adviser for many years, with a performance in Kobe.

Akita, who has been serving as chairman of Kobe U Band Club JAZZ Alums Association since September 2022, has been captivated by jazz ever since he first heard Miles Davis’ So What more than 40 years ago. After starting a band while at Kobe U and practicing hard, he has gone on to form groups including a big band and a piano trio with alums of universities including Kobe U, Kwansei Gakuin University, and Osaka University and continues to perform with them. After being transferred to Tokyo temporarily for work six years ago, he continues to perform in Tokyo and Kobe around three or four times each month. “I just want to get better,” he explains as his reason for continuing to practice drums in studio three times a week after work.

In describing what he likes about jazz, Akita explains, “Everybody from students, young people, or older people—even people from other countries—all know and love the same songs, so it bridges generations. We have alums who are over 70 and still active. As the chairman, it’s important to me that we are able to pass our traditions on to the next generation”.

KIRIMURA Miyo, 38: Career, Parenting, and Jazz

Kobe U Band Club JAZZ alum KIRIMURA Miyo divides her busy days between work and raising her nearly two-year-old son, but still performs a few times a year. She first learned about jazz when she started at university. She decided to sign up after seeing a performance during a club sign-up event, finding it cool. Finding that she had a strong voice from her experience in drama during middle and high school, she turned her focus to vocals.

Having once chanced to be invited to a barbecue at the home of singer MIZOGUCHI Emiko after attending her live performance, Kirimura says that she was so moved that she was practically Mizoguchi’s disciple by the end of the meal. “I was young and full of passion, and I’d never heard any other singers with such a head-on approach to music and who are as expressive as her, which is why I wanted to study under her,” she recalls.

Of her relationship with jazz, Kirimura says, “I’m grateful for jazz because it always brings me joy. I hope to keep performing for the rest of my life. I would love to someday perform as a family with my husband, who is also alum of Kobe U Band Club JAZZ, and my child.”

TOJITANI Yudai, 23: Hoping to become a true professional sax player

TOJITANI Yudai is another young alum of Kobe U Band Club JAZZ. Since graduating in September 2022, he has been playing saxophone professionally while working part-time as a cram school teacher. After wavering between careers, he soon took the decisive step toward becoming a pro sax player, something he had wanted since he was in high school.

He first encountered jazz in his last year of elementary school. His class had to learn to play the theme song from Lupin the Third on the recorder for a class recital. At first it was difficult and no one could do it, but he discovered the fun in learning through practice. In middle school he played saxophone in the brass band, and then when he was in high school he began taking individual lessons from a notable professional saxophonist.

Meanwhile, Tojitani is also a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo, which he began in first grade, accumulating large collection medals for high marks. His successes included winning the All Japan Student Taekwondo Championship as a university freshman. He was even considering a run at the Olympics at one point, but he says that he gave up on his Olympic dreams soon though, because as he explains, “I thought it would be tough to beat those already at the top of the sport, I didn’t like practice much, and I liked sweets a lot so controlling my weight was tough.”

When he started at Kobe U in 2018, he joined Kobe U Band Club JAZZ without a moment’s hesitation. Two of his years at university overlapped with the Covid-19 pandemic, however, which left him practicing his sax at a park near his parents’ home in Osaka. He still has many fond memories of the joy of playing in groups of five or six to make music together. As a sophomore he passed an audition for Showtitle, a talent production company in the Yoshimoto Kōgyō group, and is still on their roster now. Then when he was set to graduate in the fall, he had a test and a performance at Osaka Castle Hall at the same time, leading to graduating six months late.

“Being able to make a living solely by playing music is what makes you a pro. And then you also need luck, ability, connections, and more to go with it. By working part time and saving money, I want to go to Tokyo to find great people to play with, and I also want to go to the U.S., too. I hope to be able to say that I’ve earned my pro credentials by playing jazz in my own fusion style,” says Tojitani of his resolution to continue as a pro.