Sadao Watanabe, born on February 1, 1933, in Utsunomiya, Japan, is a distinguished Japanese jazz musician renowned for his mastery of the alto and sopranino saxophones. Watanabe's early attraction to jazz was influenced by the American post-war presence in Japan, and he began playing the clarinet in high school after persuading his father to purchase a second-hand instrument for him.
In 1951, Watanabe moved to Tokyo and started playing the alto saxophone. He began his formal study of the flute in 1953 with Ririko Hayashi of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. His first leadership role in music came when he took over Toshiko Akiyoshi's Cozy Quartet after Akiyoshi moved to the USA. Watanabe released his first album as a leader, "Sadao Watanabe," in 1961.
Seeking to expand his musical horizons, Watanabe moved to the United States in 1962 to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. This period was crucial for his artistic development, broadening his stylistic scope and incorporating Brazilian music into his repertoire. He collaborated with artists like Gary McFarland, Chico Hamilton, and Gábor Szabó during his time in the USA.
Returning to Tokyo in 1965, Watanabe became the director of the new Yamaha Institute of Popular Music, which based its curriculum on Berklee's. From 1966, he toured Japan and internationally with his own quartet, exploring genres like bop, Brazilian music, jazz-rock, soul, and pop. He performed with John Coltrane's quintet in Tokyo in 1966 and played at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival, establishing himself as a highly regarded jazz performer.
In 1969, Watanabe began a part-time career as a radio broadcaster, promoting jazz in Japan. His program "My Dear Life" ran for 20 years. He released the album "Round Trip" in 1970, featuring Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, and Miroslav Vitouš, and continued performing and recording extensively throughout the 1970s and 1980s, amassing a catalogue of over 70 albums as a leader.
Besides his musical career, Watanabe has published six photography books in Japan and has been a visiting professor of Jazz at Kunitachi College of Music since 2010. His diverse contributions to jazz, both in performance and education, underscore his status as a pivotal figure in the genre.