A student’s narrative on saxophone, jazz and the young community behind it
Written by Camilla Chandra Lim
Edited with an introduction and notes by Theo F.
This article is written in 2018 by a former SLI intern to explore the untouched side of a student at TIU. This is an interview with Maria, who was E-track Jazz member.
On the stage, black-clothed musicians stood. After a brief prelude and a glance at the pianist — a gulp, a nod, and a sigh — the center figure closed her eyes and began to sing. It’s a piece everyone knows by heart: Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to The Moon. Altogether they were there, and they were alone, save for the hushed chatters and muted bass that made the atmosphere unnervingly intimate.
Had you wandered away from the central area of the last International Festival, and into the quieter corner of the campus, you would have witnessed it all. The university’s jazz club, Mellow Dolphin, had converted the dining hall into a jazz café. Dimmed lights, golden brass and all, it was a scene pulled straight from a little-gemmed jazz bar in a tumbledown Tokyo alley.
“In jazz, the stage is yours. You have solo parts, and you can do last-minute improvisations. You don’t conform to what’s already arranged, so it’s very free-form,” says Maria, then a saxophone player for the Mellow Dolphin Jazz Club, in an interview. Upon persuasion from the club members, she settled on the stage for a song. “I guess that’s why I have always loved jazz.”
Growing up with a natural love for jazz, proliferated by Sinatra, Maria sheds light on her disappointment at how fast the community indulges with contemporary validation back in Indonesia. “We have the annual Java Jazz Festival. Strangely enough, the main lineups are not jazz artists or bands, but pop singers. They put the musicians on the smaller stages and gave more spotlight to more popular artists,” she explains. “It’s different in Japan; there are just more who will appreciate the music.”
Upon moving here, Maria reached out to the university’s jazz club and stayed for two years. In the days leading up to the rehearsal, the 10-pound saxophone (tenor, she emphasized) stood a stone’s throw away from her bedroom. Jazz is the belly of Japanese subculture, I thought, as she expands how the band is propelled by talent and justified rounds of nomikai (drink gatherings).
But she spoke about the reluctance to accept international students that still exists in an opaque film within the community. When asked about this, she began to talk about what it was like to navigate her way through the predominantly Japanese club from the ground up.
Was playing the saxophone a challenge at the beginning?
Maria: I played the flute back in high school, so some of the fingering techniques were pretty familiar. That doesn’t necessarily mean I aced it; playing the saxophone and the flute are two completely different things. There were still a lot of things that I didn’t know before I began learning. For example, you don’t blow into a saxophone as you would into a flute. We had no teacher who could teach a noob like me. I was guided by other members for the basic techniques, but I mostly needed to learn by practicing.
What was the practice routine like? Was it as rigorous as how mainstream media portrays it?
It can get intense, especially during weeks before a concert or rehearsal. We could practice every day until late at night. We have short briefings at every start and separate the practice into three sessions: individual practice, section practice, and practice as a whole band. If there’s no particular schedule, we would meet every Tuesday and Thursday from 5 pm to 8 pm.
The Mellow Dolphin Jazz Club is mainly made up of Japanese students. How did you adapt to the community?
I was put in a very awkward and uncomfortable position when I first joined the club. Everyone seemed to know their tasks and position — most of all, everybody had already known everybody. It was hard for me to communicate in Japanese, but it got better with time. When we transitioned to the spring semester afterward, it was easier to organize everything and include me as part of the band. It took some time to warm up — both from me and the Japanese students.
How did you react to the language barrier as a new member?
The first time, it was hard for me to understand Japanese, although not in the way you’d think. It’s less about your necessary Japanese skills and more about how you can understand and interpret Japanese contextually. It’s something that you couldn’t have learned from the textbook. There was this one time where this club member told me he’s not performing for the night by saying, ‘honban ni denai (I’m not going out tonight).’ I couldn’t understand him because I was confused. What did he mean by ‘denai’? Also, if you’re saying you are going to play a song, you say, ‘noru (go up),’ which, if you translate it literally, means ‘to get on.’ It took quite some time for me to comprehend these terminologies.
What was it like to play as a beginner among other musicians?
Back in high school, I was in the orchestra club. No one had taken it seriously, and I didn’t improve on anything. When I joined the jazz club, I was more serious because I genuinely wanted to play the saxophone. You needed the skills and talent to play an instrument, but most of all, you needed the commitment. You’ve signed up for the club, and you can’t just test the waters. Sometimes we play easy songs, and sometimes we play more challenging pieces, and it’s okay if you can’t do part— regardless, you have to practice.
Where does Mellow Dolphin Jazz Club stand in the young community in Japan?
We have joint concerts with other bands. Every year, we would also play for the Kawagoe Big Band Jazz along with other universities. In terms of skill, however, I would consider our band underskilled. Most of us are newcomers and beginners. There’s this big jazz competition called the Yamano Big Band Jazz Competition, and we didn’t sign up because our skills aren’t there yet. We have some great, talented members, but the majority haven’t reached the level where we can compete.
In 1964, 15-year-old student Haruki Murakami got a ticket for The Jazz Messengers and fell in love with the music on site. He would then buy a building in outer district Kokubunji and open a jazz bar, called Peter Cat, with his wife Yoko. From the time Murakami shut the place down (business was slow) to his international success in Norwegian Wood (critics argue he’s just a peddler for global pulp), he had won four literary prizes and found passion in running.
Beyond the eclectic contours of his life, however, Murakami, disciplined and now acclaimed, exemplifies the footprint of other jazz enthusiasts: much like how it drapes the breadth of his books, the music cannot be alienated from their banal routines.
It was humid on that night of August. At her last sentence, silence nestled between us. The echoes of last year’s rehearsal oscillated in its first orbit, and in the feverish months after the worldwide pandemic lockdown, the shock had finally settled. The university announced it would cancel this year’s festival. The first online semester ended. Uncertainties rang among the creative groups and artists like the deafening summer cicadas outside the room: When will we play again? Will there be any shows this year? What will happen to our community from here?
For now, Maria, much like other musicians, must remain satiated with the hope that they will climb on stage again someday. “I’m happy with where I am today,” she solemnly adds. “Things were better before the coronavirus pandemic. By all means, I’m not the best with saxophone, but I genuinely enjoy playing with the band. I just wish we could be back to play again. A solo on the stage—that’s my dream.”
Across the room where we sat and on her desk, her saxophone reed rested and remained untouched in the following months after our conversation.
*The interview has been edited for brevity
Due to the COVID-19 situation, the International Festival got cancelled again last year (2021). However, Mellow Dolphin was able to host a small concert on campus, where Maria stood on stage one last time before having to graduate this summer.
Campus Globalization is grateful to Camilla for providing this write-up.
Camilla graduated from Tokyo International University last month with top grades. You can find her on LinkedIn.
Mellow Dolphin practices on Tuesdays and Wednesdays this semester, and can be found on Instagram: @mdjotiu