Shout Good News

by Frank Lev, Dec 1, 2001 | Destinations: Japan / Kyoto

At the Repos Club in Kyoto

Every Sunday night there is a jam session near the heart of downtown Kyoto at a place called "Le Club Jazz." There, for the relatively modest price of 2000 yen (about $20) you can get 2 drinks, a small plate of nuts, and a chance to get up on stage and strut your stuff. The format is similar to jam sessions everywhere. There is a house band that plays one or two tunes by themselves, and after that, anything goes.

At Le Club Jazz the talent runs the whole gamut, from the very bad (where's the gong?), to some of the best local musicians. One of the tasks is to try to judge where you are on the talent spectrum. Also you never know who just might drop in. Le Club is nice in this respect because the fine musicians regularly show up. For the professionals, this is where you can visit old friends in a relaxed atmosphere and try out new ideas. For the novices and talent deficient, it's a chance to rub elbows with the near greats and perhaps get something that's missing from your art. However you must be careful because there is a fine line between getting inspiration and getting discouraged. It's the difference between, "I'll never be that good," (probably true) and "Wow look how I could sound if I work really hard."

The first time I went to Le Club Jazz I was nervous. However there was no need to be. As an American in a jazz club (jazz originated in the USA) I was given celebrity status. Everyone wanted to talk to me. I was welcomed at every table. When I played (not too well by the way), people applauded generously. Even after I played people were still very friendly. Wow! This is what it must be like to be famous. I could say nothing wrong. English was ok here. All the songs were, after all, sung in English (with funny sounding Japanese accents though..."fry me to da moon"). I felt that I had found a home in Kyoto.

However, the second time I went, this overflowing warmth was gone. I was just another guy. It turned out that the first time, I had experienced the Japanese welcome. You only get it the first time. They roll out the red carpet. So after that when I played poorly, people didn't applaud or even listen. That was okay with me though. I felt like one of the guys (and gals), and I continued to go there about once a month.

Last month when I went, there was another American in the crowd. He was a big black man. He had a striking appearance: Hair tied back, gold earrings in both ears, and gold teeth. He looked bad. He sat in the corner with a small entourage. He seemed to dominate the room. He got up to sing in the second set. He was obviously a polished performer. He sang with skill and style. He had it all. His name was Terry. The best thing about him though, I found out when it was my turn to play. He listened intently to the music. I could feel him listening to every note I played. When I had a good idea and something nice came out he was right there with an "Un huh." "Now you got it." "Yeah". It was like I was having a conversation with the man. When I finished my solo he put his big beefy hands together and clapped loudly. A few others followed his lead. I watched him. He did this for everyone who played. He listened, he drank it in. Even for the less skillful and less experienced players, he found something in them to appreciate. Between sets I went over and introduced myself. Who was this guy?

"My name is Terry Forsythe. I'm from Detroit, but now I stay in LA. I'm in Kyoto for a month. I'm singing down at the Repos Club in Gion every night. Stop by and check it out. You can come as my guest because there is a 10,000 yen cover charge (about $100)."

I thanked him and went back to my table. Many American performers who are not really big in the U.S. are stars in Japan. They come over every year for a month or two and play the circuit, making big money and having a great time. Terry was one of these. Each year he came to Kyoto and stayed in a fancy hotel and sang three 30-minute sets a night. Pretty cushy. Gion was a part of Kyoto that I didn't know much about. It was the "entertainment" section of town. There were fantastically expensive clubs in Gion. That was where geishas and meikos plied their trade. When you walked around this part of town you often saw them tripping along in their strange outfits and pancaked skin. This was the home of the host bars, a kind of bar that we don't really have in the West. It was way out of my league. I thought it over and figured that this might be my only chance to see this kind of place.

On Thursday after work, at around 9 pm, I headed down to Gion in search of the club. It was in the basement of a rather small hotel. It didn't really look like much from the outside. I walked down and came to the entrance. There was a beautiful woman behind the counter. She looked me over. I had on a leather jacket and jeans. I had a bulging backpack with all my teaching materials in it. I don't think I passed the test. "10,000 en please."

"I'm a guest of Terry's" She hesitated for a moment and picked up the phone. The manager came over and said in pretty good English, "Can I help you?"

"Yes I'm a friend of Terry's . He said I could come over and watch his show as his guest."

"I see". He picked up the phone and called Terry. "What is your name?"

"I'm Frank," and added a moment later, "from "Le Club Jazz." Terry confirmed that he did indeed know me. The manager took me over to the side, "We can let you in as our guest, however you must pay for drinks. They are 1000 yen apiece. Is that all right?" That was fine with me.

"I know you won't mind sitting at the bar. That is where we put our special friends." This guy was so full of it. The bar was actually in another room where I couldn't even see the stage.

"That will be fine," I nodded. What else could I say?

"You know Terry from Le Club Jazz. Are you a musician?" the manager continued, a little friendlier now that business was out of the way.

"Yes, I play sax."

"Really," his eyebrows arched. "I'm learning to play the sax. I have two of them, a Selmer tenor and alto. I often practice here at the club before the customers come in. "He must have seen the look of yearning in my eye or maybe the drool coming out of the corner of my mouth. I brought a soprano sax with me to Japan, opting to leave my precious tenor back home. I hadn't played a tenor for seven months. The difference between playing a tenor and playing a soprano is like the difference between a handshake and a kiss. "Would you like to play my tenor?" Would you like to make love to my beautiful wife? He took me to the green room where performers go before they go on stage. There in the corner were two beautiful saxophones. I picked up the tenor and put it to my mouth. It was a beauty. I diddled around a little. The manager seemed impressed.

"Terry won't be here for about 45 minutes, maybe you'd like to play a few songs with the band." Would I? The club was small. I don't think they could have fit fifty people in there. It was not particularly plush. But where they spent their money was on the stage and the sound system. There was a quartet up on stage. They sounded good. They had a man on the lights. They had a man on the sound board.

Before I knew what was happening I heard, "blah blah blah, San Francisco blah blah saxophone sensation blah blah Furanku." The spot light hit me. The band asked me what I wanted to play. I chose one of my favorite tunes. They nodded and kicked it off. I stepped up to the mike. It was lively. It picked up every little sound and breath that I made. It sounded perfect. I was in heaven. Even though there was only one couple in the house, I didn't care at all. That sound man was on me like a hawk. If I backed up inadvertently out of range, he turned up the gain. I sounded great. So I played three tunes with the band and then they played three tunes. Then they took a break.

About that time Terry came in. He immediately came over and said hello. I thanked him and we sat and chatted for awhile. It was about 10:30 and still there was only one couple in the club. So Terry said, "Come on Frank let's go visit some other places." He had his cell phone handy. The manager would call him if it got busy.

We headed down the street to "visit some old friends." We walked down tiny Kyoto streets and up small staircases that wound around. We came to a small bar about the size of someone's dining room. "Terry san!" Everyone crowded over. There were mostly beautiful women in the bar. This was a hostess bar. The women who worked there were somewhere between prostitutes and waitresses. It was their job to sit with whatever men came in. When a man came in the bar, two or three women would sit with him, pour his drinks, listen to him, laugh at his jokes, touch and flirt with him. You had to pay a hefty charge for all that attention. You could easily spend $500 in a few hours. Because I was with Terry though there was no charge. He was after all a star of sorts, so it was good business just that he came into the bar. It was nice being surrounded by beautiful women. They touched my knee when they talked to me. They laughed at my jokes. I knew it wasn't real but it was nice to pretend for a while.

We went to three of these places and then headed back to the Repos Club. By then it was about 12:30 and the place had started to fill up. It was mostly salary men, older businessmen, accompanied by much younger women. While we waited for them to come in, Terry and I sat down and talked. He told me he was a religious man and that he lived each day with God in his heart. I had met his kind before and usually I tuned then out pretty quickly. But there was something different about Terry. Whatever he was doing, it seemed to be working. Here was a man who was genuinely turned on to life. He was excited about life. He truly appreciated people. He talked to me as if I was his best friend or brother.

I started to tell him about my problems, my worries. He listened to them all and told me things that seemed to cheer me up. Mostly it was things like, "Don't worry Frank, God has a plan for you. You just have to decide that God knows what's good for you better than you do. God can make you happy beyond anything you can do. Give him your life and you'll be joyous." I know it sounds like "that talk," yet in that setting, coming from this man who really listened to people, it started to make sense. I wasn't happy. My life was empty. Maybe there was something to what he had to say. I asked God to give me a sign, show me the way. Terry said sometimes you had to wait a while for the sign to show itself but when it did, you would know it.

Then it was time for him to go on. As he was going out onstage after his big introduction, he gave a big smile to a waiter who gave him the thumbs up. I had heard him sing in the jazz club and I knew he was good. I wasn't prepared though for what I saw. Terry Forsythe was an amazing entertainer. He went out there and made sure people had a good time. He didn't just sing, he made you happy. He did James Brown, he did Otis Redding, he had everyone smiling and laughing. He sang for 30 power-packed minutes and then came back and sat with me. We talked more. He was just interested in talking with me and what was on my mind. Maybe he was just lonely and starved to speak to another American after a month in Japan, but he told me all about his life. I felt like we were best friends. I loved this man.

I played another three songs in the next set, then I watched Terry do another set. It was great. By now it was 3 am. I had to work at 9 so I said my goodbyes. Terry insisted on paying for my drink. I bought his cd called SHOUT GOOD NEWS. He signed it for me, TO FRANK. GOD BLESSED YOU SO STAY BLESSED. KEEP THE FAITH. TERRY FORSYTHE. I went outside and saw that the buses had stopped running. I was about two miles from home. I thought about shelling out the 20 dollars for a taxi and I probably should have, but the cheap side of me took over. Anyway I was too pumped up to go to bed. I decided to run home. The Japanese people who saw me must have thought it strange to see a foreigner with a full backpack running at 3:30 in the morning, mumbling softly as he ran, "Show me the way God, Please show me the way."