New Orleans – A city known for its live music, the COVID-19 outbreak has hit New Orleans hard. The city declared its first presumptive infection on March 9 and has since seen almost more than 6,000 reported cases with more than 300 reported deaths, at the time of writing.
The outbreak led authorities to cancel many of the city’s famous festivals, including the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that was set to take place between April 23 and May 3. In an April 17 statement from organizers, the heartbreak was real: “It takes something truly momentous to interrupt a 50-year New Orleans tradition as special as the Festival.”
Traditional jazz trombonist Haruka Kikuchi, 33, was set to play the event, alongside more than 600 other acts. However, her last live performance was at a small bar named Buffa’s on March 15.
“I definitely love to play music with the audiences,” Kikuchi says. “I’m a live musician, not a studio musician, so I miss the people so much right now. … But everybody is in the same situation, not only musicians.”
Sheltering in place in an apartment she shares with her husband, pianist Yoshitaka “Z2” Tsuji, and their 17-month-old son, Kikuchi has done what any artist would and is exploring new ways of reaching her audience. After all, she has a record to promote — “Japan: New Orleans Collection Series,” which came out April 1, is a compilation that features visiting Japanese musicians performing with their peers in New Orleans.
On March 23, the couple began livestreaming shows from their home via Facebook and Instagram. The performances are free, though the pair provide information on how to tip them as well. Their home workspace has a distinctly warm feel, enhanced by the presence of the couple’s son, who occasionally wanders in and out of the view while his parents play.
These performances haven’t been without their challenges, however. Kikuchi typically sticks to playing traditional jazz while Tsuji prefers modern jazz, so they’ve had to find a middle ground.
“Maybe it’s a good opportunity to play with a musician who has a different style,” says Kikuchi, looking for silver linings.
Bringing different styles together has been a recurring theme in Kikuchi’s life as she has a long history of working to bring the cultures of New Orleans and Japan closer together through music.
Her passion for jazz began when she picked up her first trombone at the age of 15 in her hometown of Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture. She began learning about the music’s roots in New Orleans, and took inspiration from Edward “Kid” Ory, a trombonist who worked with such icons as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. While still in high school, her music teacher introduced her to Waseda University’s New Orleans Jazz Club, a group dedicated to the city’s traditional musical style since 1957.
Kikuchi first visited New Orleans in 2009 with friends from the club. It was during Mardis Gras, a season when the city overflows with costumes, parades and celebration.
“I was so excited,” Kikuchi recalls of her first visit. “I felt like it was my dream city.”
After returning to Japan, she decided to take it upon herself to realize some of that dream closer to home. She’d noticed a rise in the number of St. Patrick’s Day parades across Japan, and judging by the many summer matsuri (festivals) it was clear the Japanese weren’t immune to the kind of outdoor festivities she’d enjoyed in New Orleans. So, she set out to create a Mardi Gras event in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture — a sister city to New Orleans.
In 2013, Kikuchi and her friends hit the streets of Matsue for the first official Little Mardi Gras celebration. Some changes were made to adapt the festivities to Japan, such as the celebration occuring in October instead of in the spring. Kikuchi says the term “Little Mardi Gras” references the event’s child-friendly focus, with the parade featuring school bands from around the city.
Matsue and New Orleans also have a famous resident in common, writer Lafcadio Hearn lived in both places and became a naturalized Japanese citizen while in Shimane Prefecture.
“I think it was the best city in which to start the Mardi Gras parade,” says Kikuchi, adding that it continues to be an annual event that she has made multiple trips for.
With her “Japan: New Orleans Collection Series,” Kikuchi continues to try to bridge the gap between her birthplace and her new home. The latest release compiles material from a series of EPs that stretches back to 2016. The premise behind the series is that when her Japanese friends visit her in New Orleans, she gets them to take part in a jam session with some locals.
“Many Japanese music lovers or Japanese musicians love New Orleans music, but they have so many problems with the language,” says Kikuchi. “Making music together is sometimes so helpful in understanding each other.”
Coming in at almost an hour with 11 different tracks, the compilation highlights the bonds Kikuchi maintains with Japan. Clarinetist Makiko Tamura, who features on the track “Give It Up,” went to the same high school as Kikuchi. She is also an alumna of Waseda’s jazz club. Trumpeter Mitch Yasuda, who performs on “By and By,” has been an influence on both Kikuchi and her husband. Kikuchi says she first saw Yasuda in a jazz movie while still a high school student (“I was thinking, ‘Wow, that trumpet player is a real jazz musician'”), and attended his gigs when she was in college.
Yasuda was friendly with Kikuchi’s husband, and played a part in convincing him to move to New Orleans over New York in 2010. Since 2012, Tsuji has been playing piano for jazz group Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers. The couple had planned to reunite with Yasuda and the other Japanese artists on “Japan: New Orleans Collection Series” in May, but the coronavirus pandemic has put that tour on ice as well.
Until then, Kikuchi’s album provides the sort of pick-me-up that those weary of stay-at-home orders will appreciate. And on her YouTube channel, Kikuchi’s most recent video is one of her walking into her yard, sweeping leaves and delivering a jazzy burst on her trombone as a way to thank health care and other essential workers. It goes to show that although festivals may need to be canceled, New Orleans won’t be silenced.
For more information about Haruka Kikuchi, visit www.harombone.com.