December 2015

Seven Steps to Heaven


When a jazz kissa is so old that there’s a wall-mounted telephone…

Let me tell you about Miles. Yes, like Miles Davis.

Named after the iconic American trumpeter, this jazz bar opened its door in 1960, during a time when jazz music and culture peaked along with the postwar economy in Tokyo and throughout the rest of Japan. To this day Miles still remains in business despite the rapidly modernizing environment, despite the number of cafes and bars that have decreased over the decades in parallel with the decreasing popularity and demand of jazz music. To this day the same woman, who goes by the affectionate nickname mama-chan, runs the establishment since the sixties. If that’s not badass then I don’t know what is.

From my previous experiences of walking into jazz cafes and bars in Tokyo, whether with friends or by myself, I was always nervous about going in because I could never predict what kind of manager would be running the place. These managers often set the unspoken rules and mood of the space. At some places they were friendly, eager that a customer walked in. In a few cafes, they were intimidating. The general mannerism was little to no talking, to let the music speak for itself.

I came across this place on a Monday evening. It was a very rare occasion for me to venture out of the 23 wards on a weekday since I lived in central Tokyo for my study-abroad program. I went in with the intention of staying for an hour because of the commute. Besides, I had class at 9:00 the next morning.

With the exterior looking like any other bar in the older parts of town and the mysterious hype that I’ve heard about before, I had no idea what to expect. The stairway leading to the bar was quite daunting with the dim lights, posters covering the wooden walls that have yellowed and withered with age. This particular interior and atmosphere surely remained untouched from the Showa era. I turned left into the tiny bar space, bowing my head slightly toward mama-chan, who stood behind the bar. The space was very tiny and dingy but I had just enough room to squeeze behind a middle-aged salaryman sitting back in his car, a glass of whisky in one hand.


Miles is one of the few bars where you can listen to music on a record player only. Mama-chan and one of the regulars I spoke to that day prided on that very fact. Unlike the other cafes and bars I’ve visited in Tokyo, not a single CD album and CD player was in sight at Miles. While I took a seat in the very end of the bar, I looked around my surroundings– a leopard print fabric that hung like a makeshift window curtain and a portrait of a woman atop a counter on my left. In front of me, behind the bar was the record player and an old telephone attached to the wall. I haven’t seen that kind of phone in years, not since the last time I saw My Neigbor Totoro. Looking back, I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen a wall-mounted telephone in person…

Feeling a little fatigued from earlier that Monday, I ordered coffee and lost myself in the wholesome sound coming out of the speakers through the record player. I really felt the age of the bar whenever the trains passed, causing the ground to tremble beneath my feet. Silence lingered in the air as soon as the record stopped spinning.

Nervously, I broke the silence with a verbal request for “Seven Steps to Heaven” by Miles Davis. Mama-chan nodded, turned around to face the library of records, and sifted through the middle area with her finger. Records were neatly shelved from the ceiling and probably to the floor (though I don’t know if there was shelf space that low).

“I don’t have that record,” mama-chan looked behind her shoulder to inform me. “In fact, that’s probably the one Miles Davis record I don’t own. But here, I’ll play you [“Quiet Nights (Miles Davis and Gil Evans)”], which was probably released around the same time as ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’.”

I was impressed that she knew the chronological release dates of albums when the bar held a huge collection. But I was even more mesmerized by her intuitive ability to pull out an album without relying on any physical indications of date or artist name. Nowadays, most people, myself included, would need alphabetical letters sticking out of the shelves to know the exact location of each record. And that’s when I realized I barely owned CDs as a child. Instead, I grew up with my cute pink iPod nano and my iPhones, all of which stored my iTunes library. The virtual MP3 files replaced the CDs, and the CDs that replaced vinyl records. As generations pass and technology develops, physical forms of music take up even less space than before. Yet recorded music remains in that exact time, capturing all the human moments–the pause to take a breath during a solo, the hollering by a member of a quintet during a recording session–that can never be duplicated in that exact moment.

As time passed, a couple more middle-aged salarymen entered the bar and sat on a bench tucked in a corner on the other end of the room. Since I chatted with mama-chan earlier, she introduced me to them as an exchange student who used to play sax and listens to jazz. Before, I rarely socialized at jazz cafes and bars because I’d try to listen to the music as much as possible. Plus I’d be too scared of starting a conversation since I didn’t want to disturb their peace after a presumably long day of work.

According to these men (who I’ll refer to as “regulars”), they’ve been going to Miles every Monday–or at least once or twice a week–for the past forty years. They shared awesome stories with me, like how some people brought John Coltrane to the bar when he performed in Tokyo. They were some of the most pleasant people I’ve ever interacted with at a jazz bar, and that would not have been possible without mama-chan’s hospitality and kindness, who must be loved by all her patrons as devoted as her regulars.

Without realizing how much time passed, I stayed for three hours but eventually had to leave before it was too late. Just before I stepped down the flight of stairs to go back to my dorm, mama-chan stood up from her seat and held my hand.

With warmth in her eyes and in her delicate palms, she told me, “Please come visit again.”

That night I walked out of Miles with a deeper appreciation for jazz music and for the people who preserve it in its original form, but also being mindful and open to ever-changing shapes of jazz. To think about how music by Ornette Coleman in 1959 or Miles Davis in 1970 was heavily criticized for pushing the boundaries and taking listeners outside of their comfort zones. Little did they realize what precedence these musicians set for the direction of jazz in the future. Yet, like humans who keep exploring into unknown depths of the ocean and extraterrestrial galaxies, I want to keep exploring and listening to the sub-genres and records that I have yet to come across. Despite the inhumanity and the cruelty enacted by humans in this world, I am constantly in awe of the human capacity for creativity and beauty through art and music. I think that’s why art and music speaks to me in great volume.

I hope I can come back to Miles. Will the bar still be there? Will mama-chan still be alive and well enough to run the bar? I’ll have to find that out someday.


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