At the reception for Yoshio Toyama and his wife, Keiko, I couldn’t stop smiling. Last Thursday, the band room at O. Perry Walker High School in Algiers was alive with the sounds of O. Perry Walker’s The Chosen Ones brass band and Yoshio’s jazz band, Yoshio Toyama and the Dixie Saints. What a joyful noise they made.
The Chosen Ones, dressed spectacularly in light blue seersucker suits, white shirts and navy-blue polka-dotted ties, wowed us when they sang and played “Bourbon Street Parade” and “Talking Loud.” And when Toyama performed “What a Wonderful World” in that Louis Armstrong voice of his, it brought tears to my eyes.
“This is a never-ending story,” Keiko said, when we talked after a rousing second-line that ended their joint performance.
“A wonderful never-ending story,” I told her.
The reception was to celebrate the next chapter in the story, made possible by the generous support of Tipitina’s Foundation and the Japan Foundation: In October, 16 young New Orleans musicians will travel to Japan for a 10-day concert tour, where they will play with young Japanese musicians.
Eight of the 16 are part of Tipitina’s Internship Program, who will be accompanied by their artistic director Donald Harrison Jr. The other eight are members of The Chosen Ones, who will go with O. Perry Walker band director Wilbert Rawlins.
Trumpeter Justin Walker, 15, an incoming freshman, sees the trip as an unbelievable opportunity.
“I’m trying to learn some Japanese before we go,” he told me.
He joined The Chosen Ones at the beginning of the summer, and gives credit for the band’s success to Rawlins.
“I love him,” he said. “I tell him, ‘My lip is tired,’ and he says, ‘Tired? There’s no such thing as tired. It’s that push, that drive that makes you good.’”
During the reception Rawlins talked about what the trip will mean to his students.
“I’m very, very excited, thinking about this opportunity for our children to see Japan,” he said. “We’re from a little bitty place on this Earth where God put us, and they will learn there is no ceiling on this room. There’s a big world out there.”
Toyama calls the trip “an exchange of hearts.” It was his dream to have a “children’s jazz exchange,” sending young musicians who had gone through Hurricane Katrina to play with young musicians who had gone through the tsunami. He is also making plans to bring young Japanese musicians to New Orleans next year.
“It’s like a miracle,” he told me when we talked after the reception. “We started in 2003, and we did not dream of this.”
In 2003, during their trip to New Orleans to celebrate Louis Armstrong’s birthday, the Toyamas met Rawlins at Carver High School in the 9th Ward, where he was the band director. They came to present his marching band with 39 instruments -- everything from tubas to trumpets -- donated by the Wonderful World of Jazz Foundation they started in 1994.
That day, Rawlins and Toyama became instant friends with the same vision: Saving kids through music.
I was there that August day when Toyama told the Carver band members, "The Japanese people want to thank the United States, New Orleans and Satchmo for giving the world such wonderful music called jazz."
I will always remember how surprised I was to hear him sing in that gravelly voice that has earned him the nickname “the Japanese Satchmo.”
Toyama discovered New Orleans jazz as a high school student taking trumpet lessons. His love affair with Louis Armstrong and traditional New Orleans jazz began when he and Keiko were college students and heard the Preservation Hall Jazz Band play in Japan. After they graduated and married, they moved to the Crescent City to learn from the masters. They lived in a rundown apartment above a restaurant on Bourbon Street and had a glorious time.
“The window was broken, and at night you could hear the music coming from Preservation Hall,” Toyama told me.
They stayed for five years, practicing, playing, and sometimes sitting in with their mentors at Preservation Hall. They went back to Toyko in 1973 and have been playing New Orleans jazz there ever since.
The Wonderful World of Jazz Foundation grew out of a return trip the Toyamas made to celebrate Mardi Gras 20 years later. They were dismayed to see high school bands marching with old battered horns held together with duct tape, and they were sad to learn that many teenagers had guns.
They decided to put new musical instruments in students’ hands instead. After all, Louis Armstrong received his trumpet after getting in trouble for shooting a gun.
“I was thinking, ‘When they get a trumpet, they might be like Louis Armstrong,’” Toyama said.
Since then, the Toyamas, their band and members of the foundation have come back to New Orleans year after year and have brought nearly 800 instruments to schoolchildren from the people of Japan. And Toyama and his band have become a highlight of the annual Satchmo SummerFest in the French Quarter.
Hurricane Katrina sent them into high gear. In the months following the storm, Toyama and his band held fund-raisers and raised more than $80,000 to help professional musicians get their lives back. They also collected professional-quality musical instruments donated by Japanese musicians.
"It was easy to get help because all the Japanese people worry about the musicians in New Orleans," Toyama told me.
After the earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan last year, it was time for New Orleans to give back. During the reception in the band room, Toyama told the crowd about the first responders.
“O. Perry Walker had the first charity concert in New Orleans for Japan,” he said. “He (Rawlins) was the first one to call me.”
Then Roland and Mary von Kurnatowski, founders of Tipitina’s Foundation, got in touch with him. He told them about the Swing Dolphins, a youth swing band from
Kesennuma, a town in northeast Japan that had been decimated by the tsunami. The Dolphins had lost their homes, their instruments and their rehearsal room, and he was trying to get them new instruments. They were hoping to do a concert in April outside a gym that was being used as a shelter.
The Tipitina’s Foundation sent $11,000, converted to yen, to Toyama’s tsunami fund, and he and his friends in Japan took care of the rest.
On April 24, outside the shelter, the Swing Dolphins had their first post-tsunami concert, and the Toyamas drove 350 miles to be there.
“They made their comeback,” Toyama told us. “That cute little band is making sweet music again. They will come and play and say ‘Thank you, New Orleans’ next year.”
During their trip to Japan, the New Orleans musicians will play with the Swing Dolphins, as well as other young musicians. They will also take part in the 32nd Satchmo Festival and will play at Tokyo Disneyland.
“You will see Mickey and Minnie Mouse speaking Japanese,” Toyama told the band, making everyone smile.
In the middle of The Dixie Saints performance, he led the rest of us in singing a song that Louis Armstrong used to sing: the magic song from Cinderella.
“Salagagoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo,” he crooned in his raspy voice, while we laughed and tried to repeat the words. They were the perfect lyrics for the diverse and appreciative group gathered in that room: In that magical moment, we all spoke the same language.
Sheila Stroup's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Living. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 985.898.4831.
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