Yoshio Toyama and wife Keiko celebrate their long love affair with Satchmo, jazz and New Orleans
Every year when Yoshio and Keiko Toyama come to New Orleans to perform at Satchmo Summerfest, they arrive with Yoshio's traditional jazz band, several members of their foundation, and gifts. This time was no different. As I waited for the presentation to begin in the band room at Landry-Walker High School, I checked out the horns and the banjo on the table.
Each one had the same message: "This instrument is donated by Wonderful World Jazz Foundation, Tokyo, Japan. A present to the children of New Orleans from jazz fans in Japan. To express our thanks for jazz, which New Orleans, Satchmo and your country have given us."
That pretty much sums up what the Toyamas are all about.
I look forward to seeing them every summer. Yoshio Toyama and the Dixie Saints always put on a great show at the school, complete with a second-line. The kids love them, and the couple's love for Louis Armstrong, jazz and New Orleans is boundless.
During this year's festivities, Wilbert Rawlins, Landry-Walker's band director, surprised the Toyamas with matching Landry-Walker letterman jackets.
"You always bring us presents," he told them. "We want you to know we appreciate you."
Yoshio put on his jacket and wore it through the rest of the program, the way he did the year Rawlins gave him an O. Perry Walker jacket, before the two Algiers schools merged.
When he got up to speak, he told the audience about the first time he met Rawlins. It was in 2003 at Carver High School in the 9th Ward, where Rawlins was band director until the levees failed and the school flooded.
That year, the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation brought 39 shiny new instruments — everything from trumpets to tubas — to Rawlins' band students.
Yoshio told us how surprised he'd been to see the raggedy condition of the instruments the Carver students were playing.
"All the valves on the horns were broken," he said. "I was wondering how this could happen in the town that was the first to make the world swing. The whole world was captured by the music you made with Louis Armstrong."
I remembered that day well, and I remembered the condition of the instruments. Many were held together with string and duct tape.
That August morning was the first time I heard Yoshio play his horn and sing in that gravely voice that pays homage to Louis Armstrong. And at that first presentation I could see that the Japanese trumpet player and the New Orleans band director shared a special bond: They were united by their belief that music could change, and even save, the lives of young people.
That was also when I first learned how the Toyamas had come to live in New Orleans and why they started the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation.
Their story begins in 1963 when they were college musicians. That year the eminent clarinetist George Lewis toured Japan with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the young couple fell in love with his music.
"The band manager, Allan Jaffe, suggested that if we liked jazz so much we should come to New Orleans," Yoshio said.
In 1968, after they'd graduated from college and married, they followed Jaffe's advice and embarked on a wonderful adventure. They moved into a third-floor apartment on Bourbon Street above Sonny Vaucresson's Cafe Creole.
"The window was broken, and at night you could hear the music coming from Preservation Hall," Yoshio said.
Sounds of Yoshio practicing his trumpet and Keiko playing her banjo drifted down from the broken window, and Vaucresson told them if they'd play on the patio every evening, he'd pay them in dinners.
"So every day, we ate Creole food," Yoshio said.
They stayed in New Orleans for five years, working as musicians and learning from the jazz masters at Preservation Hall, sometimes even sitting in with the band. Then they went home to Japan to play traditional jazz.
"Jazz is very well-loved in Japan," Yoshio said.
When they came back to New Orleans for Mardi Gras 20 years later, they were upset to see high school bands marching with old battered horns and sad to learn that teenagers had guns. So they established the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation to put new musical instruments into teenagers' hands instead.
"I was thinking, 'When they get a trumpet, they might be like Louis Armstrong,'" Yoshio said.
Since then, they have brought more than 800 musical instruments to New Orleans schoolchildren and done many other good works for the city.
As I watched them second-line around the band room the morning before the start of this year's Satchmo Summerfest, I thought how remarkable it was that their love affair with New Orleans has stayed so strong for 47 years.
"Everything we do here is about kids," Rawlins told the audience at the end of the program, "and this great man and his wife from a whole other country help us in our struggles."
That afternoon, I went with the Toyamas and their group to the grave of George Lewis. He is buried in the McDonoghville Cemetery in Gretna, and they go every year to pay homage to the clarinetist who made them dream of coming to New Orleans.
I wanted to go because of my dad. Lewis was one of his favorite performers. Every year he and my mom would escape the cold Illinois winter and spend a heavenly week in New Orleans. They'd go to Preservation Hall every night and bring home another record to tide them over until the next January.
I grew up with the music of Lewis and "Sweet Emma" Barrett drifting up from the front porch to my bedroom in the summer. One year when I was in college Dad brought home a poster with rows of Japanese writing at the top, a sketch of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the middle, and the words "George Lewis — New Orleans" at the bottom.
I didn't realize it was a poster advertising one of Lewis' tours in Japan until I met the Toyamas 40 years later.
At the gravesite, the Dixie Saints played "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" and then "Burgundy Street Blues," one of Lewis' most famous compositions. "The sweet soulful, beautiful sound from his clarinet will be forever more," is written on his tombstone, and while we listened to those sweet, soulful clarinet notes, I was touched to see members of the foundation reach out to pull weeds and grass from the grave.
When we were leaving the cemetery, I learned that Yoshio and Keiko had been there when Lewis was buried on a rainy January morning in 1969 and that Keiko had played a banjo given to her by the widow of Lawrence Marrero, Lewis' favorite banjo player.
"After he died, banjo players and collectors from all over the world were after that banjo, but she just didn't want to let it go," Yoshio said.
When Eloise Marrero learned that a young Japanese woman was in need of a banjo, though, she gave it to Keiko.
"Lawrence never made it to Japan with George, so she wanted the banjo to see Japan," Yoshio said.
I followed the group across the river to West End, where the band played "The Old Rugged Cross" in honor of Yoshiro Suzuki, a fellow trumpet player who died in April.
"He loved Louis Armstrong very much, and he listened to Pop's music in bed until he left us," Yoshio said.
As the last notes of the hymn drifted away, Yoshio sprinkled his friend's ashes in Lake Pontchartrain.
"Not all," he said, smiling. "I save some for our riverboat cruise tonight."
Before I said goodbye at the lakefront, I listened to the band play "West End Blues," the song Armstrong recorded in 1928 that captured his genius.
"His jazz feeling, his swing, his blues feeling — everything was so far ahead of his time," Yoshio said. "Pops laid out a line for horn players like Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie with the start of 'West End Blues.'"
After leaving the Toyamas and their friends, I remembered it was supposed to rain that afternoon, but puffy white clouds drifted across a blue sky above the lake, and I knew Yoshio would think Pops had taken care of the weather.
The next time I talked to him was Monday morning, when the festival was over and he and his group of 30 were about to leave New Orleans. He'd been at Preservation Hall the night before for the Satchmo tribute.
"It was 47 years ago when we first went there," he said. "All those memories came flooding back. I was just knocked out."
It was hard for him to name the highlights of his visit.
"It was so many things," he said. "Snug Harbor was packed when we played Friday night, and the same thing happened at the Old Mint. Everybody just went crazy for us. They were so warm and welcoming."
Then Sunday morning he opened the Jazz Mass at St. Augustine Church with "What a Wonderful World."
"People loved it. We just had so much fun," he said.
I asked him if he was tired after four days of nonstop activity, and he said he was too happy and excited to sleep.
"This is a special festival with a lot of heart," he said, "and we love giving back to the city where everybody was so kind to us when we were young."
When I asked him about their cruise on the Steamship Natchez, he explained that it was raining at the start, and the Dukes of Dixieland were playing in the dining room.
"You have to be dining guests to sit in there," he said. " At first we were sitting outside with no band, so I was disappointed."
But then the rain stopped, and at the end of the cruise the band came outside to play for the Japanese tourists.
"It became a big jam session, and we were having so much fun I almost forgot Yoshiro's ashes," he said.
When he remembered, he hurried to the other side of the boat and threw them into the Mississippi River.
"Just as they hit the water, fireworks went off in Algiers, and it was like his spirit was there with us," Yoshio said. "This year our trip was perfect. Pops took care of everything."
Contact Sheila Stroup at email@example.com.