Defying death and all that jazz: Shunzo Ohno's story

by Dave Hueston


Shunzo Ohno, trumpet at his side, buzzes his lips as he loosens up for the next song — his vibrating mouth a thing of marvel, given all he has been through.

To look at him on stage, a laid-back musician in an orange blazer and tie-dyed scarf wrapped around his neck, it is impossible to imagine the hardships he’s faced.

But there is much more to Ohno than meets the eye. As one who has triumphed over adversity, having the courage to challenge life’s ill fortune is his way of defining his legacy as a musician. And when his trumpet soars, he is victory personified.

The Grammy Award-winning jazz artist, who toured Japan for the entire month of May and early June, is the subject of a new short documentary titled, “Never Defeated — The Shunzo Ohno Story,” which premiered this week at the Cutting Room in New York City.

Ohno, 66, has been on the frontlines of the recovery effort for the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, coordinating benefit concerts and visits for the past five years to encourage communities affected by the March 11, 2011, disaster.

Born in Gifu Prefecture, Ohno found his musical calling at 13, beginning with his training on the trombone. By 19, he was Japan’s top jazz trumpeter.

Spanning five decades, Ohno’s fascinating career is a story of boundless talent and dogged determination, marked by seemingly insurmountable setbacks.

He had a chance meeting with bandleader Art Blakey, who invited him on a tour with the Messengers in Japan. At Blakey’s suggestion, he moved to New York City in 1974 to pursue his dream.

“When I told my mother and father in high school I was going to become a jazz musician, they said, ‘Oh God, a jazz musician! All they’re about is drinking, women and drugs. Forget it!’ ” recalls Ohno, who lives with his family in Westchester County, a suburb of New York City, in a recent interview with Kyodo News during his tour of Japan. “But I told my father, ‘I’m not that type of musician. I want to be a great, pure artist.’ ”

After getting his break with Blakey, Ohno turned his energies to Afro-Cuban jazz and recorded on the Grammy-Award winning album “Machito and His Salsa Big Band” in 1983. With master arranger and composure Gil Evans, who became a lifetime mentor, he played on the 1988 Grammy Award-winning recording “Live at Sweet Basil.”

He reached even loftier heights on a return to Japan with Super Sounds, a group that included jazz legends Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Larry Coryell.

But Ohno came hurtling back to Earth when he suffered serious injuries in a car accident in 1988.

“I kept moving forward until the day of my car accident,” he says. “Up until then my everyday effort was to become a great musician, great trumpeter, great jazz player. So at the time of the accident everything was destroyed.”

His lips and teeth permanently damaged, Ohno says he immediately rejected the opinion of his doctors that he might never play again. But it meant a long road to recovery as well as finding a new way to play his instrument.

“Once the stitches were taken out, I started playing my trumpet but of course, no sound,” he says. “I kept trying and trying, and no sound. Sometimes, I really wanted to give up, not only give up, I just wanted to die. I thought (life) is not worth it.

“Up until then I hadn’t recognized how much muscle structure that was destroyed (that I needed) in order to produce sound. I just kept fighting, you know. That was the only thing. I started finding out better tools and different ways to practice to develop my embouchure.”

The second punch came in 1996. Ohno was diagnosed with aggressive fourth stage throat cancer. It was all but a death sentence. His doctors said that if he survived, playing the trumpet was again out of the question.

He underwent radical surgeries and radiation treatments for the next five years — a process in which 125 muscle structures, including tendons and nerves, had to be removed from his face, neck and shoulders. With no lip support, the battle to play began anew.

“Definitely each year I can see progress. It’s a process of fighting through every day, climbing up the mountain. That, itself, is the way people really get encouraged,” he says.

“Everybody has struggles in daily life, and I’m sure a lot of people want to give up, too. But by watching me, they can fight. My quality of trumpet playing might not be the best I’d like, but the value is beyond that as a human being,” he says.

Ohno says because of the formidable circumstances he has faced he has gained a fresh perspective on how to reach the pinnacle other musicians might take for granted.

He is the first jazz musician to win the International Songwriting Competition’s grand prize for his composition of “Musashi,” inspired by 17th century samurai swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. He is also the only Japanese native to have won.

Before a performance at Into the Blue in the Tokyo suburb of Machida, where he played a compilation, including “Go-On,” “First Step, “Night of Hazy Moon” and “Lea’s Run,” Ohno explains his philosophy by pointing to a spot high on a wall: “This is the final destination,” he says.

“Instead of going straight to the top with strength, you are able to see a different kind of view by taking a detour; this is the real point,” he says while zigzagging his hand to the top. “You have no choice, but still artistically you have to make beautiful music. Some people might get discouraged to take a detour but others have a different mentality to enjoy the scenery. That is the person I (aspire) to be.”

Ohno, who is also helping to raise donations for people affected by the Nepal earthquake, has done several benefit concerts under the banner “Hope and Courage for Japan.”

He arranged a performance to raise donations with other jazz musicians at a local school auditorium in Chappaqua, New York, on May 1, 2011. Since then, he has visited shelters, temporary housing, junior high schools and high schools in northeastern Japan twice a year to encourage communities through his music.

“If I don’t go there, it is very easy to forget,” he says. “When I go and meet people, I can really ingrain those feelings of what I saw. That becomes very important to keep a good balance as a human being.”