Koji Okuna brought sushi to Portland in 1982. Now he’s giving the gift of jazz.
[JAZZ] During his college days in Osaka, Japan, Koji Okuno was a pretty good jazz drummer. He performed regularly at clubs and coffeehouses until a bout with tuberculosis sidelined him; late nights in smoky jazz clubs didn't help his condition. A later comeback attempt fell victim to an unfortunate encounter with a table saw, and he gave up music for business. While studying English at Lewis & Clark College, he and his wife fell in love with Portland; the only thing missing in the late 1970s was palatable Japanese food. So Okuno returned to Japan, apprenticed at a sushi restaurant (working morning to midnight, moving up from dishwasher to chef), and in 1982, returned to Portland and opened the first of what's now a small chain of Koji's restaurants.
But Okuno never lost his taste for jazz, and starting this weekend, his new restaurant at 1000 SW Broadway will feature what Koji calls "real jazz" (serious, not commercialized or slick) on weekends. The booker—and Koji's friend of 30 years—is the venerable Portland-based jazz bassist and composer David Friesen, who'll hold down the first month of gigs with various combos featuring some of the city's finest improvisers like Randy Porter, Alan Jones, Greg Goebel, Charlie Doggett and Tim Wilcox—plus occasional first-rate out-of-town guests that Friesen has worked with in his stellar three-decade career.
Along with high-quality music, a new baby grand piano and sound system, the fifth Koji's restaurant, which seats about 100, will also feature an unusual wrinkle: no cover charge; no tip jar (which Koji finds intimidating for customers and demeaning to musicians). Instead, customers will have the opportunity to discreetly write a tip for the musicians directly on their food bills.
That kind of respect for jazz musicians is common in Japan, says Friesen, who performs all over the world, including trips to Ukraine and China in the past month. "Japan is the largest jazz market," he says. "They study the musicians before they come over—they knew all about me when I went there."
"The Japanese like Westernized things," Okuno explains. "A famous American jazz player is almost a superstar." Japanese audiences revere American masters and treat them like celebrities, listening quietly and respectfully. "No talking," says Koji, "just jazz." While not requiring complete silence, he hopes his new restaurant will maintain a similarly respectful atmosphere.
Do the new Koji's and the recent rebirth of Brasserie Montmartre signal a resurgence of jazz in Portland? Okuno and Friesen aren't banking on it; the food will pay the bills at the new space, and they'll confine jazz to weekends unless demand warrants more. Still, the venue's location is prime—a south-end downtown location near other high-traffic night venues.
"People who love jazz in this town have a responsibility," Friesen says. "If they want to hear this music, they need to support it."
Regardless of how it turns out, the new Koji's has allowed the owner to fulfill a lifelong dream to bring jazz to Portland. Friesen even says he'd like to get Okuno to sit in on drums sometime. Okuno smiles bashfully and says he'd have to practice. "In my dream I wish I could play with you," he says. That'd be another dream to check off the list.
SEE IT: Koji's new location hosts its first jazz show Friday, June 11, with David Friesen and Greg Goebel. 8 pm. Free.