Grateful Crane Ensemble to Present ‘J-Town Jazz Club’

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TORRANCE — The Grateful Crane Ensemble will present a new show, “The J-Town Jazz Club,” on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2 p.m. at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center’s Toyota Meeting Hall, 3330 Civic Center Dr., Torrance.

This show will feature cool jazz standards from the ’30s and ’40s — including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Take the A Train” and “Blues in the Night” — and tell the little-known history of what happened to Little Tokyo during the war.

Written by Soji Kashiwagi and directed by Darrell Kunitomi, with musical direction by Scott Nagatani, “The J-Town Jazz Club” will be performed by singers John Freeland Jr., Haruye Ioka, Keiko Kawashima, Kunitomi, Kurt Kuniyoshi, Miko Shudo, and the J-Town Jazz Band — Nagatani (piano), Danny Yamamoto (drums), Gordon Bash (bass) and Justin Klink (saxophone).

“Over 50,000 African American war workers from the South settled in Little Tokyo and called it ‘Bronzeville,’ ” said Kashiwagi, Grateful Crane executive producer.  “They were here to help the war effort by building airplanes and ships, but when it came to their housing, most of Los Angeles was off limits to ‘Negroes.’  Bronzeville became their home, complete with hotels, restaurants, bars, clothing stores and several jazz clubs.”

In Grateful Crane’s show, the year is 1945 and a group of Nisei jazz musicians and singers return home to Little Tokyo from camp, stop in to see an old friend at an African American jazz club, and are invited to perform.

Along with the songs and music, another theme explored in the show is the friendship between the Nisei character Tosh and African American Bill Williams, who knew each other before the war when they used to hunt rabbits in Baldwin Hills as kids in the 1920s, and later as members of a Boy Scout troop at the old Centenary United Methodist Church.

“Our story is fiction, but the relationship that existed between these two characters is based on real people who were good friends before the war,” said Kashiwagi.  “And when the call went out to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast, one of the things we talk about is how individual African Americans stepped up to store JA belongings, and spoke out against the unjust incarceration.”

The fact that both groups were living in confinement  — the JAs in camp and the African Americans in what became an overcrowded and disease-ridden Little Tokyo slum — is another one of the story’s greatest ironies, added Kashiwagi.

“The one thing we both have in common is the blues,” said Kashiwagi.  “And that’s what we’ll be singing in this show.”

Founded in 2001, the Grateful Crane Ensemble is known for its nostalgic musical shows, including “The Camp Dance,” “Nihonmachi: The Place to Be,” and “Nikkei Hit Parade.” Its annual holiday show, “I Saw Baachan Kissing Santa Claus,” will be presented at the same venue and time on Sunday, Dec. 11.

Tickets are $40 general, $35 for seniors (65 and over), students and groups of 10 or more. For information and reservations, call (310) 995-5841.

On the Web: www.gratefulcrane.com

History of Bronzeville: http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2008/6/11/enduring-communities/

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