It’s Friday night at a lively pub in a Tokyo suburb. The place is packed with all sorts of people – young couples, a table full of elderly women, a group of animated young foreigners, and even a mother with her young son. There’s a stage in the corner surrounded by tables, and people are lined up outside hoping to get a glimpse of the show that’s about to begin. What type of performance could possibly draw all these people from so many different walks of life? It’s Yoshio Toyama and the Dixie Saints, playing old-time New Orleans jazz and putting a smile on the face of everyone in the room.

Yoshio Toyama and the Dixie Saints performing at HUB Shin-Urayasu

Yoshio Toyama and the Dixie Saints performing at HUB Shin-Urayasu

“Jazz is a wonderful present that America gave to the world,” said Toyama in an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. When he plays trumpet and sings with his band at live shows around Tokyo, his goal is “entertain people by conveying the spirit of New Orleans and the heart of Louis Armstrong, or Satchmo.” The six-piece band plays classic tunes like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” while talking to the audience about New Orleans jazz and encouraging them to participate by clapping and singing along.

Yoshio Toyama

Yoshio Toyama

At one point, Toyama and his wife Keiko, a sprightly lady who plays piano and banjo, hand out fancy umbrellas to some of the audience members and the band members march around the venue with a trail of customers behind them dancing and twirling the umbrellas. According to Toyama, this is a unique New Orleans custom called “second lining” in which people follow behind the band while dancing and enjoying the music at funeral parades.

It doesn’t take long to figure out how Toyama earned the nickname “Japanese Satchmo” when he sings “What a Wonderful World.” The gravelly tone of his voice sounds very similar to the great Louis Armstrong, whom he idolizes.

The Toyamas became fascinated with jazz when they were young and moved to New Orleans in 1968 to live and learn from the masters in the birthplace of jazz for five years. “When I went to America, my perspective became much broader,” Toyama said. “My way of looking at the world changed. New Orleans was the mecca of jazz, so people were also coming from Europe and other places to study there. We were able to establish relationships with people at the core of jazz. If you stay in Japan, you end up only knowing about Japan. We went to New Orleans in the U.S. and we also went to Europe. By going to places like that and experiencing them, I feel like you can really learn to see the world in a different way.”

In New Orleans, the Toyamas studied with well-known local musicians, such as trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine and trombonist Big Jim Robinson, and established relationships with record producers and other prominent figures in the jazz world. This network of contacts, along with their great love of jazz, enabled them to build a connection between New Orleans and Japan that extends beyond music and actually changes people’s lives.

Yoshio and Keiko Toyama went back to New Orleans for a visit in the 1990s and were shocked by how dangerous the city had become. When they realized that parts of the city had become overrun with drugs and that some young people actually carried guns, they felt compelled to do something about it. Toyama remembered that Louis Armstrong had grown up in the ghetto and was put into a juvenile detention center for firing a pistol in the air when he was a youth. It was there that Satchmo was given an opportunity to study music and developed a passion for playing the cornet, eventually going on to revolutionize the jazz world and become one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Satchmo’s story is what inspired the Toyamas to establish the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation, with the slogan “Horns for Guns,” to provide young people with musical instruments so they could concentrate on playing music instead of getting involved in drugs and violence. They also wanted to share the music and spirit of Louis Armstrong with as many people as possible. “What we really wanted to do at first was return the favor for the great gift of jazz that America gave to the world, as well as the musicians who taught us to play jazz and all the American people who helped us.” Toyama said. “There were so many kind people who opened their hearts to us. We wanted to do something in return.”

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When word got out about what the Toyamas were doing, the press started to report on their efforts and people from across Japan responded by sending them old trumpets and saxophones that had been stored away in closets for years. “We were amazed at how many instruments we received!” exclaimed Keiko. “It was so moving for us to read the letters from the people donating the instruments, saying that they were willing to part with their precious instruments if we would deliver them to New Orleans.” In the 18 years since the organization was formed, the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation has sent nearly 800 musical instruments to schoolchildren in New Orleans.

After New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Toyamas immediately posted a message online asking people in Japan for their help. They received an overwhelming number of messages from jazz fans and musicians wanting to donate instruments to the musicians and children who had lost theirs in the disaster. “We couldn’t believe how many people wanted to lend a helping hand,” Keiko said “The Wonderful World Jazz Foundation received the astounding sum of 10 million yen in donations for New Orleans.” The Toyamas were able to utilize their network of connections with organizations and musicians in New Orleans to send a large number of donations as well as instruments there to help rebuild the birthplace of jazz after the devastating hurricane.

Next it was Japan’s turn to be struck by disaster on March 11, 2011. Although most of the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami affected the Tohoku region, Yoshio and Keiko Toyama live in a Tokyo suburb that is built on landfill, so their house was badly damaged. They had little time to worry about their own situation, though, because they immediately began to receive calls and emails from people in New Orleans asking what they could do to help Japan.

One of the schools in New Orleans that received instruments from the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation in the past organized a fund-raising concert for Japan. The Tipitina’s Foundation, a jazz venue in New Orleans that promotes childhood musical programs and donates instruments to schools, also sent an email saying they wanted to help. “Having gone through a similar devastating experience with hurricane Katrina, we understood the need to get new musical instruments to the affected areas,” said Tipitina’s Foundation Managing Director Bethany Paulsen. “After Katrina, music acted as a guiding light to inspire people to persevere onward and continue rebuilding in New Orleans. After the earthquake in Japan, it was a natural decision for Tipitina’s Foundation to help. Tipitina’s Foundation wanted the people affected by the tsunami to have the same hope and inspiration through music that New Orleans had after Katrina.”

“We were so grateful,” said Toyama. “We didn’t expect that to happen at all. That was when the people in the affected areas still had no water and food. They didn’t even have electricity. It was such a mess. We weren’t sure if it was the right situation for sending instruments then.” But the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation helped the Tipitina’s Foundation identify the Swing Dolphins youth band from Kesennuma and the Bright Kids of Tagajo-Higashi Elementary School in Miyagi Prefecture as two student groups that had lost their instruments in the tsunami, and organized the delivery of new instruments that were purchased with donations from the Tipitina’s Foundation.

The young musicians started practicing with their new instruments, even though some of them had lost their homes and were living in evacuation centers. On April 24, 2011, less than two months after the disaster, the Swing Dolphins held a concert in front of an evacuation center in Kesennuma. The concert was broadcast nationwide and it was one of the few positive reports on the news at the time. “It was such a heartwarming story amid all the terrible sadness that surrounded us at the time,” recalls Toyama. “I was so happy about that good news.”

For many years, Yoshio and Keiko Toyama had dreamed of organizing a jazz exchange program between young musicians from New Orleans and Japan. Part of this dream came true when the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation, in collaboration with the Tipitina’s Foundation and the Japan Foundation, invited students from the Tipitina’s Internship Program Band and the O. Perry Walker High School “Chosen Ones” Brass Band in New Orleans to visit Japan in October 2012. “We never imagined that the high school students we had been supporting in New Orleans would have an opportunity to come to Japan,” said Keiko. “When we were there, we used to talk about them coming to Japan someday as a distant dream. It was like a dream come true for us to have those kids come to Japan. It was such a fantastic new experience for them.” The students performed at the Yokohama Jazz Festival, the Satchmo Festival in Tokyo, and various events in the areas affected by the March 11 disasters.

“The highlight of the trip was meeting the Japanese students that we had previously given instruments to and listening to them play the music they love so much,” said Tipitina’s Programs Manager Emily Menard. “Even though it was our first time meeting in person, every face looked familiar. In some way, I felt we were connected and that I had known them my entire life.”

Ryuichi Chiba, a middle school student in Tagajo who was member of the Bright Kids jazz band in elementary school, was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch a performance by the young musicians from New Orleans and their teacher Donald Harrison, a well-known jazz saxophonist. His mother Kikue said, “It was like a dream come true for Ryuichi…. If it weren’t for Toyama-san’s efforts, Donald Harrison never would have come to Japan and performed at the school right next to my son.”The young musicians from New Orleans were also deeply influenced by their visit to Japan. Visiting the disaster-affected areas in the Tohoku region is an emotional experience in itself, but it was particularly poignant for these young people from New Orleans, who had experienced Hurricane Katrina when they were younger, to perform there. “Even when we were in situations where we could not communicate with words, we knew that we were interacting with people who know what it’s like to have to recover from disaster and who, in some way, also know the power of music,” said Bethany Paulsen of the Tipitina’s Foundation. “The life lessons and interactions that the students took away from this experience are priceless.”

The students from New Orleans also visited an area in Kesennuma where one of the many fishing boats that washed ashore in the tsunami has been left standing on the roadside as a monument to the tsunami’s destructive power. “They went there to perform the hymns that are played at jazz funerals in New Orleans,” said Toyama. “I think that will be a very memorable experience for them.” When asked how he felt when he heard about the disaster in Japan, Devin Lee, an 18-year-old high school student who visited Japan with the O. Perry Walker “Chosen Ones” band, said, “It immediately brought back memories of Hurricane Katrina – boats and debris everywhere. Sometimes it was hard to watch the devastation on the news because it brought back so many memories.”

As places that have suffered major disasters, Japan and New Orleans have developed a special bond. All the students from New Orleans that visited Japan would probably agree with the eloquent words of 17-year-old Tipitina’s Internship Program participant Hunter Burgamy: “With the experience I had in Japan, I brought home an enlightened sense of cultural respect. With what I had witnessed in the Miyagi region came an understanding of how we as one world must work together and help each other, and, with frequent and similar natural disasters, New Orleans and Japan are tied in a mutual understanding of rebuilding and renewing.”

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Bethany Paulsen recalls an event in Sendai at which the American and Japanese students had dinner together. “They were communicating through limited English and hand signals until some of the students started singing Michael Jackson songs. Again, music had the students interacting with one another when conversation was not an option.”

“This cultural exchange was particularly special, because despite having never met these young students before and not speaking the same language, we had a shared experience that connected us in a way that overcame the language barriers,” explains Emily Menard.

For the students from New Orleans, one of the most satisfying parts of the trip was when they sensed the Japanese audiences connecting with their music. Although Japanese audiences tend to be more reserved than Americans, Darryl Staves, Jr., a 17-year-old member of the Tipitina’s Intern Band, said, “The Japanese audiences were very excited when we performed. Throughout all of the shows they showed lots of crowd participation, which made us enjoy playing even more,” and Devin Lee of the O. Perry Walker “Chosen Ones” band said, “Their expressions showed that they were very entertained. They danced and second-lined with us, just like the crowds do in New Orleans.”

By participating in this jazz exchange program, the students from both sides of the globe learned that music can create profound connections between people that transcend language and culture. It has the power to lift the spirits of those who’ve experienced great tragedy, while at the same time bringing people together to share similar emotions. Ryuichi Chiba’s mother Kikue was elated that her son was able to experience this connection through the jazz exchange program. “When it comes to music, English doesn’t matter. Sound, rhythm, and melody are all universal, so you can understand them even if you don’t speak English. When you hear a sad song, you know it’s a sad song, and when you hear a happy song, you know it’s a happy song. Toyama-san has taught them that music is a universal language.”

Everyone who was involved in the Japan tour agrees that it was an unforgettable experience and a dream come true for Yoshio and Keiko Toyama. Through this program, they were able take the “gift of jazz” that they discovered in their youth and use it to bring solace to the hearts of young people who have experienced tragedy. But this is just the beginning of the jazz exchange program. “We’re hoping to take the Swing Dolphins – the youth band from the disaster-affected area that made their comeback with the instruments they received from New Orleans – to New Orleans this summer and have them play their swing music to say ‘Arigato’ to the people of New Orleans for their compassion,” said Toyama. According to the Tipitina’s Foundation, the Swing Dolphins are set to visit New Orleans in August 2013 and the students will have the opportunity to play with a junior high school band there, perform at the Tipitina’s jazz venue, interact with the students who visited Japan, and play at the Satchmo Summer Festival.

In the meantime, Toyama plans to keep up his efforts to introduce the wonderful world of New Orleans music to Japan by playing live shows with his band and perhaps writing another book on Louis Armstrong. The Tipitina’s Foundation will also continue to teach authentic jazz to young people in New Orleans. But above all, the grassroots efforts of people like Yoshio and Keiko Toyama will always play a vital role as the connection that brings young people together from opposite sides of the globe to interact and learn from each other about jazz and life.

Yoshio and Keiko Toyama

Yoshio and Keiko Toyama