I asked the novelist Haruki Murakami, who once owned a jazz club, why Cool Struttin’ is so popular in Japan. He attributed it to the rise of the “jazz kissa” (jazz coffee shops) in the 1960s. “The popularity of Cool Struttin’ was not driven by professional critics or by sales,” wrote Murakami by e-mail, “but instead by youths who didn’t have enough money to buy vinyl records, so they went to coffee shops to hear jazz on the house record player. This was a phenomenon particular to Japan, or at last very different from America.” Clark’s buoyant blues fit the underground mood of Japan’s postwar youth. It didn’t hurt that his tragic life made him an unconventional, forlorn icon, too.
The symbols that frequently come up in Japanese writing to describe Clark’s music are 哀愁 , pronounced “aishu.” As often is the case with Japanese aesthetic terms, there isn’t a direct English translation of the phrase. The first symbol can be read as kana-shi-I (哀しい) or a-wa-re (哀れ). The former means moving, sad, and melancholy. The latter can mean compassion, compassion-inducing, sympathetic, and touching. The symbol is made up of 衣, which means clothing or an outside covering, and 口, which means mouth. These symbols together mean covering, suppressing, or muffling an expression of feelings. The second symbol is usually read as ure-eru (愁える) , which means to feel lonely, to lament. It’s made up of the symbols 秋, which means autumn, and 心, which means heart. In the fall, everything contracts, or tightens, such as trees and plants. Therefore, the symbol 愁 means the contracting or tightening of the heart and expresses a mysterious atmosphere of pathos and sorrow. Perhaps the Japanese cultural embrace of extremes gives that country an advantage in appreciating somebody like Clark, who blended extremes as beautifully as anybody ever has on piano.