Japanese Trip 1977
In 1976 I’d been invited to give a series of concerts in Japan; we scheduled the trip for the following year. Will was still an infant, so Bill’s daughter, Margot, then eighteen, came along to help out. It was a multi-city tour, with dates in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagasaki, Nagoya and Fukuoka. As far as I knew I was a virtual unknown in Japan and my expectations were low. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the welcome I received. After the marathon plane ride from Vancouver, I got off the plane in Tokyo looking exhausted, wearing just jeans and a T-shirt and cradling Will in my arms. There to greet me were not only a phalanx of cameramen and reporters but literally hundreds of cheering fans — young teenage boys, seeking autographs and offering flowers — rather a different demographic than I was accustomed to in North America or Europe. I said to Bill, “Gee, I guess it’s a good thing I washed my face.” Later the boys also thronged to my concerts.
Everywhere the attention to courtesy impressed me. Once one of our crew members lit a cigarette and dropped his match on the sidewalk; a Japanese worker immediately picked it up for him and handed it back, bowing. In each city the same Japanese stagehands would set the stage for us every night, and their precision was extraordinary; they did it exactly the same way every night — to the inch.
Musically, the Japanese tour was an enormous success. The act had always been more about unpretentious, straight-ahead delivery than splashy pyrotechnics, and that appealed, I think, to the natural Japanese sense of refinement and simplicity. Reviewers there compared me favourably to Olivia Newton-John, Doris Day and Helen Reddy and likened my subtle style, oddly enough, to that of Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, a huge star in Japan who was also visiting at the same time.
Pat Riccio was known as bandoreeda because there is no Japanese word for bandleader. He led a quartet supplemented by saxophonist Gengi Sawai and trombone player Michio Kagiwada. I memorized a number of Japanese phrases, including kumbawa meina san, which means “Good evening, everyone.”
Offstage I was usually busy with Bill and the baby (although we did manage to take in a sumo wrestling match), so the band saw a somewhat different side of Japan. One night they went to a bar in Nagoya that was part strip club, part circus: horses and a tiger shared the circular stage with the strippers. Another night they were invited to Gengi’s apartment for dinner. The walls of the apartment were gray concrete — a status symbol, Gengi said, since most homes were made of light wood and paper. His wife did all the cooking, which was absolutely delicious, but she was not allowed to sit at the table.
In stores the women would gather around Will in his stroller, marvelling at his bright baby-blue eyes. One day I went shopping for shoes in Tokyo and saw a pair in a store window that I just had to have. Then I noticed some of the salesgirls tittering behind a post, apparently amazed by the size of my feet. The store didn’t carry size 8½ — in any style.
There was one thing about the culture that really bothered me. When a Japanese man wanted to discuss something with me, he would always address his remarks to the man standing closest to me, never directly to me, as if I were part of the wallpaper. This began to rankle after a while, and more than once I put up my hand and turned the man’s face so that he was forced to look me directly in the eye, and said, “Don’t talk to him. Talk to me.” Then he would giggle and bow and say “Ah, so” and comply, however reluctantly.
I’d been given this kind of treatment before and always resented it. In 1970 the Canadian government flew me to Frankfurt for an Air Canada promotion event. I was alone and dealing with a group of German musicians, all male, who were disinclined to listen to my suggestions about how they might approach a song. It wasn’t a language issue — they understood English, but they simply chose to ignore me. On the flight over I’d been invited into the cockpit to meet the pilot, Eric Cartmell. Frustrated by the Germans, I called Cartmell and asked him if he might have a word with the bandleader on my behalf. He promptly came down and lectured them sharply, telling them he was going to stand there until they did it my way. And they did.