Koji Okuno is one of a truly rare breed: club owners who are themselves jazz fans, and who want to see the music presented in the best setting possible. That's why the owner of local Japanese restaurant chain Koji Osakaya shelled out cash up front for a brand-new Yamaha piano for musicians to use in the new jazz venue he has opened at his Barbur Boulevard location. Could this be Portland's first Jazz de Bento?
"He's very serious about doing the very best he can," says Dave Friesen, who has been helping Okuno establish the venue. "He loves the music."
So if he loves it so much, why isn't he playing?
Well, years ago, he did. In Japan, Okuno was a professional musician, playing drums with a number of well-known Japanese musicians until an unfortunate table-saw accident. Minus two digits, the up-and-coming drummer was unable to make his love a career. But Okuno still knows his jazz.
When pressed to name a favorite jazz drummer, the restaurateur doesn't hesitate for even a moment. "Elvin Jones, he is my model," he says of the avant-garde bandleader and member of the John Coltrane quartet. "He's almost like a god, a super-drummer. He almost invented a new style."
How would he compare jazz musicians in Japan and the U.S.?
"I think Japanese musicians' level is lower, the level is higher here," he says. "It's so popular [in Japan]. Everybody likes jazz there."
The drummer focused on the restaurant business after the accident and, after moving to the United States in 1981, ended up operating seven of his namesake restaurants in Portland and Seattle. But jazz was always in the back of his mind. A fan of the Portland jazz scene, Okuno recently asked local jazzer Friesen for help in starting a club on the weekends at the Koji's on Barbur, the only one of Okuno's restaurants with a lounge separated from the main room. Friesen has been advising Okuno as well as playing at the club and booking other players between his gigs on the road.
Although the space is often a tight fit, it's a comfortable one as well, especially considering jazz's cozy relationship with intimate spaces. And with no cover charge, the space gets even tighter, which is good for the prompt penny pinchers but bad for the fashionably late.
Since opening Jan. 7, the club has seen a steady stream of serious players, with Randy Porter, Dan Balmer, John Stowell, Tom Wakeling, John Gross and Friesen himself gracing the stage. And better yet, they've seen a steady stream of jazz aficionados coming to listen to the jazz that Okuna loves just as much as them.
, 10100 SW Barbur Blvd., 503-977-3100. Music 9 pm-midnight. No cover.