A Cozy Jazz Club, if You Can Find It
By MATTHEW SEDACCA MARCH 22, 2018
Tomi Jazz, in Midtown East. Mark Abramson for The New York Times
Around sunset, faint echoes of chatter and saxophone wails start to leak out of a basement-level steel door on East 53rd Street, between Second and Third Avenues. Customers descend the staircase — as if the ghostly melodies have summoned them there — to press a discrete buzzer. Seconds later, the door creaks open, revealing a speakeasy-style Japanese whisky bar and music club called Tomi Jazz.
Behind a wooden counter, bartenders rhythmically rock cocktail shakers. They garnish snow-white cocktails with smoldering cinnamon sticks for off-the-clock diplomats, while I.T. consultants and investment bankers sip Nikka and Yamazaki whisky. More liquor bottles sit on dusty shelves, alongside weathered photos of vintage music acts, a trumpet and woven lamps. After midnight, uninhibited couples get close at an L-shape table, just a foot away from the live music.
One musician, who regularly performs at Tomi, said the intimate space is perfect for testing experimental material. “We can feel what they feel,” she said. Mark Abramson for The New York Times
In the 1980s, Japanese businessmen flocked to Midtown Manhattan, following a surge in Japan’s economy. The East Village largely drew younger, more artistic types from Japan, who patronized restaurants and bars, including the original Tomi Jazz, which was part of a Little Tokyo zone around East 9th Street. But in 2000, the club relocated to cater to those Japanese businessmen in Midtown, many of whom also frequented izakayas and hostess bars in the neighborhood.
Raymond Fasanella, a regular who works in the United Nations’ publishing division, first visited the exclusive bar as a guest of a Japanese friend over 20 years ago at its original East Village location. Back then, Mr. Fasanella said, the scene was mostly a mix of white-collar Japanese men from uptown and students, smoking and drinking single malt whisky.
“You could walk out there at seven in the morning,” Mr. Fasanella said, “nothing but black cars in the street waiting for the customers.”
After midnight, uninhibited couples often get close at an L-shape table, just a foot away from the live music. Mark Abramson for The New York Times
By 2010, however, Ken Mukohata, a former nightclub manager and Tomi regular, had taken over the space. He opened the bar to anyone who could find it, began to schedule candlelit jazz performances and decorated the walls with silver Heineken and Southern Comfort plaques and calligraphic tapestries.
“These things make people feel nostalgic, calm,” he said about the junk-shop vibe. “Many people, if you look at their apartments, it’s a sleek style. This place, it has a low ceiling. It purposely looks like we forgot to paint.”
Just hours after landing at Kennedy International Airport from Tokyo on a Monday night, Yuki Fujisaki found himself at the bar, bobbing his head to a guitar duo’s rendition of a John Coltrane number. “We don’t have a lot of places like this in Tokyo,” Mr. Fujisaki, a software engineer, said. Back home, he explained, it’s difficult to find “cozy” venues, where musicians can easily reach over and take a swig of customers’ shochu mid-set.
A waitress at Tomi Jazz, a Japanese whisky bar and music lounge that also offers izakaya fare like wasabi octopus or chicken wings. Mark Abramson for The New York Times
The bar also offers izakaya fare. Sean Anderson, a derivatives lawyer, picked at his wasabi octopus while chatting with Tomi’s ponytailed sound engineer, Kota Mori, about Japanese craft brewers. Mr. Anderson said after a client brought him to Tomi Jazz a year ago for chicken wings and sake, he returned 11 times over the next 14 days.
On a recent late-winter night, as customers slurped down fat strands of udon and avocado spaghetti, the saxophonist Shoko Igarashi and the pianist Casimir Liberski serenaded them with classics like “Poor Butterfly” and “All of You.” Ms. Igarashi, who regularly performs at Tomi, said the intimate space is perfect for testing experimental material.
“We can feel what they feel,” Ms. Igarashi said, imitating diners recoiling.
Since opening Tomi Jazz to the public, Mr. Mukohata says the clientele has grown far beyond his expectations, many drawn by the speakeasy aesthetic. Recently, he added to the mystique by removing a worn “tomijazz” sign, now hanging on the staircase inside. It worked, but maybe a little too well.
“Across the street there’s a deli,” said Nobu Hirooka, a Tomi employee. “The deli owner always complained that people would come asking ‘Where’s Tomi Jazz?’”