Since arriving here back in 1997, drummer Nori Tanaka has made an ever-increasing impact on the local jazz scene. A native of Fukuoka, Japan, he moved here to study English at Roosevelt College and planned to relocate to a city on the east coast, but after meeting and playing with important mainstream figures like Bobby Broom, Robert Shy, Ron Dewar, and Dennis Carroll he decided to stay. In the last few years he’s really come into his own, and his playing has grown more flexible and daring. He’s a key member of ensembles like A Cushicle, Lay All Over It, and most recently AAT. But on Tuesday, July 17, he’s playing his last gig here, at Rodan, before returning to Japan, even though he wants to stay. It will be a major loss to the Chicago jazz community.
Back in 2003 Tanaka spent more than $3,000 and more than three months gathering letters of support in order to obtain an O-1 visa, commonly referred to as an artist’s visa. He was denied. In its letter of denial and on its Web site, the INS mentions a Grammy Award as suitable proof of artistic merit; the Web site also lists, “key roles in prior major productions; significant recognition in the field by critics, etc.; major roles in productions with distinguished reputation; major commercial success; significant recognition from governmental organizations or other recognized experts, record of high salary in relation to others in the field.” Of course, even the greatest jazz musicians rarely bring in a “high salary,” let alone young talents who are still developing a distinctive voice.
It’s hardly news that folks who determine artistic merit are bureaucrats with little to no knowledge of the arts. In order to stay, Tanaka enrolled at Northern Illinois University, where he earned a master’s degree in “percussion pedagogy” in May of 2006. He then pursued an “optional practical training” program over the last year. Now he’s at the end of the road, and without the resources to reapply for the O-1 again he’s leaving the country. Tanaka hopes to return at some point in the near future; gaining employment through a Japanese firm is a slight possibility for him, but nothing is certain.
I just saw Tanaka play a superb duet with saxophonist Greg Ward on Wednesday at the Hideout, and it only reinforced what a loss this is for the city. Aside from the above-mentioned groups, he’s also worked with the Howling Hex, the Cairo Gang, and groups led by Josh Berman, Keefe Jackson, and Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten. He’s leaving the day after his gig at Rodan, where he’ll perform with A Cushicle, a trio with bassist Jason Ajemian and guitarist Jeff Parker, and video artist Selina Trepp, who’s held a steady residency at the bar for years now. As usual, I’m sure he’ll play his ass off.