Take a stroll down Royal Street in the Adventureland area of Tokyo Disneyland any weekend and you’ll likely hear the heart-tugging sounds of Dixieland jazz. What’s most surprising, perhaps, is the sheer authenticity of the New Orleanian music re-created by 62-year-old trumpet player Yoshio Toyama and his group, The Dixie Saints.
From the band’s rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” to his gravely-voiced cover of Louis Armstrong’s 1968 classic, “What a Wonderful World,” there’s no question that Yoshio — who wears his mentor’s big, friendly smile as well — has got Satchmo’s style down.
That, though, is not really surprising considering he spent close to five years in New Orleans from 1967 with his wife Keiko (the Saints’ banjo player), honing his craft by day while doing minor chores at the legendary Preservation Hall at night. He says it’s that experience — learning from and sometimes sitting in with jazz masters like Percy Humphrey and “Sweet Emma” Barret — that has enabled him to make a living through jazz music in Japan today.
While the Toyamas have spent the last two decades fulfilling a round of weekly jazz gigs at Disneyland and venues like Ginza Nashville and Hub Asakusa in Tokyo, it wasn’t until 1982 that their career took on a more universal dimension.
Spurred on by the 1992 death of Yoshihiro Hattori, a 16-year-old exchange student from Japan who was gunned down by the owner of a house he mistook as the venue for a Halloween party in Baton Rouge, La., the Toyamas decided to launch their own non-violence campaign through music.
The upshot was the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation they started in 1994, and through which, for the past 10 years, the couple have been sending hundreds of used and donated musical instruments from across Japan to the poor kids of New Orleans.
Satchmo’s ghetto upbringing
“I wanted these kids to remember the great Louis Armstrong who was also raised in the ghetto, but never resorted to crime,” Yoshio says. “But it was also my way of saying thank you to New Orleans for creating this wonderful music called jazz.”
One room at the Toyamas’ home in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, is packed with black cases full of tubas, trombones and trumpets that are constantly being donated to the foundation. While many are in mint condition, those that aren’t are repaired for free by students at the Global music school in Tokyo’s Shinjuku.
Meanwhile, over in New Orleans, the city’s Times-Picayune newspaper has run several features on the couple’s efforts over the years, often linked with criticism of the city’s school system for not integrating a similar program that promotes music as an alternative to guns.
It’s a trend that Yoshio applauds. “I remember all those parades and parties we were invited to in the black areas of New Orleans,” he says. “There was a lot of hope and positive energy among the black people — it used to be a much safer place.”
Yoshio, who graduated in political science and economics from Waseda University — where the couple met — then took a job with an insurance company. An aspiring musician, though, he quit after less than two years to head for the States.
At the invitation of Allan Jaffe, the late founder of Preservation Hall, whom the couple befriended when his band toured Japan in the early ’60s, the newlyweds shacked into a roach-infested apartment above Bourbon Street. And quite naturally, they had the time of their lives — especially as they could hear music coming from Preservation Hall just around the block.
Then one day, the owner of a Creole food joint below their apartment heard them practicing and offered them a daily gig playing in the restaurant’s courtyard in exchange for free meals. “So every day we ate Creole food,” says Yoshio, with a laugh.
Now almost 40 years later, it seems Dixieland is finally catching on to the musical talents of the Toyamas. In 2001, their band was invited to play live renditions of old Satchmo hits on local TV in New Orleans. Though he’s touted as the “Japanese Satchmo” by the New Orleans media today, Yoshio takes greater pride in his contribution to the city’s music scene: His band is now a regular fixture in the Satchmo SummerFest held annually on Aug. 4, Armstrong’s birthday.
He is, though, modest about most of these achievements. All he’s doing, he stresses, is repaying the kindness and “Southern hospitality” of his friends. “They were the ones who taught us the basics and gave us the confidence to play the way we do today,” he says. “It’s the spirit of Satchmo — and we still owe them so much.”