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George Yoshida: Still Swingin’

By Dorothy Bryant Special to the Planet
Thursday July 30, 2009 - 10:46:00 AM
George Yoshida.
George Yoshida.
George Yoshida, second from left, playing saxophone with the Music Makers in 1942 at Detention Camp No. 1, Poston, Ariz.
George Yoshida, second from left, playing saxophone with the Music Makers in 1942 at Detention Camp No. 1, Poston, Ariz.

When George Yoshida greets his South Berkeley Senior Center class of “modified” tai chi and leads us into the first stretch, we see a compact, supple, dark-haired man—pushing 70? Wrong. George was born in 1922. The teaching career he began in Berkeley in 1952 continues to this day. Devoted to teaching? Yes, but his great passion is music—swing and jazz. 

Born in Seattle, where his father sang in a male sextet (American pop tunes as well as traditional Japanese songs) and his mother played the organ in a local Christian church, George moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1935, where his father might find more work in “the only work open to Japanese-Americans, G-men.” G-men? Government men—FBI? “No,” says George, with a twinkle in his eye and a sly smile, “gardeners and grocers.” 

George played baritone sax in high school, in the days of the “big swing bands,” also the days of teenage bands that imitated them. Graduating from high school in 1940, he went to L.A. City College, hoping to postpone the day when he would have to become another “G-man.” 

But then came Pearl Harbor and, in April 1942, what the ACLU calls “the greatest deprivation of civil rights by the government in this country since slavery”—Executive Order 90066, the forced removal from the West Coast of 120,000 people of Japanese descent, to concentration camps. 

“The sign on the pole ordered us to assemble nearby with only what we could carry,” says Yoshida. “I could not leave my records . . . put about 50 of my favorites—Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington—into a case. Clutching my lifeblood . . .” George left with his family for Arizona, Poston Detention Camp No. 1. 

Decades later, books described the resourceful ways in which the detainees, abandoned to desert barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, organized to provide their own education, medical care, recreation.  

One of these books is Yoshida’s Reminiscing in Swing: Japanese-Americans in American Popular Music, 1925–1960 (National Japanese-American Historical Society, 1997). In documentary and oral history, plus archival photos and cartoons, details 35 years of Japanese-Americans hearing, playing, singing and dancing to swing and jazz. He also touches on Japan, where the young, like young Europeans, embraced American pop music. 

But the heart of his book is the section on the detention camps of the 1940s, where young men and women created ensembles (some led and taught by interned music teachers), playing on their own or on donated, shared instruments. Sheet music ranged from new, mail-ordered “big-band” arrangements to worn, incomplete, donated scores. These groups provided music for dances in the grim, bare mess halls. George played alto sax in the Music Makers, an 11-piece band at Poston. “One advantage of the camps,” says George, “was an adequate pool of musicians who could play or wanted to learn, so we had no trouble getting full instrumentation for a band.” 

George’s book quotes Tad Hascall, director of instrumental music for the broad inmate-run program in a desert camp called Amache, in Colorado. Describing the impassioned work of imprisoned staff and students, Hascall concludes, “In spite of the difficulties and the problems to be solved, I am enjoying my work here more than I ever have before.... I can see clearly the wholesome results of music.” Or, as George puts it, with a shrug, “We were playing for our lives.” 

After a year, many detainees, including George, were released on condition that they not return to the West Coast. Where to? George chose Chicago, which offered several advantages: little prejudice against the tiny Japanese-American population (which soon increased to more than 20,000); a severe labor shortage—tough and dirty labor, but not “G-man” work (he could finally afford to buy his own tenor sax!); a vibrant pop and jazz scene, which was rigidly white/black segregated, but George moved easily between the two worlds. “I’ll never forget one Earl Hines show,” Yoshida says. “I was mesmerized by his new singer, her extraordinary range, rich timbre. It was Sarah Vaughan!” 

Deepening his exhilaration was the fact that, for the first time, he was on his own, “away from parents, free of traditional community ties, out in the world, in the mainstream!” In Chicago he met Helen Furuyama, also just released from a camp. 

George was now subject to the draft but luckily was sent not into combat but to the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling, Minn. As the war wound down, he took intensive training (his Japanese was a bit rusty) in preparation to be a post-war interpreter in the occupation of Japan. At Fort Snelling he played sax in the nisei Eager Beavers band (named in homage to Stan Kenton). On VE Day, May 9, 1945, he and Helen were married. His luck held—he won an honorable discharge to help his aging parents resettle after their camp ordeal. 

In 1946 George and Helen settled in Berkeley, where they could attend Armstrong Business College. Helen studied stenography and other then-“female” office skills. Classified ads listed many jobs in accounting for men, so George gave that a try. He hated it. “Debits and credits? I was so bored.” His sister was studying for a teaching credential. He applied to UC and was accepted, although he was warned by a counselor, “You just might get a teaching job, if you’re twice as good as a white applicant.” Granted credits for his army service and for classes at Armstrong, he earned (within three years) a BA in geography along with an elementary teaching credential (later picking up an administrative credential as well). “In 1952 I applied to almost every school district in the Bay Area. Not one response. Then, just as school was starting, Berkeley called me. There was an opening at Washington School—at that time a two-story wooden building on Grove (now MLK Way).” 

Unable to have children, George and Helen adopted, at one to two-year intervals, four infants of mixed parentage: one parent Japanese, the other parent of a different ethnicity. Asked for details, George’s answer is brief: “These are our children. We’re a family. Period.” 

He sold his sax and put his energy into fatherhood and teaching. “I wanted to be part of my children’s lives. One highlight was our (my sabbatical) year in Japan, 1963, surveying and reporting on arts education in elementary schools.” Back at Washington School, Principal Herb Wong, a jazz fan, encouraged a faculty jazz band, which eased George back into performing. He joined the faculty ensemble in the mid-1960s, as a drummer. (His drum teacher in Oakland got him into the Black Musicians’ Union, not yet integrated into the then-all-white Musicians Union. When they merged a few years later, “I missed those monthly meetings with the black musicians. They really were great.”) 

George’s move out of elementary education started in the early 1970s, when he was asked to help establish bilingual classes. Then he moved on to adult and senior education, coordinating and evaluating classes and programs at senior centers and nursing homes, teaching tai chi and yoga for seniors, leading classes and discussions on issues of aging: retirement, health, memory, recreation, death and dying. “After all, I had hit my 60s, so I had some of the same concerns.” 

But he could never bear to be far from music. In 1975 George organized a quartet, Sentimental Journey, in which he played drums. The group performed at various Japanese-American parties and events. And in 1989 (after his official retirement from teaching) he started the J-Town Jazz Ensemble, a 17-piece swing band based in San Francisco. “We’ve been going about 20 years now, but we’re sort of dying on the vine—yes, we’ve integrated, accepting some white musicians to fill the gaps.” 

In 1991 George established the Nikkei Music History Project for the Japanese-American Historical Society. That was when he started the research and writing that became Reminiscing in Swingtime. “Some young cats came to ask me what I knew about other musicians who’d been in the camps, urged me to call contacts, who led me to other contacts. I’m so glad they got me started then—because a lot of the people I interviewed are gone now.” 

While his book was still in production, George got another idea: a male choral group, about a dozen Japanese-Americans, most of them recent immigrants. They sing old songs, “You know, songs my mother taught me—a few of them Western-sounding but predominantly from Japan.” He hums a melody to illustrate a distinctly Asian-sounding tonality. “We shouldn’t lose this music.” 

George continues to teach tai chi, missing only a few classes when Helen’s health declined sharply, and her death ended their 63-year partnership. When he picked up the class again, he made a point of thanking the class for easing his grief by their need for his work. He’s doing more writing, too. “My memoirs. I don’t care if it never gets published. I just want to leave something for my children and six grandchildren.” 

Someone once asked George why he had switched from saxophone to drums, an instrument the questioner described as boring—“no melody; no one notices you.” 

George’s answer seems to define him: “Boring? Never. The drummer’s responsibility is to hold things together, keeping consistent time, listening to every member of the group, enhancing the musicality of the whole. The joy that comes from this perfect blending can be a sensation of undiluted rapture.” He smiles. “Remember what the Duke taught us, ‘It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.’ ”