Kanoa Mendenhall: Jazz Bass

Although I initially wanted to explore and try a new activity, I continued playing jazz bass (my line of work back in America) for my CIP here in Kyoto and Osaka. It has been a wonderful experience being able to participate in the Kansai jazz scene while at KCJS this spring semester.

As all jazz musicians do to get introduced to the local scene, I started off by going to a jam session in the area in order to meet local musicians. This was one of the main objectives of my CIP – to continue going to a regular session that had other members consistently participating.

The first session I attended was a weekly jam hosted by Kyoto University’s student-run jazz circle. The sessions were how typical jazz jam sessions go; a newly fused band collectively chose standards from the Great American Songbook and improvised on these tunes. Students from KyoDai as well as students from additional neighboring universities were involved in these sessions. Getting to know these students from various areas eventually led to participation in other jam sessions at other universities and venues.

As the semester progressed, not only did I get to know fellow musicians my age, but also people from a wide age range who shared a similar passion for jazz. Meeting people from different backgrounds and generations allowed me to practice my keigo and respectful expressions a fair bit. In addition, I had to do quite a lot of writing/messaging to people who I had just met at each session, which was good practice.

One aspect that varied a bit from gatherings in America was the formality, such as saying よろしくお願いします to all of the other members on the bandstand without fail before playing each tune (at jam sessions). This surprised me quite a bit at first, and was a shock compared to the cold, cutthroat atmosphere of New York jam sessions. Also, it has been confusing to decipher the distance between musicians and when to use honorifics. The jazz scene in Japan is unique in the case where numerous musicians have studied or lived in America, therefore demonstrating the vibe and casual approach of American jazz musicians (slang, handshakes, affirmative shouts during performance, etc.), yet there are still limits to how close you can get to a person, especially if there is a rank/age difference. I once called a club owner (who lived in New York for multiple years, knows jazz culture well) that I thought I had established a firm connection with (after multiple casual interactions) by their first name, and they reacted quite hostilely. It took some time getting used to, but overall I found that musicians in the Kansai area are friendlier and supportive of each other, which I wish there was more of in New York City.

These jam sessions ultimately lead to a few performances in formal settings, called by members I met at jam sessions such as the one at Kyoto University. The performances typically involved rehearsals and preparation beforehand, and involved some energy and time. Nevertheless, they were highly rewarding, and I’m especially grateful to the teachers and friends from KCJS who came to my gigs. Continuing music while in Kyoto was one of the highlights of my study abroad experience, and has provided much joy and language practice as well as career connections that are sure to be useful in the future. There were some language barriers at times, but music, especially jazz, is a language and mode of communication itself.

4 thoughts on “Kanoa Mendenhall: Jazz Bass

  1. It sounds like you had a good opportunity to continue playing your instrument and explore the Jazz scene in Japan. Was there ever a time at which you felt that individuals outside of the United States tend to interpret Jazz differently, especially without the cultural history that lies behind it?

    • I didn’t have a chance to directly ask the musicians here what they think of jazz, how they got into it, or about authenticity… the music I played with them was just how it sounded back in New York, and they knew the history/discography of musicians well. But overhearing conversations during breaks in between sets, they recognize that the music they play is a black American art form, and they pay great respect to the masters who shaped it. The musicians that I’ve met in Japan truly love the music, but don’t claim that they made/own it, which I appreciate.

  2. Kanoa! I so enjoyed seeing you perform in Osaka last week. It was amazing to witness this cultural exchange, especially when you played little ‘musical quips’ and made the other musicians smile and laugh. I agree with you 100% –music is truly another language in itself! Best of luck with your upcoming tour 🙂