Would a death metal song have the same edge to it if it were performed by octogenarians? Would a country-western tune have the same appeal if an Arabic man sang it?
That’s the thing about music. People will happily eat gourmet French food cooked by a British master chef. A beautiful portrait of Italy by an Argentinean painter is no inherently inferior to one done by a Florentine. Music, though, is as much a product of who is playing it as what’s being played. The who behind music irreversibly colors the what. A samba sung by a rap artist instantly loses its authenticity, as does a Bach symphony performed by jazz musicians. It’s this selectivity of origin that has defined the ebb and flow of the musical landscape throughout history.
As an example, consider that historians generally consider the work of Elvis Presley to be fairly derivative of the music of his time. There were many groups around then with sounds similar to what Elvis would become famous for. In fact, Elvis himself admitted the influence of then-contemporary black artists on him, such as Fats Domino and B.B. King. The reason that he was so successful, then, was not that his music was particularly fresh, but that he was a white man who sounded like a black man. When black people made “black” music, it was detestable “coon” music, but when a white man does the same thing, an entire nation accepts it with open arms.
How does this apply to Sakamichi? I touched upon the role of race and origin in music above to argue that the show’s themes on race and acceptance are fairly weak. The heckler at the bar was an interesting touch, but written from a narrow perspective. The episode was at the verge of tapping something potentially fascinating and relatively unexplored, namely Americans’ reactions to Asians playing jazz.
But what was that intoxicated gentleman worried about? His issue with the music in the bar was that it was “coon” music. Black music. This seemed odd to me. Would an America with the aftertaste of the internment of Japanese-American citizens in WWII still lingering really be concerned that music in a Japanese bar sounds too black?
Granted, a single drunk man speaking his mind doesn’t exactly speak for all of America, but the show still failed to ask the more obvious question: how would these surly white-American sailors react to a bunch of narrow-eyed Japanese men playing jazz? By making the issue of race one between whites and blacks instead of Americans and Asians, Sakamichi avoided making the more powerful statement. Further, I feel there were many missed opportunities to flesh out parallels between this and Sentarou’s ethnicity, as there was great irony that there was indeed a white man on stage that night.
I would give the show props, though, for its continued faithful portrayal of live sessions. The way the tune just stops dead in its tracks as a player drops out feels all too real for players who have been in a similar situation. There’s that palpable, stiff deadness in the air as if something alive and breathing had just unjustly had its life cut short.
With this, I feel like the show has redeemed itself deeply with its music. Jazz has once again become strongly thematically tied with the plot and the state of the characters. We see Kaoru retreating back momentarily to playing stiffly and awkwardly but returning to the forefront to become Sentarou’s strength. We see how each character’s music becomes an extension of what they are experiencing. With Kaoru, a momentary conflict with Sentarou cripples his playing, but he recovers as he learns about and empathizes with Sentarou’s family situation. Jun-nii’s playing is absolutely soaring (he’s even quite the vocalist) as it becomes evident that Yurika in fact fancies him over Sentarou. Further, Sentarou finds his drumming disrupted and difficult as he loses his crush to the man he looks up to most.
Speaking of, the episode’s featured tune, George Gershwin’s “But Not for Me,” fits nicely with the plot’s progression. It’s one of those jazz standards along with “Just Friends” that’s fairly upbeat and catchy that actually deals with rather sad and bitter sentiments. Perhaps it’s telling that both those tunes were originally featured in those sappy love story musicals of Gershwin’s day. Ironically, Jun is the one who sings it, a character who seems to have everything going for him.
They’re writing songs of love,
But not for me:
A lucky star’s above,
But not for me.
With love to lead the way,
I’ve found more skies of gray
Than any Russian play
I was a fool to fail!
And get that way,
Heigh ho! Alas!
And also lackaday!
Although I can’t dismiss
The mem’ry of his/her kiss…
I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
I’d like to talk, in closing, about the wonderful job the show is doing on being a gateway drug to jazz. I’ll occasionally YouTube a tune from the show if I don’t have it in my collection, and my hearts warms up a bit when I see a comment or two about how “Sakamichi brought me here” or “Sakamichi opened my eyes to jazz.” It’s obviously not an overly pervasive phenomenon, but to see new twinkling optimism for jazz in any amount is really a treat.
As just a humorous aside, I found it hilariously unprofessional to just stop and stare at a player while on stage because their playing surprised you.
This week, listen to a very different, modal take on “But Not for Me.”