Celebrating his 91st birthday on February 1st, Sadao Watanabe is a celebrated figure in the world of jazz, especially renowned in his home country of Japan. Born in Utsunomiya in 1933, Watanabe’s journey in music began with his studies at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, making him one of the first Japanese musicians to study jazz in the United States. This bold move laid the groundwork for future Japanese jazz musicians and marked the beginning of a stellar career that would span decades.
Watanabe is well-known for his versatility, effortlessly blending styles like bebop, bossa nova, fusion, and even classical music. His skill on the saxophone is complemented by his adeptness in playing the flute, allowing him to explore a wide range of musical expressions. Some of his notable early works include his participation in the Bossa Nova Concert in 1967 and his collaboration in “Sadao Meets Brazilian Friends” in 1968, showcasing his warm tone and lyrical, swinging sound.
His career achievements are numerous and impressive. In the 1970s, Watanabe’s international career flourished with performances at Newport and Montreux Jazz Festivals and tours in Africa and India. His 1970 album “Round Trip” featured jazz legends such as Chick Corea, Miroslav Vitous, and Jack DeJohnette. His 1976 album “I’m Old Fashioned” saw him collaborate with Hank Jones, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. In the 1980s, Watanabe’s popularity soared, particularly in the United States, where he regularly toured and performed to large audiences.
Beyond his musical endeavors, Watanabe also had a significant impact on jazz culture in Japan. He was a jazz radio broadcaster, with his program ‘My Dear Life’ running for two decades from 1972, playing a key role in promoting jazz throughout Japan. He has performed for notable figures including President Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama, and has received every imaginable honor in Japan for his contributions to jazz.
Watanabe’s ability to bridge cultural and musical gaps is evident in his collaborations with various international artists, including Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, George Benson, Richard Bona, Abraham Laboriel, Paulinho Da Costa, and Alex Acuña. His work with Japanese artists like Masabumi Kikuchi, Masahiko Togashi, and Terumasa Hino further cements his status as a global jazz icon.
Continuing to perform well into the 2010s, Watanabe released a live album recorded at the Blue Note Tokyo with Russell Ferrante, John Patitucci, and Steve Gadd as recently as 2019. His influence and contributions to jazz, both in Japan and globally, make him a celebrated figure in the world of music