Sadao Watanabe is a revered cultural figure in Japan, the first jazz musician to win his government's Grand Prix Award (1976), the first of many national and regional Japanese honors he's received. He's also had a jazz radio program in Japan for decades, not just spinning records but presenting live performances, many of his own compositions, which run the gamut from bop and swing to bossa nova, jazz-rock and pop. Through the years he's also toured and recorded with a number of Americans, from Chick Corea and Hank Jones to Mike Stern and the Galaxy All-Stars.
Born on February 1, 1933, in Utsunomiya, Japan, Watanabe was one of five children (four sons and one daughter). In the small town about 90 miles north of Tokyo, Watanabe’s father worked as an electrician but also played and taught the Japanese equivalent of the lute, called the biwa. It would be his father’s acquiescence to his desires that would allow Watanabe to move from this small town to the world.
By the time Watanabe was a teenager, Japan had lost World War II. The country became infused with American movies and music. With the establishment of an Army camp near Utsunomiya, Watanabe was exposed to many aspects of American culture, and he was fascinated. It was during this time that he saw the movie Birth of the Blues. The film starred Bing Crosby as a young New Orleans clarinet player trying to get his music heard.Birth of the Blues inspired Watanabe to ask his father to buy him a clarinet.
Watanabe got his clarinet. For three cents a lesson he learned some basic fingering from a local man. He was on his own after that. He listened to Armed Forces Radio as they played songs by Benny Goodman and other big bands. To teach himself he would try to copy the sounds they made. Later he would buy records and do the same thing. With little more training than this, Watanabe began playing in bands on the Army bases. He remembers that early on, crowds weren’t very enthusiastic about his skills, or lack thereof, but with time he learned.
Although he got his start on the clarinet, Watanabe would eventually be inspired by Charlie Parker’s saxophone playing and the movies that starred big band leader Les Brown. Once again, Watanabe asked his father for an instrument, this time a saxophone. Watanabe explained to Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times website, "I don’t think that anybody in my hometown… knew what a saxophone was. But that was it.
"I want to get back to basics, I want to play saxophone. I've started to love playing straight-ahead again," Sadao Watanabe said over the phone during a break in a gig at a Japanese club. The statement might be a little puzzling to American jazz fans who know Sadao (in Japan "Sadao" is as common a one-name appellation as Miles here or Pele in Brazil)—if they know him at all—as an alto saxophonist whose albums were fairly successful here in the '80s-90s. What is all this about "getting back"? Where else has he been?