Interview with Junko Moriya — The Joy of Big Band Jazz

Junko Moriya has been leading one of the best big bands in Japan for over a decade. On her five CDs of her orchestra, plus trio, octet, and sextet recordings, she chooses the best players in Tokyo, writes and arranges her own charts, and plays piano. Her big band recordings have been widely acclaimed and her big band concerts consistently sell out. She also has traveled Japan widely, working with big bands all over the country. She took time to talk about the importance of big bands and how she works with her own band.

Why are big bands so popular in Japan?

Because brass band, especially at junior high school and high school, is popular in Japan. Brass band is like a horn band, a horn-player band, though not jazz. Many people come to jazz, not because they love jazz, but from brass band. The level of brass band is really high.

So, was that the same for you?

No, for piano players, it’s a little bit different story. Drummers or bassists usually come from rock or pops band. Many horn players come from brass band. I don’t say everyone, but 70 to 80% of university big band players come from brass band. After the movie “Swing Girls,” more than 10 years ago, many high school bands and junior high school bands started to play big band jazz, too. So, these five or ten years, many players start from jazz. It wasn’t the same story before that movie ten years ago.

It seems like virtually every university has a jazz big band. The big band circle (“circle” = Japanese university clubs) might have 40 or 50 members, right?

It depends on the school. Like Waseda University, which I have graduated from, and other big universities have like 40 or 50 members. But there are small university and colleges that only have 20 or 30. Many times, they are short of brass players, especially trombone or trumpet players. There’s many saxophone players. It’s very difficult to have enough trumpet or trombone players many times.

You have been the judge for the annual Yamano Big Band Jazz Contest. How do you feel about the bands over time?

I’ve been a judge for 17 years, since 2000. Every year, it’s better and better. Of course, I myself did Yamano when I was a student 30 years ago. At that time, some of the bands had just the form of big band, but actually it was not big band. But since 2000 when I started judging, everything was getting better and better. And it’s getting better and better recently even more. After the “Swing Girl” boom, there were still not so many good teachers who can teach the big band. But now, people at my age are getting to be teachers. And they were in a good band when they were in university.

Because they know what a good band sounds like, they can teach that sound themselves.

I think student big bands, especially in high school and junior high school, depend on the teacher. If the teacher’s good, everyone can be good. If students are younger than 18 years old, they don’t have any tendency or direction yet. They are open. They don’t know how to swing, or what swing is, or even what jazz is. They just absorb what the teacher says. If the teacher is good, that’s everything.

I’m always impressed how the student big bands can organize themselves and take responsibility, and work together.

Good teachers don’t teach everything. Bad teachers try to teach everything.

They can do that because they have good teachers. Good teachers don’t teach everything. Bad teachers try to teach everything. If you teach everything directly, some of the good students can absorb that, but for some of the slower students, it’s too much, and they can’t understand. If you teach correctly to the one leader, that leader can do everything. It’s better not to teach everything.

When I went to Yamano Big Band Contest the first time, I was amazed. Students were really good. Some of them were doing their own arrangements.

That is amazing compared to when I was a student and attended Yamano. Yes, some of the good schools are good, but one thing missing is you can get anything now. It’s too easy, in a way. At that time, we can’t get many scores, or charts. We had to go to Yamano or Yamaha, because that’s the only place we can get the music. And it was expensive and you only have very popular charts like Count Basie or Duke Ellington.

“Take the A Train” over and over.

When I was at university, many school bands did the same arrangement. But now, it’s easier to get CDs. If you want something and think, “Oh, this arrangement is good,” you just email the arranger directly, ask them to send the PDF, and pay by PayPal.

You said were making some arrangements for bands? Some outside of Tokyo?

Yes, for shakaijin (working adults) big bands. I still do that and go to places like Nagoya, Osaka, Hokkaido. The amazing part is even in the very smallest places, areas or cities with 30,000 or 50,000 people, they have a big band. If you go to Osaka or Nagoya or Hiroshima, where they love shakaijin big bands, there are at least ten.

The amazing part is even in the very smallest places, areas or cities with 30,000 or 50,000 people, they have a big band.

That’s amazing!

It’s because if they do big band at university, so they know that it’s very fun to keep doing that. Maybe that’s a little bit different from brass bands, which, after finishing high school, are just over. But with big bands, they still want to keep going.

Why do you think Japanese like that so much? I mean, America also has big bands at high schools, colleges, but it seems very Japanese.

I think they just love playing music. Plus, they love gathering with people who they are not working with, who just have the same feeling. Many shakaijin bands come to my concert with the others in their group. And as you know, Japanese people like groups. They don’t mind about money. Because Japanese people work hard, too hard, they don’t get many good friends other than from the business scene. Music friends are special because they have the same goal. Just gathering on Saturdays or Sundays, they have fun. Once a year or twice a year they do a concert.

How many these bands do you think there are in Japan? If you had to guess?

I can’t say. A lot. I am from the Waseda University big band. They have an older band and younger band and middle age band. The oldest band’s average is more than 70 years old. Still playing! The youngest one in that band is 60-something and the oldest one is more than 80. That kind of band everyone graduated from the same place. The average for the younger band is like 24 or 25. And I am only talking about Waseda University. Their big band has 60 years of tradition. I know at least five or six bands, just from this one university.

Amazing. It’s a big university, but still…

We have a long history. But think about ICU (International Christian University). ICU also has a long history even though it’s a small university. Their OB (alumni) bands are at least two or three. For all of Tokyo, I can’t even guess. If I go to Yamaguchi-ken, which is very small, close to Hiroshima, they have maybe five, or at least I know of five. Yanai, Yamaguchi or Shimonoseki, they all have a big band.

So, sometimes you go there to do a workshop or…?

Sometimes, I do a workshop, sometimes these bands have concerts and invite guests. It’s easier to invite a guest saxophone player, trombone player or trumpet player, even a drummer. They usually don’t invite the pianist, but I frequently am invited as a guest because they want to play one of my charts. It’s great that they do my charts. So, I play or conduct.

And yours are not easy charts.

As I said, the bands’ level is getting better and better. Recently they play really well. Even when I go to high schools or junior high schools even elementary schools, they do Gordon Goodwin, they do Bob Mintzer. Because they have time to do it. The Japanese school system is so hard. They do morning practice, lunchtime practice, after school practice, Saturdays, Sundays. So, if the teacher has a good teaching system, they do amazing stuff.

They do morning practice, lunchtime practice, after school practice, Saturdays, Sundays. So, if the teacher has a good teaching system, they do amazing stuff.

Where do those teachers come from?  

Recently many professional musicians like horn players teach at many schools. It’s easy to get professionals. So, a good teacher sometimes will invite Eric Miyashiro or Kazuhiko Kondo to their school. They like teaching. Most professional musicians my age, they know the system of teaching because they went to Berklee, or studied at many places.

But the generation above you is not that way so much, right?

The older generation are really great musicians. But they taught themselves, because they don’t have any teaching system at that time. They just improved themselves by listening to records many, many times. And at that time, it was very difficult to get good records, and they were very expensive. Even if you have money, you can’t get everything. But now, everything is on YouTube, everything is there in Apple Music, totally free.

And books to learn, too.

And how to play videos. Even when I studied, there were some good books, but with music it is better to see how to play. So, it’s great to have YouTube. Now, even if you don’ t go to Berklee, Berklee books and videos and everything is here. It’s translated into Japanese in a correct way, because it’s done by the former Berklee students who can translate. The translation is good, because a musician is the translator.

For big bands, do you feel like people are more interested than ever before?

I think so. At least the players are getting better. Big band is a bit different from usual jazz. Like at my concerts, half of the audience is a player, not a professional, but they play something in a big band. So, they want to listen to study, because they play themselves. Of course, they want to play like the musicians in my band, so they study from what we’re playing. Half the audience just likes music, just likes jazz or big bands, and want to listen and relax. But the other half, especially younger musicians, are all students of what we’re doing.

So, your next project will be another big band CD?

I’m not decided yet. I just issued a big band CD in 2015, “Play for Peace.” Last year, I went to Perth, Australia to play music from that CD, the suite about Tokugawa Ieyasu. They really loved it. I said, “this one is called ‘Samurai Spirit.’” I didn’t play anything, but they just liked the word “samurai.” Then I talked about samurai and the shogun of 400 years ago. Australia wasn’t even born yet then. They really liked the story. Before I did anything, they already loved the song. I figured that everyone really wants to listen to what we have, not just an imitation of the United States or Europe. They want what others have that’s special and we Japanese have great history and culture.

Like at my concerts, half of the audience is a player, not a professional, but they play something in a big band.

What kind of things make it difficult to run a big band, like how do you find the time to rehearse?

Everyone in my band teaches at university, but actually, I only do one or two rehearsals before concert. They catch everything so fast so just one or two rehearsals is enough. If I use younger generation musicians, they are good, but they don’t have experience like that. I think that my quality musicians have such good experience that if I write correctly, one rehearsal is enough. If they can’t play it, that’s because I’m not good. I’ve played with the same musicians for 20 years, so they know what I want to say.

With younger musicians, their thinking is different?

The level itself is, compared to when I was that age, getting better and better. But I think jazz is about the generation and the place. Like in my band, we have the same feelings and experiences. So, a great part of big part band is, you can feel that. If I listen to music from Sweden, I’ve never been to Sweden, but I can imagine what Sweden is like. You say “Europe,” but it’s not the same for a big band from Holland, Italy, wherever. Everyone has a high level of playing, but I can feel what the landscape of France is from the music. Even Osaka’s big bands and Tokyo’s big bands are a little bit different I feel.

When you go out like smaller places like Yamanashi, it feels different in those places?

It’s different. Like Hokkaido, like cold places. Once I went to Okinawa, because the Ryukyu University has a big band. Their way of playing jazz is really like Okinawan music. They do Count Basie, but their way of doing Count Basie is like Okinawan. Different rhythm. They like to dance. Of course, they are good jazz musicians, but they still they have Okinawan feeling. That’s a great part of big band.

Between Osaka and Tokyo, how do you feel the difference?

Osaka’s students in big band, they really want to appeal themselves. I am a judge at Yamano. Tokyo schools, like ICU, Waseda, Keio, are really strict to the music, because this is a contest. Bands from places like Osaka University, Ritsumeikan University, Kobe University, of course they are serious to music, but they seem to want to show what they can do. They want to have some fun. They want to make everyone have fun. That’s why comedians come from Osaka.

The younger generation seems to have more women.

In my younger days, we didn’t have professional woman horn players. After “Swing Girls,” there were saxophone players. And now, there’s good trombone players, trumpet players, drummers, bass players, there are so many good players who are women. I myself as a woman, I’m really happy about that. In my band, there are two women trombone players.

What are you going to do for your big band coming up? What do you want to do?

I did five CDs, but it’s very difficult to make a big band CD. One, there are busy people to get a hold of and studio time is expensive. Everything is expensive. But even with that, I think it’s very important to make CDs, even though it’s very difficult to sell CDs. Younger people, they don’t buy CDs because they think that music should be free now. On YouTube, Apple music, Spotify, music is free, actually. But even with that, I think it’s very important to record CDs. Because if you have a good recording, all over the world they are always searching for something. From my homepage, sometimes I have someone from the United States, or someone from Europe write to me. They say, “I listened to your CD and it’s really interesting.” If you have a CD, someone will pick up on that. You can share your music all over the world.

Your last CD was about Japanese history, so any plans for more about Japan?

Do you know Tohaku Hasegawa? He’s a natural treasure. Art is very easy to see. Because Tohaku is very famous, people can think, “Oh, that music is about this?” So, it helps. This is about this art, this is Tohaku. I have five very famous Tohaku pieces, and I already have that kind of concept about Nanao, where Tohaku came from. There’s jazz there already. Monterey Jazz Festival in Nanao has a long history because Nanao and Monterey are sister cities.

So, big bands can capture those kinds of connections?

I think big band jazz is a mix of every culture, especially a big band with 17 or 18 great musicians. It’s always a mix of Japanese culture, classical music, another country, something from another art like dance or any kind of art, drawing, pictures, visual things like movies. Originally jazz is like that. And if you like jazz, you want to see the history you want to see the background and you want to be creative when listening. I think Japanese people like studying, but even the smallest city in Japan has a jazz coffee shop. But I am worried because so many younger musicians are great, but how can they eat? Because music is now free, or does not make much money. There are more and more good musicians, but how can they support themselves?

Junko Moriya Official Site


CD Reviews

Junko Moriya Orchestra “Groovin’ Forward”

Junko Moriya Orchestra


Michael Pronko

1-5-17 Higashi-cho
Koganei, Tokyo
184-0011 JAPAN
Phone/Fax: 0423-87-7066

Michael Pronko
Phone/Fax: 042-387-7066