CROSSROADS TO SOMEWHERE: Revisiting Nisei Music Makers and Swingtime

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WIMPY1By W.T. WIMPY HIROTO

One of the unexpected pleasures of the upcoming Nov. 16 presentation of The Great Nisei Reunion extravaganza has been engaging in conversation about music from the past. Being able to talk about something other than grandkids or finding a new doctor for old aches and pains.

There is one thing everyone of the WWII era had — a favorite song — so memorable it causes the heart to skip a beat even today. There’s no way gangsta rap prevails over “Jersey Bounce.” Most certainly we’ll “Take the ‘A’ Train” before any CW rendition of a wild hayride.

As we know all too well, wartime Nisei formed a unique once-in-a-lifetime union, a blend of togetherness because of forced captivity. I’ll leave it to sociologists to explain the whys and wherefores of how it worked out so well. As far as CR2S is concerned, one of the main reasons was our intro to Big Band music. The clarinet artistry of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw was the epoxy that brought us together, Tommy Dorsey’s rendition of “At Last” the glue that stuck to our psyche. Whether tone deaf or Goro Suzuki, we sang and danced rather than riot in discontent.

That positive was found in the maze of WWII misfortune. We grew up in the age of jazz, jive and jitterbug (leaving clods like me favoring a slower-tempoed “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”). Our introduction to dancing came in crepe paper-decorated mess halls with uneven linoleum floors. Atmosphere didn’t matter when lights were dimmed and it was time for *last dance – even if it was only 10 p.m. All of which is admittedly rather quaint and amusing as I write. But c’est la vie, hoss, we didn’t have souped-up jalopies to park at a drive in and wore engineer boots rather than $200 sneakers.

[*Stags, on one side of the mess hall, would vie for dances with gals standing across the way; no one sat down because there were no chairs. The last dance was the most prized of all. And if lucky, someone would “jump” the record, returning the needle to an earlier spot to make the dance last longer. Ah, sweet memories, even though the “jumper” rather than the “jumpee” more often than not.]

For CR2S, the revived memories prompted me to revisit “Reminiscing in Swingtime,” a retrospective of the role JAs played in the annals of American popular music. Written with dedication and enlightening detail by Washington-born (1922) Postonite George Yoshida, it is a fascinating chronicle of the prominent role they played from in the U.S. and Japan. Published in 1997, my second reading was as enjoyable as the first, if not more so.

The world of swing improbably opened up for Nisei musicians due to the evacuation. Hastily organized bands, enhanced the growing popularity of 78-rpm records, introduced dance music to the young generation to brighten the dull and drab. Each of the ten relocation centers had bands formed by resident music makers; in the case of Poston, one in each of the three outposts.

Poston I had the professionally talented *Music Makers, an eleven-piece aggregation that was launched by author Yoshida. It featured a 17-year-old multi-talented Hide Kawano, a drummer and musical genius who was well known from pre-war Nisei Week talent shows. Gila River I and II had the Starlight Serenaders and Music Makers; George Igawa fronted a band at Heart Mountain, numbering as many as eighteen musicians; and the Jive Bombers were headliners at Manazanar. [*Poston aggregation included such recognizable names as Frank Oshima, Haruo Fujisawa, Tug Tamaru and Jack Wada.]

Intriguing portions of Yoshida’s compilation are the biographies of such luminaries as Jim Araki, Joe Sakai, Paul Higaki and Kawano, to name but a few of the best known. Other familiar CR2S-era personages receiving mention include the Shindos, bandleader Tak and singer sister Karie (Aihara); singer-emcees Bob Kinoshita and Lane Nakano; teenage sensation Paul Togawa; versatile reedman Tets Bessho; singer-teacher Sue Takimoto Joe.

The most surprising section, as far as I was concerned, was his account of Harry Kitano’s travails. A very talented trombonist, he played alongside such accomplished artists as Lionel Hampton without embarrassment.

The reason for my surprise was I knew Harry as one of the first Nisei to hold a teaching position at UCLA. A highly respected professor at the School of Social Welfare and Sociology, Kitano authored a number of books and wrote innumerable research papers. “You should try your hand at writing for publication,” he would often suggest. “About what?” was my standard rejoinder. Once, after yet another demurrer, “Write about anything, man, the love life of an Oriental mouse and somebody will publish it!” was his exasperated rejoinder.

I didn’t have the slightest idea his first love was music until I read the book. How troubled he was witnessing black musicians being mistreated (in the South), and a later gig as a band leader — all black instrumentalists — billed as the Harry Lee Band. My guess is this experience led to his departure from swing to sociologist. He probably never mentioned his love of music because Wimpy was not Woody and Crossroads not Downbeat.

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The Great Nisei Reunion concert will be staged Sunday, Nov. 16, 2 p.m. at Aratani Theatre. Call (310) 627-7272 for tickets and information.

W.T. Wimpy Hiroto can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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