At last I’ve made it all the way to New Orleans. The air feels hot and humid, just like in Tokyo. I departed Narita at 3:55 p.m. on July 31, Japan time, transferred at Houston, and landed at Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport at 6:06 p.m. on July 31, local time. It’s been a long journey lasting 16 hours and 11 minutes.
It was almost thirty years ago that I first met Mr. Yoshio Toyama, who is known as the “Japanese Satchmo,” and his wife Keiko-san. We’ve somehow crossed paths at different times in our lives even though I changed jobs. And I’ve always wondered if there was any way I could participate in his efforts to promote youth exchange through jazz. When I learned that the Kesennuma Swing Dolphins were planning to travel to New Orleans in the summer of 2013, I made up my mind to join their trip as a volunteer, hoping to be of some help to them.
On the first night in New Orleans, each of the Dolphins members receives ten dollars to pay for their first dinner at a restaurant near the hotel. They carefully study the menu and order their selections at the counter. It’s their very first dinner in the U.S., but they’re relaxing and enjoying their meal together just as they would in Japan. I’m amazed at how flexible and adaptable they are!
Thursday, August 1
The Dolphins take a tour of the City of New Orleans, visiting St. Louis Cathedral and other places of interest, and, of course, Louis Armstrong Park. They take photos with the huge Satchmo statue, band statues, and at Congo Square where jazz was born. For lunch, Mayumi-san, a professional drummer and 17-year resident in New Orleans who takes care of the Dolphins throughout the tour, takes the members to a restaurant run by well-known jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. The members enjoy southern style fried chicken, fried catfish, and red beans and rice. Kermit himself welcomes the Dolphins and poses for photos with them.
Next they visit the recently merged L.B. Landry – O.P. Walker College and Career Preparatory School in the afternoon. A band from O.P. Walker visited Kesennuma last year. The marching band usually performs at a stadium and is pretty impressive. The Dolphins and everyone at the school enjoy a musical performance by Toyama-san and his Dixie Saints, joined by Ira Nepus, a trombonist and mutual friend of Toyama-san and myself, and Mayumi-san on drums. The Dolphins were rather nervous in the beginning, but gradually begin to feel comfortable and enjoy dancing together with the school members. The Dolphins say goodbye after a fun party and gift exchange.
Friday, August 2
The Swing Dolphins appear on a local TV morning show. The members have to go to the TV studio early in the morning and wait a long time for their turn to perform. What professionalism! As soon as the TV cameras start rolling, their backs straighten up and their expressions brighten. When their live performance ends, they’re thrilled to receive a gift of onigiri (rice balls) from one of the staff members who loves Japan.
After the TV appearance, we visit Martin Behman Charter School. Mr. Mitchell, the music director, gives a welcome presentation using machine-translated Japanese. The occasional “funny” Japanese translations get a lot of laughs from the members. The school brass band performs first, and then the Swing Dolphins with Toyama-san and his Dixie Saints play in return. During lunch, the Dolphins members and Martin Behman students are able to communicate just fine using gestures and a smartphone translation app. They don’t even need us to interpret for them. Again, the members enjoy dancing and exchanging gifts before saying goodbye.
Saturday, August 3
The highlight of the trip – the Swing Dolphins’ hour-long performance at the 13thAnnual Satchmo SummerFest – starts at 12:15. The people in the audience are pleasantly surprised that these petite Japanese kids can play swing jazz so well, and they start to dance and enjoy the Dolphins play. The performance is covered by the Japanese media in addition to local newspapers, local radio stations, and TV stations.
In the evening, the Dolphins are invited to a reception hosted by the Tipitina’s Foundation. The event reaffirms the importance of youth exchanges and kizuna (bonds) through music. Each of the Dolphins members receives a proclamation from New Orleans City Council President Jackie Clarkson. A Dolphins pianist and a guest play the piano together, and an elderly man fondly recalls his past visit to Japan. On their walk back to the hotel, the Dolphins members feel a bit like celebrities when they people say to them, “Are you the Swing Dolphins from Japan?” and “I saw you on TV.”
Sunday, August 4
Since there is no official event until 3:00 p.m., I join Toyama-san’s group to attend the annual Jazz Mass at Saint Augustine Catholic Church. There are so many tourists and visitors (ourselves included) at the church that the pastor jokingly says, “I have a dream” that the church is filled with so many people every Sunday. The latter part of the service is a jazz mass with the church choir, a jazz band, and Toyama-san. After the mass, the second-line parade heads for the Old Mint where the Satchmo SummerFest continues. Several bands are in the parade and spectators can become a part of the parade if they want. Despite the heat of August, everyone seems to have fun.
In the evening, several young groups perform at Tipitina’s (a music hall originally created as a venue for Professor Longhair to perform). The Swing Dolphins are the second group to perform. The people in the audience dance to the music while the Swing Dolphins play. After their performance, the members meet up with Mr. Mitchell and students from Martin Behman Charter School again and enjoy dancing and chatting with them.
Monday, August 5
The Dolphins enjoy waking through the French Quarter, Jackson Park, and the French Market, and then take a bus ride across the Mississippi river to the Lower Ninth Ward, the area that was hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In an area that was once crowded with homes, we see houses that are newly-built, restored, abandoned, falling apart, and reduced to foundations. We also see newly-built, high-floored houses (including one designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban) in a housing project called “Make It Right” founded by Brad Pitt; “Musicians Village” created for musicians who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina; and Fats Domino’s house. I have mixed feelings when I see the empty housing lots covered in weeds since it’s already been seven years since the hurricane occurred.
After lunch, the Dolphins visit the legendary Preservation Hall. It’s much smaller than I expected and has been preserved just like it used to be in the old days, without modern air conditioning. The Dolphins have a short workshop with Mari Watanabe, a jazz pianist and a tuba player who works in New Orleans. Later in the afternoon, the Dolphins perform at the Steamboat Natchez landing. The audience, though not very large, enjoys the swing jazz. An elderly woman, who’s heard about Kesennuma and the Swing Dolphins, offers a donation, so we tell her about the Tipitina’s Foundation. Then the Dolphins go on a cruise of the Mississippi River. They enjoy having dinner on the steamboat and spending their final night in New Orleans looking at the beautiful sunset views of the city.
Tuesday, August 6
The Swing Dolphins take a swamp tour. They see raccoons, herons, and whirligig beetles there, but of course the most popular animal is the alligator! They also go shopping at a supermarket and have an opportunity to try out their newly-acquired English skills. At a restaurant, the Dolphins enjoy the taste of Cajun food and listen to Cajun music. They try their first bite of fried alligator meat, which tastes rather mild. An elderly man near our tables tells us that the Dolphin members bring back memories of his younger days in Japan. One of the member’s writes a message on student’s yellow polo shirt and suddenly everyone starts signing each other’s shirts. Even Diann, the bus driver, joins in and signs the members’ shirts.
Wednesday, August 7
The Dolphins go to the Vermillionville Living History and Folklore Park. John Sitting Bear, Chief of the Avogel Tribe, gives us a tour of the old houses in the park and traditional lifestyle and culture. Since I studied anthropology in college, I’d like to spend a day or so there to learn more about the local history and culture. After the tour, the Swing Dolphins give their final performance in the U.S. at the Cite des Arts, Lafayette. Later on, some members dance Japanese Bon-Odori to Cajun music.
Thursday, August 8
We leave for the airport by bus early in the morning when it’s still dark outside. It’s hard to say goodbye to the Tipitina’s staff and Mayumi-san. Thanks to them, all the Dolphins were able to end their very first visit to New Orleans in good spirits. Some say (not too seriously, I guess) they don’t want to go home and others express (rather seriously) their hopes to study in the U.S. someday. I’m expecting great things from them in the future. Off we go to Japan!
After they returned from their trip, did the Dolphins manage to finish their summer homework for school? Do they still think and talk about everything they saw and experienced in New Orleans? I hope the Dolphins members will be able to fondly look back on the summer of 2013 as a time when they got to experience a little bit of the United States. I’m not sure if I was much help to them during the trip, but I do know I had a fabulous time. Thank you, Swing Dolphins!