Started playing clarinet in his teens, later picked up alto saxophone; formed a “Jafro” band (jazz and African music), joined pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Cozy Quartet, worked with Big Four Band, c. 1950s; became leader of Cozy Quartet, 1960; performed and recorded with Chico Hamilton and Gary McFarland in New York, 1965-66; returned to Japan, formed a quartet, started a jazz school, 1966; performed at Newport Jazz Festival, 1968; began hosting radio program, 1969; performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1970; organized Bravas Club festival (later known as Kirin the Club), 1985-; toured North and South America, Europe, and Africa, 1990-92; organized charity concert for Great Hanshin earthquake victims, 1995; toured Brazil, 1995; visited Tibet, 1996; toured Southeast Asia, 1996; traveled to Kenya, India, and Tibet to film the documentary, Sadao Watanabe Explores the Last Unknown Regions of the Earth, 1997; published his book of photographs, Vanishing Tibet, 1998; toured Europe, including the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1998; toured with Four Beat Band, 1999; worldwide tour to celebrate 50 years playing jazz, 2001.
"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?
The rehearsal of the Rendezvous tour in 1984.
Sadao Watanabe, Ralph MacDonald, Steve Gadd, Eric Gale, Richard Tee, Will Lee, Rob Mounsey