Bringing It Back Home

For decades, alumni educators have shared musical knowledge with Japanese youth and burnished Berklee’s image in the Land of the Rising Sun.
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On January 17, 1995, Larry Monroe was in Tokyo for a meeting with Takanori Sugauchi to forge an important partnership. Monroe, Berklee’s vice president for international programs at the time, and Sugauchi, the founder of Koyo Conservatory, were just about to sign an agreement to make Koyo Conservatory the first member of Berklee’s international educational network in Japan. But plans changed abruptly. Waking early, Monroe thought he heard a creaking sound from the floors above his hotel room and saw the window curtains swaying. After turning on the television, he discovered that Kobe had just experienced a catastrophic earthquake, measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale.

“On the TV, I saw massive destruction in Kobe,” recalls Monroe. “I tried to call Mr. Sugauchi, but the phone lines were down. It was clear to me that I wouldn’t be going to Kobe that day.” Monroe packed his bags and returned to Boston.

Meanwhile near the epicenter, Sugauchi walked from his home through Kobe’s broken streets past collapsed buildings to discover the fate of his school. He found one of the conservatory’s two adjacent buildings heavily damaged and the other still serviceable. Given the scope of the destruction everywhere, Sugauchi was understandably discouraged.

“At first I thought I’d just close the school,” Sugauchi said in a recent conversation. “But when I got to have a phone conversation with Larry Monroe, he told me I should keep it going and that Berklee still wanted to sign the agreement. So we began fixing the damaged building.” Reconstruction efforts throughout Kobe went at an impressive pace, and by June, Sugauchi’s staff was teaching again on a limited scale. In a show of support, Berkee’s president at the time, Lee Eliot Berk, sent a care package containing manuscript paper and other supplies for Koyo’s music students.

That August, Monroe returned to Kobe. “I flew into Osaka with [professor] Jim Kelly,” Monroe recalls. ”We had to take a boat to Kobe because the railroads and streets were still pretty broken up. When we got to the school, they were holding classes in what looked like a construction site. We signed the deal, and Mr. Sugauchi was very grateful that Berklee stood by him after the quake. He expressed it each time I visited over the next 15 years.”

And so began Berklee’s long and fruitful relationship with Koyo Conservatory. For years, Koyo has taught Berklee’s methods and prepared students to continue their studies at Berklee. In 2015, Sugauchi handed over the school to Jikei Gakuen COM Group, a large consortium of colleges, and stayed on as the school’s president. Relationships with other Jikei-owned music schools have since developed. Under Jikei’s leadership, Koyo Conservatory of Music will be renamed Koyo School of Music & Dance in April 2019, and will relocate to the center of Kobe City in a new, state-of-the-art building.

Maiden Voyage

Berklee’s ties to Japan date back to 1956 when Berklee founder Lawrence Berk brought the first Japanese student, Toshiko Akiyoshi ’59, to the school on a full scholarship. Akiyoshi’s brilliant career as a jazz pianist and composer later served as inspiration for other Japanese musicians—including Sadao Watanabe ’65, Makoto Ozone ’83, others—who followed her footsteps to Berklee.

Many cite Akiyoshi as a pivotal figure in widening the audience for jazz in post–WWII Japan. American military musicians have been credited with introducing jazz to Japanese audiences. In her 1993 cover story in Berklee Today, Akiyoshi spoke of her early gigs playing at dance halls for military personnel and learning from American jazz musicians visiting Japan on USO tours. Today, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe remain hotspots for jazz in the Land of the Rising Sun.

When the college launched the Berklee on the Road educational workshops in 1985, Japan was the first country on the tour. Gary Burton and Larry Monroe took an all-star faculty band that included Jeff Stout, Jim Kelly, Bill Pierce, Orville Wright, Bruce Gertz, and Tommy Campbell to Tokyo for a weeklong series of clinics, concerts, and recording. That trip and follow-up visits fostered enthusiasm for jazz and American music and inspired many Japanese students to desire continuing their studies at Berklee. Today, Japanese alumni constitute the largest segment in the international alumni cohort.

In 1992, Berklee’s second president, Lee Eliot Berk, developed the concept for the Berklee International Network (BIN) of music schools. It was designed to offer a way for Berklee alumni that seek to open schools in their home countries—and other established institutions—to formalize agreements to employ Berklee’s teaching methods and create a path for their students to continue their education at Berklee.

The first BIN members were the L’Aula de Musica in Barcelona, Spain; the Rimon School of Jazz in Tel Aviv, Israel; and the Phillippos Nakas Centre of Music in Athens, Greece. The Pop & Jazz Conservatory in Helsinki, Finland, and the American School of Modern Music in Paris, France, joined the network two years later. As noted above, in 1995, Sugauchi signed an agreement making Koyo Conservatory the first school in Asia to join the network.

In a recent conversation over lunch in Kobe, Sugauchi explained that he founded Koyo Conservatory to further his own music education. A jazz pianist, and former concert and record producer, Sugauchi has a lifelong passion for jazz.  “I started the school because I wanted to learn,” he says with a laugh. “I was the first student when the school opened in 1980.”

Jazz Foundation

Many Japanese-born Berklee alumni play key roles as teachers and administrators at Koyo and the other Jikei schools. Each possesses a zeal to share the knowledge they gained at Berklee. They have nurtured the talents of numerous musicians such as Koyo alumnus Keita Ogawa, the Grammy-winning percussionist for Snarky Puppy. They also assist students seeking a path to Berklee.

A prime example is tenor saxophonist Eiichiro Arasaki ’84 who became an influential teacher at Koyo Conservatory in 1985. After earning a degree in chemistry at a university in Osaka, Arasaki moved to Tokyo to explore the jazz scene. He studied with celebrated saxophonist Hidefumi Toki before deciding to attend Berklee and broaden his knowledge. “I came to Berklee in 1982 to study jazz composition and arranging,” Arasaki says. “Herb Pomeroy was my favorite teacher. After Berklee, I returned to Osaka and started looking for a school where I could teach.” Arasaki was hired by Koyo Conservatory in nearby Kobe, and started sharing the knowledge he’d gained at Berklee.

“I began handwriting textbooks in Japanese for my classes in harmony, arranging, ear training,” he says. “It was a lot of work.” Arasaki’s course materials blended Berklee’s methods and his own ideas and became the foundation for Koyo’s jazz curriculum. “Through the years, I’ve had a lot of good students who have gone on to professional careers,” Arasaki shares.

In addition to teaching, Arasaki works steadily as a performer and arranger. “I do about three gigs a week going between Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Hiroshima,” he says. “For 30 years, I’ve also led a big band that plays my charts.” Career high-water marks include performances with Japanese rock star Eikichi Yazawa and sharing the bandstand with American jazz artists Lester Bowie and Vincent Herring.

Stressing the Roots

Keisuke Okai ’99 is the current assistant director of international affairs for Koyo. He handles communications with Jikei’s partner schools and admission of international students seeking to enroll at Koyo. “We have had quite a few students from overseas seeking to earn academic credits at Koyo that they can transfer to Berklee,” Okai says. “I oversee students on the track to Berklee and give them information about their musical proficiency and English skills.”

Okai didn’t play an instrument until his senior year in high school when he was an exchange student in Pennsylvania. He’d long been interested in African-American culture and musical styles, “But I hadn’t listened to jazz,” Okai says. “When I went to Pennsylvania, I brought more than 100 Miles Davis albums on cassette that I borrowed from my Japanese high school teacher. I spent the year listening to them and decided that trumpet would be my thing.”

Circa 1993, while considering colleges, he met a jazz musician from New Orleans who told him that if he wanted to pursue modern jazz, he should study in New York or Boston. “I’d read about Koyo Conservatory and found that it had a connection with Berklee even though they had not signed a formal agreement yet. Koyo was jazz oriented and taught some Berklee methods and had two big bands. I studied there for two years.”

In 1995, Okai came to Berklee and majored in trumpet performance, studying with Ken Cervenka, Jeff Stout, Ray Kotwica, Susan Fleet, Lin Biviano, and Darren Barrett. Shortly before he was to graduate, his mother developed a brain tumor and had to quit her job. With his financial support dried up, Okai returned to Japan. Finding it hard to make money in the short term as a trumpeter, he completed the certification process and started teaching English to high-school students in prep schools.

“By the time I’d done that for 10 years, I was married with a child and was approaching 35,” he says. “In Japan you have to be in your career track by 35. If you change jobs after that you will be considered a beginner and will have difficulty getting hired. I always thought that my career would be in music, so I tried to find a way to connect with music again.”

After being away from Koyo Conservatory for about 15 years, Okai cold-called the school and spoke with Mr. Sugauchi directly. “He remembered me and told me to send in my résumé,” Okai says. “He thought I would be good for recruiting students as I had done at the schools where I taught English. I was so happy to get back into a music environment where I could pass on my experience to the younger generation.”

Koyo Conservatory is a practical training school that accepts people of all ages, from secondary-school students to college students to adult learners. It’s unique among Japanese music schools because of its jazz-oriented curriculum. “We spread the word that if students study roots and jazz music, they will be ready to go into any contemporary music style,” Okai says.

Musical Motivator

Since 2015, Naoyuki Hosokawa has been part of Koyo’s management and today he serves as the vice president and director of international affairs. But he still teaches some classes at Osaka School of Music, which is part of the Jikei network. “At Osaka, I love teaching jazz history,” Hosokawa says. “We listen to a lot of music and talk about the artists.” That’s home turf for Hosokawa whose biggest influences in his youth were saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Elvin Jones.

“I was very influenced by jazz and wanted to become a jazz guitarist when I finished high school,” Hosokawa says. “I spent four years working to save the money to come to Berklee.” High points at the college were his studies in jazz arranging with Herb Pomeroy and guitar lessons with professor Jon Damian. In 1987 he graduated from Berklee with a diploma in professional music. He returned to Japan and began teaching music theory, composition, and guitar at Osaka School of Music.

“After teaching at Osaka for 10 years, I started thinking I needed to learn more to teach the students, so I came back to Berklee and got my degree in 1999,” Hosokawa shares. “After that, I wanted to stay in the United States and found a job at the Boston Higashi School.” [Japanese autism education specialist Kiyo Kitahara founded the Higashi School for autistic children.] Hosokawa taught there for five years before returning to Japan and accepting the position at Osaka School of Music working on curriculum and counseling students. Hosokawa says that his studies at Berklee and his educational experience at Higashi prepared him for the work he now performs at Koyo and Osaka School of Music.

“I think I can motivate students to continue studying music,” he says. “That is the best part of my job. As an alumnus of Berklee who has spent many years in the United States and almost 20 years at Osaka School of Music, I have many stories to tell that can motivate them.”

Part of the Economy

Another Koyo alumnus and current instructor, Ryota Ueda ’06, grew up in Nara, about 35 miles from Kobe. He played classical piano until he was 14, but hearing his mother’s Herbie Hancock’s albums around the home sparked his interest in jazz. “In junior high school, I read magazine articles about Berklee and decided to do some research,” Ueda says. “I called Berklee and Sam Skau [director of global network and international programs] answered. He told me I should attend Koyo Conservatory for two years before coming to Berklee.” Ueda followed Skau’s advice and after two years at Koyo, he transferred to Berklee and majored in piano performance. After earning his diploma in 2006, he returned home. “I joined the faculty at Koyo in 2008,” he recalls, “and started teaching piano, ensemble, jazz history, arranging, and ear training. I’ve had some good students who have continued on to Berklee. One, a bassist named Yuki Kodama, received the Jikei Scholarship and is now a Berklee student.” Ueda gigs regularly, primarily playing his arrangements of jazz standards in trio and quintet settings. “There is a good music economy in Kobe,” he says.

The Gospel Choir According to Shin

I caught up with Shin Ikesue ’90 at Tokyo School of Music & Dance in the Shibuya section of Tokyo. He has built a reputation as an expert in vocal music and has guided students to successful careers in musical theater. One of his former students currently has a lead role in the Tokyo production of Rent, others are cast members in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Les Miserables. Ikesue is highly regarded for his work with gospel choirs. At Berklee, he concentrated on composition, arranging, and production courses, but he was also a member of Berklee’s gospel choir. When he returned to Japan, he became a part-time teacher at Tokyo School of Music in Kasai.

“I started out teaching vocalists then began teaching ear training,” Ikesue remembers. “The next year I was teaching three days. In 1991, I started a gospel choir here. The students really loved the music and how free it felt. Having the choir was also a good way to teach a lot of students at once. We sang a lot of modern gospel songs.”

For the past two decades, Ikesue has taught at four schools in Tokyo, Fukuoka, and Osaka and built their choral programs. “I direct seven choirs, one at each of the four schools and three outside of the schools. I’m also the executive director of the Japan Gospel Music Association.” When American guitarist Adrian Belew brought his David Bowie tribute tour to Japan, Ikesue’s gospel choir was hired for a big show in Tokyo backing Belew on Bowie’s song “Young Americans.”

Ikesue is now the vice principal overseeing programs at several Jikei music schools. He has a gift for reaching and inspiring the students. “Love is the goal of music,” he says. “It’s a tool to touch people and help them unite. Good music—true art—can help to break down walls.” Ikesue has nurtured the talents of many as a teacher. Some have gone on to Berklee, others are working in various capacities, including performing at Disneyland Tokyo. His goal? “I am hoping one day to see some of my students singing in New York on Broadway.”

“It May Be Japan Forever”

American Max Mullowney ’17 has a story that is the reverse of those related above. Mullowney, a guitarist, grew up in Stoneham, MA, and after graduating from Berklee in May 2017, made his way to Tokyo. “When I was a student, I was interested in coming to Japan,” Mullowney tells me in the lobby of Tokyo School of Music & Dance in Shibuya. “It was my dream to teach at a college in Japan and to play there. I mentioned my plan to Ginny Fordham [Berklee major gifts officer] and Kim Perlak [assistant chair of the Guitar Department]. Ginny put me in touch with Naoyuki Hosokawa and I met with him during an exploratory trip I made to Japan last summer. He showed me around Tokyo and then took me to Osaka for a meeting with people at Jikei Gakuen Com Group. At that meeting I was offered an opportunity to work for Jikei.”

In December 2017, Mullowney started teaching classes in music theory, ensemble, songwriting, and private guitar lessons. He teaches at the Tokyo School of Music & Dance and at their branch school in Shibuya. In addition to teaching, Mullowney is developing the curriculum for the school’s Berklee track courses. Hosokawa translated Mullowney’s curriculum into Japanese, and in April, both branches of the Tokyo School of Music & Dance began offering the Berklee classes.

“In Japan, there is a difference between a college and a university,” Mullowney says. “Tokyo School of Music & Dance is a two-year technical school—kind of what Berklee was in its early years. The students are mostly 18 to 20 years old, but there are some older students too. We also have some students from Korea, a few Americans, and some from Europe. Tokyo is a great location for people to come and study. There is a lot of potential with Jikei because the company is so big,” Mullowney says.

Mullowney seems to have found his niche. “I love education, he says. “Music is a tradition that needs to be passed on, and I love getting these ideas out there. I hope some of my students will want to have a career in music.” Mullowney is steadily becoming fluent in Japanese. In addition to teaching, he’s playing gigs and writing arrangements for various musical acts. He sees great potential for professional growth in several areas. When asked how long he plans to stay, he answers, “I am loving it here and feel at home musically. . . . It may be Japan forever.”