Born on February 1, 1933, in Utsunomiya, Japan; son of an electrician who played and taught the biwa, a four-stringed Japanese lute; married Mitsuko Itoh, 1957; children: Mako. Education: Graduated from the Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA, 1965. Addresses: Record company--M&M Studio Company, Ltd., #503, 4-3-6 Roppongi Minato-Ku, Tokyo 106-0032, Japan, e-mail: Website--Sadao Watanabe Official Website,

A highly visible and well-regarded musician, Sadao Watanabe has been one of the major influences on jazz in Japan. Since 1969 he has hosted radio programs that introduce his listeners to a range of musical styles. Throughout his 50-year career he has created a substantial collection of music ranging from straightforward bebop to bossa nova. His endorsements for products have made his face as well as his more commercial compositions familiar to the average citizen. He has worked with artists from Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the United States. When playing his saxophone, Watanabe is uniquely identifiable. Gene Kalbacher wrote in Down Beat, "As a saxist, Watanabe's cachet is melody--simple, catchy melody--purveyed by a semi-sweet alto tonality and a fluid delivery. That he retains this signature sound in settings ranging from jazz-rock fusion to bebop, from samba to reggae, from Mozart to Masai tribal music, testifies to his insistence on authenticity."

Born on February 1, 1933, in Utsunomiya, Japan, Watanabe was one of five children (four sons and one daughter). In the small town about 90 miles north of Tokyo, Watanabe's father worked as an electrician but also played and taught the Japanese equivalent of the lute, called the biwa. It would be his father's acquiescence to his desires that would allow Watanabe to move from this small town to the world.

By the time Watanabe was a teenager, Japan had lost World War II. The country became infused with American movies and music. With the establishment of an Army camp near Utsunomiya, Watanabe was exposed to many aspects of American culture, and he was fascinated. It was during this time that he saw the movie Birth of the Blues. The film starred Bing Crosby as a young New Orleans clarinet player trying to get his music heard. Birth of the Blues inspired Watanabe to ask his father to buy him a clarinet.

Watanabe got his clarinet. For three cents a lesson he learned some basic fingering from a local man. He was on his own after that. He listened to Armed Forces Radio as they played songs by Benny Goodman and other big bands. To teach himself he would try to copy the sounds they made. Later he would buy records and do the same thing. With little more training than this, Watanabe began playing in bands on the Army bases. He remembers that early on, crowds weren't very enthusiastic about his skills, or lack thereof, but with time he learned.

Although he got his start on the clarinet, Watanabe would eventually be inspired by Charlie Parker's saxophone playing and the movies that starred big band leader Les Brown. Once again, Watanabe asked his father for an instrument, this time a saxophone. Watanabe explained to Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times website, "I don't think that anybody in my hometown ... knew what a saxophone was. But that was it. Jazz became my life." With his saxophone in hand, Watanabe made another request of his father, to give him two years to prove himself as a jazz musician in Tokyo.

Once in Tokyo, Watanabe went right to work, forming a band that fused jazz and African music. He sat in on jams where they tried to figure out how to play like the musicians they admired, like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. After many late night sessions with jazz pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, Watanabe was asked to join her Cozy Quartet. Watanabe learned about being a musician from Akiyoshi. He told Kalbacher, "She lives for music.... I saw how hard she worked to prepare, and I thought I should practice like her. Through her I learned a lesson about giving all your energy to music." His dedication and practice paid off in 1960, when Akiyoshi accepted a scholarship to attend Boston's Berklee College of Music. In her absence Watanabe became leader of the Cozy Quartet.

By 1962 it was clear that Watanabe had proven himself in the field of jazz. He was constantly playing, improving, and experimenting. Still, he and other jazz musicians of the time were learning by trial and error. There were no schools for jazz and the only way to improve was in the jam sessions held nightly throughout Tokyo. Watanabe spent his time not only playing saxophone but also studying classical flute with Ririko Hayashi, lead flutist with the Tokyo Philharmonic. Upon her return, Akiyoshi recommended Watanabe for a scholarship to attend Berklee.

Watanabe made his first trip to the United States with little more than his saxophone, some clothes, and a pillow. For three years he studied at Berklee. At nights he played gigs in bars around Boston. Within a year he had earned enough money to bring his wife and daughter over from Japan to live with him. Watanabe remembers this as one of the most exciting times for him. He felt that Boston was a great place for musicians and he learned as much from playing gigs as he did from taking classes.

In 1965 Watanabe graduated from Berklee. Because he played flute he was recommended to Chico Hamilton and Gary McFarland to play in their samba band. This experience was Watanabe's first exposure to Brazilian music. At first he was bored by the soft samba sound that he was playing, but through the band he was introduced to other Brazilian musicians. The exposure opened up a whole new aspect of music for him, as he explained to Heckman: "When I heard Brazilian music and African music and different approaches to jazz, I realized that what really matters is feeling. The best music is the music that comes from life."

Watanabe returned to Japan in 1966. Not much had changed in the world of jazz. The musicians were still trying to mimic the sounds they heard on records. With his knowledge from Berklee, Watanabe became an important source of information. Knowing that he needed to do something, he opened up a small jazz school in his hometown of Utsunomiya. He also continued to play, forming his own quartet.

By 1968 Watanabe had begun a schedule of touring and recording that has been ongoing for more than 30 years. He made his first appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival that year. In 1970 he performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival. By 2001 Watanabe had recorded over 60 albums, including works ranging from his early bebop days to his collaborations with a variety of regional stars like the Jimbo Trio from Brazil, Robbie Shakespeare from Jamaica, and Dave Grusin from Manhattan. In 1969 his radio program called Nabesada and Jazz debuted ("Nabesada" is Watanabe's nickname in Japan). He has hosted a radio program ever since. After Nabesada and Jazz, he hosted a show called My Dear Life from 1972 to 1987. Since then he has hosted a show called Nightly Yours. Watanabe brought his love of a variety of music to Japan by creating the music festival originally known as the Bravas Club, but now known as Kirin the Club. He has invited musicians from all over the world to this festival that has become a yearly event for more than 15 years.

With a career that spans over 50 years and 60 albums, Watanabe continues to expand his horizons. He has published three books of photography; hosted a three-part documentary; and become one of the most recognized faces in Japan. He was married on September 29, 1957, to Mitsuko Itoh and together they have a daughter, Mako, who was born in 1958. His marriage has endured for as long as his career. He is the godfather of jazz in Japan and doesn't look to be stopping anytime soon.

by Eve M. B. Hermann

Sadao Watanabe's Career

Started playing clarinet in his teens, later picked up alto saxophone; formed a "Jafro" band (jazz and African music), joined pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi's Cozy Quartet, worked with Big Four Band, c. 1950s; became leader of Cozy Quartet, 1960; performed and recorded with Chico Hamilton and Gary McFarland in New York, 1965-66; returned to Japan, formed a quartet, started a jazz school, 1966; performed at Newport Jazz Festival, 1968; began hosting radio program, 1969; performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1970; organized Bravas Club festival (later known as Kirin the Club), 1985-; toured North and South America, Europe, and Africa, 1990-92; organized charity concert for Great Hanshin earthquake victims, 1995; toured Brazil, 1995; visited Tibet, 1996; toured Southeast Asia, 1996; traveled to Kenya, India, and Tibet to film the documentary, Sadao Watanabe Explores the Last Unknown Regions of the Earth, 1997; published his book of photographs, Vanishing Tibet, 1998; toured Europe, including the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1998; toured with Four Beat Band, 1999; worldwide tour to celebrate 50 years playing jazz, 2001.

Sadao Watanabe's Awards

Swing Journal, Best Japanese alto saxophonist, 1959-1987; Swing Journal, Jazz Man of the Year eleven times, 1968-87; Art Festival Grand Prix Award (Japanese Grammy) for Sadao Watanabe Recital, 1977; Ministry of Education Award, 1986; City of Los Angeles Citizenship Citation for promoting friendship between U.S. and Japan through music, 1988; Honorable Cultural Award, Tokyo, 1995; honorary doctorate degree, Berklee College of Music, 1995; Medal with Purple Ribbon, Emperor of Japan, 1995.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

Wow! Stumbled on this great player on E Bay.His version of'I Tought About You" blew me away and "Secret Love" were both awesome.Am telling my jazz buddies about Sadao and am sure they will all be as impressed as I am with his great playing.Can't wait to hear more.