Sheila Stroup, The Times-Picayune
I never dreamed a thing like this could happen." -- Yoshio Toyama
In the band room at Landry-Walker High School, I watched the latest chapter in Yoshio and Keiko Toyama’s story unfold. Once again, they had come from Japan with shiny instruments for young New Orleans musicians.
“Eight hundred instruments since 1994,” Toyama said, smiling with his customary exuberance.
It was the day before Satchmo Summerfest, and the beautiful space was standing-room only. The Orange Crush Marching Band was on one side, and the audience sat facing them. It included members of the Swing Dolphins, a middle-school swing band from Kesennuma, Japan; and visitors from the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation, who make their pilgrimage to New Orleans from Tokyo with the Toyamas every August.
“I’d like to welcome you to Landry-Walker High School,” Wilbert Rawlins said. “This is now the new band room I am privileged to work out of.” He paused to let a translator repeat his words in Japanese.
The Toyamas’ past visits have been to the O. Perry Walker band room, but this year, the two West Bank schools merged, and all the students attend the new school on L.B. Landry Street. Rawlins, who was the band director at Walker, has had a decade-long relationship with the Japanese couple.
“In 2003, when I first met you, we didn’t have anything,” he told them. “Now, we can pass down instruments to junior high students.”
In the band room, the program began with a few rousing numbers from the high school band, but toned down a bit for an indoor audience. “I’d like to give you the full flavor of the marching band, but I’m afraid I’d blow you out of your seats,” Rawlins said, making the audience laugh.
Saving kids through music
It was an afternoon of music and of words, spoken in both English and Japanese. Rawlins and Toyama talked about how they’ve become more than friends through the years, and how their idea of a musical exchange between New Orleans and Japan evolved.
“We still have to deal with the outside world, but in here, we can save the kids,” Rawlins said.
That’s what binds the two men together: Saving New Orleans kids through music.
That afternoon, Toyama told how he and Keiko had come to New Orleans 45 years ago to study traditional jazz, and how they always wanted to give back for the priceless gifts they received here. And he told how, in 2003, the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation brought 39 instruments to Rawlins and his band at Carver High School.
“When I met Wilbert Rawlins, I thought he looked almost exactly like someone who taught Satchmo,” he said.
I smiled, remembering that day. That was the first time I heard Toyama play the music of Louis Armstrong and sing in that gravelly Satchmo voice. That was the day I learned about his devotion to “Pops.”
“The Japanese people want to thank the United States, New Orleans and Satchmo for giving the world such wonderful music called jazz,” he had said, handing over trumpets, trombones and saxophones.
When Rawlins spoke to the people gathered in the Landry-Walker band room, he explained how stunned he was by the 2011 tsunami, and how he and other New Orleans musicians had organized a benefit jam session and raised $2,700 as a small repayment for everything the people of Japan had given them.
A musical exchange
He told them about the idea he and his friend "Yoshi" had talked about for years: taking young New Orleans musicians to Japan and bringing young Japanese musicians to New Orleans.
Part one happened last October when members of Walker’s The Chosen Ones brass band and interns from Tipitina’s Foundation performed on a 10-day concert tour in Japan, and part two happened just last week when the Swing Dolphins came to New Orleans to perform at Satchmo Summerfest and Tipitina's, and to explore Louisiana.
“Without the Tipitina’s Foundation, this couldn’t have happened,” Rawlins told the crowd.
After the tsunami, Tipitina’s Foundation founders Roland and Mary von Kurnatowski found out about the Swing Dolphins through Toyama. The young band members had lost their homes, their rehearsal room and their horns. So the foundation sent Toyama $11,000 in yen to buy new instruments for the children.
Tipitina’s Foundation also co-sponsored last year’s concert tour in Japan with the Japan Foundation, and it joined with the Japan Foundation and the Tomodachi Initiative to bring the Swing Dolphins here.
After Rawlins spoke, Yoshio Toyama and the Dixie Saints perfomed the perfect song for the festivities: “Wonderful World.” They followed it up with “Hello Dolly” and the rollicking Mardi Gras favorite, “Second Line,” which got the Swing Dolphins and the Orange Crush up and dancing.
Sharing gumbo, photos
The party ended with the Swing Dolphins and Landry-Walker band members sitting down together to eat gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya and bread pudding. But the girls all seemed more interested in sharing cell phone photos than eating.
“Ooh, you look like a baby doll,” a member of the Orange Crush exclaimed. “Is that your mama? Is that your boyfriend?”
“I saw a lot of jazz movies, like ‘The Glenn Miller Story’ and ‘The Five Pennies,’ with Louis in them,” Toyama told me.
He bought a trumpet in junior high and taught himself to play it, and by high school he knew that jazz was in his future. When he and Keiko were in college, they saw the Preservation Hall Band perform in Japan, and they were hooked.
“The band manager, Allan Jaffe, suggested that if we liked jazz so much we should come to New Orleans,” Toyama said.
Later that year, when Armstrong was doing concerts in Japan, Toyama went backstage and knocked on his dressing room door. He was surprised to hear that unmistakable voice say “Come in.”
“I saw his trumpet on the table and said, ‘May I see it?’ and Louis smiled,” Toyama said.
He took the smile to mean “yes,” and he picked up the horn and played it.
“That is something I’ll never forget,” he said.
Giving something back to New Orleans
After he and Keiko graduated, they married, moved to the French Quarter and started working as musicians and studying with the masters at Preservation Hall. They returned home six years later to play traditional jazz, and they’ve always been grateful for their time here.
“When we were very young, the musicians of New Orleans taught us and took care of us and loved us,” Keiko told me, “so we always thought we must give something back.”
During a visit for Mardi Gras in 1994, the Toyamas were dismayed to see that high school marching bands no longer had the gleaming instruments they remembered, and they were sad to learn that young people had guns. That was when they came up with the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation.
“It was to say, ‘Not guns, but horns,’” Toyama said. “Louis Armstrong shot a pistol when he was 11 or 12 and that’s how he got his trumpet. It was kind of symbolic to think about Satchmo’s life and put horns in children’s hands.”
The Toyamas’ foundation has done a wonderful world of good. After Hurricane Katrina, the couple gathered professional quality instruments for New Orleans musicians who had lost theirs in the storm, and they staged a series of benefit concerts that raised more than $80,000 to help keep New Orleans music alive.
And after the tsunami, they made light of their personal troubles while trying to bring back the music in their own country.
“We cannot use toilet, bath, can’t wash clothes . . .and house is slope. We already got used to living in it,” Toyama emailed, attaching a video of Keiko rolling across the slanted floor in an office chair.
When Toyama heard about the Swing Dolphins, he knew he had to help them. In another email, he left me with an unforgettable image of a young girl who wanted to play music so bad “she just kept practicing without her trombone. Just moving hand in slide position.”
With the money from Tipitina’s, the Toyamas got the instruments to the Swing Dolphins, and a few weeks later they traveled 350 miles in terrible weather to see the band put on a concert in front of a shelter.
After the concert I received another email from Toyama: “We were so worried outdoor concert may suffer rain, but it was the most clear and beautiful day, just like the smiles on the faces of all the dolphins,” he wrote.
Last Monday, after the Toyamas and members of the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation had left New Orleans and gone on to the Louis Armstrong House in Queens, New York, Toyama called to say that before he left, the Swing Dolphins told him they were having so much fun they didn’t want to go home.
“I think they will never forget this for the rest of their lives,” he said. “It’s nice for Japan and U.S. to have this heart to heart through jazz, and I’m glad we were able to be part of it.”
When I asked him what it was like seeing the Swing Dolphins perform in New Orleans, he was quiet for a moment.
“It was touching. It was just too much,” he said, in a shaky voice. “We came a long way over the years, but I never dreamed a thing like this could happen. It was like magic, like Satchmo was playing tricks on us.”
Contact Sheila Stroup at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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