There’s something special going on right now in North America at the intersection of interior design, mixology, and high-fidelity sound systems: the birth of the listening lounge. But, like most design objects or experiences, across the ocean in Japan these unique establishments have been around for awhile—for like, a century.
Kissa (or kissaten) means cafe, and there are all kinds of them across Japan; you can learn more about kissas generally in writer, photographer, and blogger Craig Mod’s book Kissa by Kissa, which follows Mod as he walks over 1,000 kilometers along the Nakasendō highway, stopping at kissas and eating pizza toast. The jazz kissa started in the 1920s due to Japan’s growing interest in Western ideas and culture, especially those expressed in music.
The jazz kissa is a specialty cafe, a place to sip coffee or cocktails while quietly listening to imported vinyl records on high-fidelity audio equipment—both scarce commodities that were too expensive for private ownership in midcentury Japan. Jazz kissas were likely one of the only places on the isolationist island nation you could hear these avant garde sounds; it was a pocket of modernity in an ancient country.
The first jazz kissa, Blackbird, was opened next to Tokyo University in 1929, and spun its wax on a RCA Victor “Electra.” During World War II, jazz kissas were closed in an attempt to eliminate American influence, but following the war and through the 1960s they proliferated.
“People can live so long as they have a place to eat and sleep,” reads the introduction to Gateway to Jazz Kissa, Vol 1. “But, after all, people need music too.”
There are currently only a handful of listening lounges in North America, and one of them happens to be in OneClock’s backyard. Folks who want to experience the newest iteration of the kissa lineage in the Denver area can visit ESP Hi-Fi, a listening bar named for Miles Davis’s 1965 album that was opened in September 2021 by co-owners Mitch Foster and Will Minter in the Santa Fe Arts District. Foster’s first listening lounge experience, which he describes in an article for 5280, was at In Sheep’s Clothing Hi-Fi, a Los Angeles outfit that now operates as an online record club with pop-up listening events.
Adding to the neighborhood’s established nexus of art and design, ESP invites guests into a warm, mellow, midcentury-inspired haven of libations and listening. They offer a curated selection of highballs, Japanese whiskeys, amaros, coffee, and tea, all to be savored to the soundtrack of the 500+ vinyl records heard from the cradling embrace of warm, teak furniture.
Listening lounges are expressions of an archive—a sonic portrait of its collector. At a listening lounge you’ll hear the inflections of the owner’s tastes across genres and historical periods, shuffled specifically for the ambiance of that day or hour. Unlike a musical performance given by a particular artist or ensemble, the listening lounge offers something that is highly-individualized, an expression that is unlikely to be replicated in the same way. The feeling is simultaneously casual, off-the-cuff, and singular.
In Japanese history, owners of jazz kissas are called “masters,” indicating their extensive knowledge of jazz. While ESP and other current day North America iterations—Public Records sound room in Brooklyn being another fave—spin dub, motown, fusion, synth pop, world, and ambient music alongside jazz, their proprietors are still masters of mood, often diving deep into the stacks to find what is right for their space and setting.
The customs for how a record is played in a kissa are specific, ritualistic. As Gateway to Jazz Kissa, Vol. 2 explains, at least one side of a record must be played in full before the set is switched, and each record cover must be displayed in a place visible to customers. Usually, the expectation of the customers is that they are quiet, speaking at low volumes when needed, but otherwise listening. “Jazz Kissas are considered ‘a place for seriously listening to jazz’ by both the people playing the records, and those listening to them.”
ESP is often but not always quiet. They host what they call Floating Hours every day from noon to 3pm, asking guests to engage in intentional listening. The music is played through the bar’s bespoke sound system that features two Garrard 401 turntables and vintage K-horn speakers. Like the music played, the sound system is another way twenty-first-century listening lounge and sound system proprietors seek to define themselves while upholding the historic kissa’s emphasis on clear, pure sound. At Public Records, with interiors by DSLV Studio, you’ll find the handcrafted speakers of Devon Turnbull, aka OJAS, who Surface Magazine calls a “fidelity genius.”
In an era of atomization that allows us to customize our cultural intake via highly individualized algorithms that we experience on tiny screens and discreet earbuds, going to a place like a listening lounge can feel a little bit thrilling—quiet, concentrated, and subdued as they may be.
We are often quiet together in public, but this kind of quiet has a communal element that can’t be summoned when we’re plugged into our own devices. Especially after three years of a global pandemic, gathering in groups to experience something in real-time feels new, special, maybe even a bit vulnerable. But music has always been powerful medicine. A shared world is built in the cocoon of the listening lounge—and it sure sounds good.
Image from ESP Hifi.