Bleeding Edge Karaoke

Somewhere in the back streets of Yokosuka, a few blocks from the naval base, is the Hideaki karaoke bar. The neon sign above the doorway entrance has been missing since Typhoon Kirogi years before. But word of mouth has made Hideaki the place in Yokosuka for sailors on shore leave, at least any sailor with a keen ear for improvisation and the ability to count in 11/8. Because Hideaki is the world’s first Eric Dolphy memorial karaoke bar.

Leading down from the narrow unlit doorway is a flight of uneven wooden steps that open onto a room filled with the acrid scent and smoggy haze of fish being smoked in the kitchens out back. Visitors sit around small tables facing the stage, heads bopping to the syncopated foot tappings coming from adjacent tables. Everyone’s brought something to play, bass clarinets, trumpets, saxophones, drum sticks, brushes, mallets (musical and otherwise), one man sits with an enormous triangle most likely tuned below the range of any basso profondo, three whole tables are dedicated to kazoos, others making do with whatever was at hand, bits of bicycle frames, watering cans, various engine parts from boats.

Unlike any other karaoke bar in Yokosuka there’s no tape backing track, no video subcode with lyrics and pictures on the screen, some call it modal or free karaoke, for others it defies classification. Around 9PM conversations in the room go quiet as the proprietor Mr Sugimori walks to the bar, turns to the audience and shouts “Hat and Beard”. Four or five guests jump to the stage and begin improvising something that could be from Thelonious Monk, but played on sousaphone, seatpost, euphonium and kazoo. Waitresses in kimonos start bringing out huge jugs of pungent sake to the tables. Tumblers are filled and emptied, as the bottom of each tumbler is reached the drinker shouts out a scat sound. The band at the front pick up on the jazz noises from the floor, repeating the phrases, echoing, expanding and developing the theme until another tumbler of sake is downed and another scat hits the front stage.

Soon the waitresses are bringing trays of sushi and sashimi. Smoked tuna nigiri, octopus tentacles wrapped around tofu, squid and eel pieces with the purest wasabi, so hot eyes water looking at it from adjacent tables. More trays arrive, loaded with the house specialty, shrimp and cheese pancakes sizzling on cast iron griddles. The waitresses rush from kitchen to tables and plates are slapped down like this was a New York hash slingers joint, not a Japanese sushi bar.

Smelling the shrimp and cheese a few players on stage return to their tables, while others get up to take their place, ears tuned for the next scat while the sake keeps flowing. The musical rotation continues into the early hours of the morning, players constantly changing with audience, now and then Mr Sugimori shouts out another theme, “Something Sweet, Something Tender” or "Straight Up and Down" and the music segues to a new set of arpeggios, scales and time signature. Then slowly sailors begin to return to their ships, by dawn the Hideaki bar finally becomes silent.

Mr Sugimori and the waitresses begin the task of clearing uneaten squid from tables and floor. Sugimori turns to his longest serving waitress. “You know Michiyo. Maybe I could open a karaoke bar for literature. Take a writer like Thomas Pynchon: it’s so much like jazz, shifting time signatures, dissonance mixing with consonance, endings colliding with beginnings. Shout out a phrase from Bleeding Edge, someone improvises a story, add a bottle or two of sake, things would flow.”

“Kichigai Mr Sugimori. You crazy. Who wants drunken dilettantes spewing faux Pynchon on a page? Worse idea than that Beatles tribute band in town last week.”

“Perhaps,” he admits. “But think of the hook: send your story to Sugimori."

Sugimori looks down and sighs. “Look at all this mess on the floor – worse than a Chicago hash slingers diner.”

He continues sweeping, talking now to the fragments of squid and octopus between the table legs. "Hashslingrz, open to all, like the Hideaki, just a few unwritten rules, send to Sugimori at hashslingrz.”