In 1943, 20-year-old George Yoshida put on a sports coat, strapped on his saxophone, sat down with the Music Makers and launched into “Moonlight Serenade.”
Dancers swayed, jumped and jitterbugged the evening away under dim lights and crepe paper streamers as the 10-piece ensemble worked through a playlist of big-band favorites for their captive audience.
This audience was literally captive: Yoshida, his band and their audience were Japanese American internees at Poston camp on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Arizona, one of 10 permanent internment camps set up across the western U.S. to house people of Japanese ancestry during World War II.
Now Yoshida and some younger musical contemporaries are putting on “Days of Remembrance 1998: Jazz & Justice,” a concert series marking the 10th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The series, which started Saturday, will feature jazz artists including Anthony Brown, Mark Izu and Jon Jang employing their experimental brand of jazz to fuse an interpretive take on the internment experience.
“Being young and naive about politics in general, it was frustrating,” said Yoshida, now 75. “You can imagine being placed in the middle of the desert. What can we do?”
For Yoshida and others, music was the answer.
Against the dour backdrop of war and suspicion, young internees - second-generation Japanese or nisei - found solace in the American music of the times.
“There were 10 or 15 young kids who could play a little swing music,” Yoshida said. “We called it jitterbug.”
Late night mess hall concerts kept spirits high in the camps, Yoshida remembers. The affinity toward popular jazz and swing music was in part a denial of the untrustworthy persona the U.S. government had thrust upon internees.
“It was an unconscious assertion that we were Americans,” Yoshida said. “It was the music of our times.”
Yoshida spent a year at Poston, then made his way to Ft. Snelling, Minn., by way of the draft. There, he was trained as a Japanese translator and interrogator.
It was a strange journey for him - trusted as a citizen, distrusted as an internee, trusted again as a soldier.
Now Yoshida’s experience will be reflected through the experimental jazz format and the mix of old and new instruments - from saxophones and jazz drums to traditional kotos (Japanese harp zithers) and large Japanese taiko drums.
“It’s a different way of thinking,” said Izu, a classically trained bassist who will also play the Chinese sheng, a multireed wind instrument that has 17 bamboo pipes. He will debut his composition “Last Dance,” penned to celebrate the spirit of Japanese Americans since their arrival in America.
“I think the whole idea of struggle and unifying people is a very important part of the music,” said Izu, 43.
Anthony Brown, the national director of the project, will debut three contemporary pieces including “E.O. 9066 (Truth be Told).” Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, authorized the incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. The relocation centers held internees from March 1942 until their closing in 1945 and 1946.
“I’m hoping we can reach as wide an audience as possible, the younger the better,” he said. Brown, 44, whose mother was Japanese, hopes his music can translate the “wholesale injustice” on the internment to the next generation.
“We’re trying different ways to get the message across - in our choice of music, choice of instruments, choice of themes,” Brown said. “You look at the thousands of lives that were affected by that, and the generations that are going to be affected subsequently, you can’t expect just because you make an apology that the wrongs are all righted overnight.”
Tsuyako “Sox” Kitashima, who spent four months at Tanforan camp in California and three years in Topaz camp in Utah, will perform a monologue accompanied by Izu on the double bass.
The environment at the camps was harsh, Kitashima said, “because of the kind of living, and not knowing how long we would have to stay in a horse stall.”
“But for some of us who enjoyed jazz and all, it was the music that helped to pass that day,” said Kitashima, 79, a nationally renowned redress activist. “To face the next day. To me it was helping us to keep our sanity.”
The music spans generations, incorporating Gagaku, 1,000-year-old Japanese court music, wartime swing stylings of Glenn Miller, and experimental compositions from Brown, Izu and Jang.
Yoshida and Izu hope to meld a message from their two generations into a lesson for a third.
“In the mess hall, they would create these little dances, and they would put up crepe paper. Then they would play … and slow dance,” said Izu closing his eyes and recalling stories passed on to him by Yoshida.
“People would close their eyes, and they would be in a better place. There’s a little bit of relief from all of this, just for a moment.”