We wound up with some of the best DJ’s in the world gathered, many of us carrying vinyl from as far as London, and no one was DJing… we just listened to full tracks on one turntable. I can’t think of a simpler concept but it felt radical and refreshing. - Devon "Ojas" Turnbull
I got antsy. I was waiting out the pandemic with the rest of the world. I needed to get my mind off the potential end of civilization. I bought an old turntable off of Craigslist.
But the story starts over 10 years ago. I was on a trip to get my fix of Japanese denim from the source – the Ueno district of Tokyo. But while there we kept hearing about the Tokyo "Jazz" bars.
While I collected and listened to vintage tube amps at the time, I wasn't familiar with the Japanese HiFi scene beyond the piles of goods for sale in shops of Akihabara. I knew a lot of vintage HiFi had ended up Japan, but didn't know exactly where it had gone. That changed when we entered under a sign which simply read "Jazz." We took a seat.
The bartender put on a record – unheard of in the US at the time. The locals starting talking to us in all the English they had available. They spoke excitedly about Jazz music. They were going to jam tonight. They lead us to a club, and jam they did. We took the first train of the day at 5AM back to the hotel.
The Jazz Kissa
After I connected my pandemic table, one record turned into another record turned into 3000 records. My interest in vintage tube HiFi became an obsession fueled by a glossy series of magazines from Japan. The connection with the Jazz bar in Tokyo became complete.
I realized, without really knowing it, I had already experienced what I had now come to know as a Jazz Kissa. Reading through descriptions of small rooms with vintage audio systems and extensive jazz vinyl collections, I knew this was something I wanted to experience at home, and I started researching the concept in the US.
The Listening Bar without listening
What I was seeking in the US was a space where the act of listening to recorded music was the focus. A place where my now middle-aged self could relax and listen. A place where dancing might be uncommon, but listening wasn't.
This year I've visited 7 (more or less) different spaces in the US which meet the basic criteria, but with a few exceptions the search continues. In the US there is a cultural expectation if someone is physically choosing records and playing music, they must be a DJ.
DJing has a lot of different connotations, while the idea of a "selector" or someone who curates a vinyl play list does exist, I don't think the concept is well understood. In the US DJing is almost inseparably linked to dancing, which is linked to parties, which is basically where otherwise well intentioned "listening" venues have landed.
What I find missing from the US listening room or Bar experience is the actual focus on listening. It is one thing to say music and sound is the focus. It is another thing to make listening the focus.
In 1977 Brian Eno released his landmark album, Ambient 1: Music for Airports. In the near term it changed very little, but in the long term it may have changed the fundamental way we think about consuming recorded music.
The concept of listening to music in the background while performing other tasks has been around since the beginning of recorded music. In fact the Muzak corporation programmed background music going back to the 1930s.
Eno's contribution was he codified the fact the music he was producing was intended to be "as ignorable as it is interesting." It is difficult to judge the exact impact of Ambient 1, but the term Ambient went to on to define an entire genre of music intended for variable levels of focus.
While I am guilty of playing John Coltrane's A Love Supreme as background music in a public environment, I don't think that was Coltrane's intention when he recorded the piece. Eno explicitly stated that WAS the intention of Ambient 1.
Maybe Ambient 1 was the turning point, but as time has progressed the act of listening has moved deeper and deeper into the background to the point of actively listening to recorded music as a primary activity has become the exception and not the norm.
Listening in the US
Here's my opinion on current state of listening in the US:
- The terms Listening Bar, Jazz Kissa, or HiFi bar aren't well established or understood. I've heard the term Japanese listening bar used, but the Japanese formula rarely followed. I don't think a tube amp and vinyl are the important aspects of the Japanese experience. The focus on listening is
- Recorded music has faded into the background of society for so long that I don't think most Americans understand how to listen with intention. We view music as an accompaniment to what we are doing – eating, drinking, or socializing – and not the primary form of entertainment
- When music is the focus it is accompanied with dancing and partying. This is fine, but plenty of clubs and discos already fill this niche. What is the differentiator of the listening bar?
- I think there is still open question about how sustainable true listening bars are in the US. I'm not in the service or entertainment industry, but I have run the numbers on starting my own Jazz Kissa style bar in Miami, and honestly it isn't promising. This could be why other bars have migrated to a club environment
"We just listened to full tracks"
I want revisit Devon's quote at the beginning of this entry. Why is it "radical" to just play music, one track at a time? I think expectation is that playing recorded music in a public environment either means it will be relegating to the "vibe" or a DJ is going to entertain us with dancing, fist pumping, and big drops. The concept of playing music for the sake of just playing music is still an evolving concept in the US.
I've been guilty of calling the music I'm playing "the vibe." But now I think this wrong. The next time I work on a vinyl event in a venue, I won't agree on the "vibe." I will agree on the music.
I'm excited to see the interest and advancements in listening bars in the US, but at the same time, I think the concept is still evolving. Patrons don't fully understand it, owners need to make the numbers square out, and those of us in the HiFi community might have to temper our expectations.