This new music policy has been undertaken by the hotel's assistant treasurer/controller Junichi Kasuga, a lifelong jazz fan who decided recently to replace the typical cocktail piano fare that had been the standard presentation in the Kitano's bar/lounge with the sound of real jazz. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights the room has played host (without a cover charge) to a series of first rate pianists, including Junior Mance, Harold Mabern, Don Friedman and Michael Weiss. The success of the programming and a new association with 441 Records has led the room to expand the series to include larger groups on occasional weekends, charging a moderate $15 admission fee.
The relationship with 441 came about when one of the hotel's regular guests, Japanese record producer Yazohachi (88) Itoh invited 441 co-owners Kirk Imamura and Harvey Rosen to the club and introduced the two to Kasuga who was persuaded to bring the label's Phillipe Saisse Acoustic Trio to perform in the room. The three businessmen soon engineered a mutually beneficial agreement that has Kitano regularly booking 441 artists and the label providing publicity and advertising support. A recent record release party for drummer Joe Farnsworth's new 441 compact disc It's Prime Time proved to be successful. An allstar group featuring Farnsworth with Jim Rotondi, brother John, Harold Mabern, Nat Reeves and special guest Curtis Fuller drew a respectable audience, including trombonists Fred Wesley, Steve Turre and Steve Davis who came to check out Fuller.
Conveniently located in a midtown neighborhood that has never had a real jazz club, Kitano seems to have a reasonable chance for success. The room itself is extremely polished and exudes an air of sophistication that should appeal to the same audiences that would ostensibly head down Park Avenue to the Jazz Standard or across town to Dizzy's Club Coca Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center's new Frederick P. Rose Hall on Columbus Circle; but what sets Kitano apart from those and other jazz clubs is the intimacy the room offers. Seating a modest 65 patrons, the room invites listeners to participate in an almost private experience that draws the people closely into the music.
Kitano is comfortable and charming. The band plays in a cozy corner of the lounge under soft, recessed lighting in front of floor to ceiling windows that look out north and east on to tree lined Park Avenue and 38th Street. The sound of the Steinway baby grand fills the small room nicely, wrapped in the natural sound of plush carpeting and contemporary Scandinavian curly maple wood paneling. The 50 or so chairs at the tables all offer clear views of the bandstand as do the ten seats at the polished granite bar, which offers an impressive array of single malt Scotch and fine champagnes and cognac (at prices better suited to businessmen on expense accounts than most jazz aficionados). There is also a light late night menu of contemporary cuisine from the hotel's award winning restaurant.
Kasuga asserts that so far most of the patrons of the room have come from the outside to hear the music, but on the nights of Farnsworth's sets several of the hotel guests stopped in to have a drink and hear the band, while others lounged comfortably on couches in the lobby where the music could still be heard clearly. Another group of patrons relaxed in the small sitting room behind the bar furnished with luxuriously upholstered arm chairs and sofas. The Kitano staff is uniformly hospitable, as one might expect of employees in a Japanese hotel known for its superb service. The respect directed towards the music is refreshing and should go a long way to keeping both musicians and customers satisfied.
Kasuga is devoted to the current policy and hopes to see it develop. The affiliation with 441 will continue to help the club bring in well known jazz greats like Joe Chambers and Lonnie Plaxico, both of whom have had recent engagements in the room supporting new releases on the label. Kitano's November schedule includes evenings featuring fine pianists like Don Friedman, Michael Weiss and Quincy Davis as well as some excellent lesser known and Japanese artists. All in all it appears that jazz has broken down yet another barrier and finally found a place on Park Avenue.