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Seattle welcomes Japanese jazz vocalist, a sister city tradition

A Japanese woman with short hair on stage holding a microphone.
Shinkaichi Music Sheet
Japanese jazz vocalist Yuka Misaki.

Since 1957, Seattle and Kobe, Japan have been official sister cities. The long-term partnership has resulted in a variety of cultural, political, and economic exchanges — including a unique and lasting jazz music exchange.

Every year since 2000, Kobe has held a Jazz Vocal Queen Contest in the birthplace of Japanese jazz, the Shinkaichi district, and sent the winning vocalist to perform in Seattle. In 2005, Seattle-Kobe Sister City Association (SKSCA) followed suit by creating a sister contest in Seattle that has sent numerous local vocalists to Kobe.

While the Seattle competition has been on hiatus since before COVID due to funding issues, the Kobe Jazz Vocal Queen Competition returned this year.

On Oct. 15, the winner of this year’s competition, Yuka Misaki, will be featured in the International Women in Jazz concert produced by Seattle Women in Jazz (SWINJ) at the Royal Room. Misaki, in her U.S. debut, will be accompanied by local musicians Marina Albero on piano, Kelsey Mines on bass, and Jeff Busch on drums.

“She's fantastic,” said Leah Natale, board member of Seattle Women in Jazz and SKSCA, and co-organizer of International Women in Jazz. “Usually, the women are in ball gowns [but] she wore a suit. I loved that she broke the protocol. It's going to be great having her here.”

Natale, a previous winner of the Seattle Jazz Vocal Queen Competition, has since joined the board of SKSCA and was sent last May to judge the Jazz Vocal Queen Contest in Kobe. The only American on a panel of four judges, Natale was impressed with the jazz talent among the eight contestants from the central Japanese city.

“They were phenomenal. Each one of them. I wanted to take everyone,” Natale said. “But Yuka had a showmanship the others did not. She’s so fun to watch.”

When Natale returned home from Kobe, she tapped SWINJ, a local nonprofit that specializes highlighting women jazz talent, to help her create a show for Misaki to headline with other women from international backgrounds, as they did for the Kobe winner in 2019. SWINJ Founder Jessica Davis, who’s judged the Seattle Jazz Vocal Queen Competition three previous times, eagerly agreed to produce it.

“Leah, it was her that really got this going again. She even wrote a grant proposal and got a grant for the event from 4Culture,” Davis said. “That’s what I'm really excited about with this show is that it's really a community effort. Seattle Women in Jazz is organizing it and producing it, but then also 4Culture is partially funding it and The Royal Room is giving us a lower price. So, all of us are coming together to present this for the community.”

Misaki was originally inspired to sing by Disney animation. Later, when she was exposed to jazz through her passion for musical theater, she was hooked. During the Kobe Jazz Queen Competition in May, Misaki performed her two favorite songs in her repertoire: “Goody, Goody,” a 1936 popular song by Matty Malneck, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and "Everything Happens to Me,” written in 1940 by Tom Adair and Matt Dennis, that was first performed by Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

“Jazz standards often have their roots in musicals, which is why I'm drawn to them. They have lyrical depth and offer a rich canvas for emotional expression,” shared 35 year-old Misaki. “This competition made me even more eager to entertain the audience and I feel like I have a clearer purpose for why I sing than before.”

Misaki has a full itinerary once she arrives. Along with the show at Royal Room on Sunday, she’ll be singing at Egan’s Ballard Jam House on Friday Oct. 13 with David Joyner on piano, Clipper Anderson on bass and Jeff Busch. On Monday Oct. 16, she’ll perform for John Rogers Elementary during an assembly. Misaki hopes to fit in some quintessential sightseeing, too.

“I'd love to catch performances at places like the 5th Avenue Theatre and enjoy busking at Pike Place Market,” Misaki said. “Additionally, being a coffee lover, I've always wanted to visit the original Starbucks store!”

As SKSCA and SWINJ prepare for Misaki’s arrival, both organizations are hopeful the Seattle Jazz Vocal Queen Competition can eventually return. They see this ongoing tradition as important for international awareness and for supporting women jazz artists.

With that goal in mind, SKSCA is continuing to explore opportunities such as grants, fundraising, and new partnerships in the community to bring the Seattle Jazz Vocal Queen Competition back for another year. Donations to SKSCA will also be accepted during the concert, and can also be submitted online at seattlekobe.org.

“I feel like, in jazz, especially, women often don't have as much of a voice,” said Davis, founder of SWINJ. “This exchange and the International Women in Jazz event really highlights their talents.”

Along with Misaki, the International Women in Jazz show will also feature sets from EntreMundos Quarteto led by Brazilian singer Adriana Giordano, and the all-women Lulu Swing, which performs 1930’s hot club swing with a French twist. The event is all-ages until 10 p.m. and free.

Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based freelance writer with a focus on arts & culture. Her journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Downbeat, and The Seattle Times, among others. She’s currently co-authoring a book on the Seattle jazz community with jazz critic Paul de Barros, due to be published by The History Press in 2026.