By Yoshio and Keiko Toyama, Wonderful World Jazz Foundation

“To the people of New Orleans – Arigato!” The members of the Swing Dolphins Japanese youth jazz band beamed into the TV cameras in April 2011 and expressed their heartfelt thanks to the people of New Orleans. In their hands, they held the shiny new instruments donated by the people of that city.

These images were broadcast across Japan just one month after a massive tsunami engulfed the Swing Dolphins’ hometown of Kesennuma City. The band members lost all of their instruments in that disaster, and some lost their homes. But thanks to the generosity of the citizens of New Orleans – the birthplace of jazz – the young musicians were back in business. Amid the constant stream of grim news about the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, this heartwarming story brought hope and energy to the people in the affected areas and across Japan.

Swing Dolphins at Satchmo Summer Fest

Two years later, the Swing Dolphins participated in a jazz exchange in the United States.  Thanks to the support of generous private sector contributors, the U.S. Embassy and the TOMODACHI Initiative, the Swing Dolphins visited New Orleans in August of this year and performed at the Satchmo Summer Festival. This is a legendary event held annually in the mecca of jazz. The Japanese band received thunderous applause. It was like a dream come true: these young musicians who had overcome so much adversity, playing the sweet sounds of swing in the birthplace of the jazz genre.

From Hurricane Katrina to the 2011 Japanese Tsunami

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2004; the Tohoku region was engulfed by a massive tsunami in 2011. Our goal was to build bonds through jazz between Japanese and American youth who had both experienced great tragedy. We were driven by our deep gratitude for the people in New Orleans who had taken us under their wings when we were young and taught us the art of jazz.

Fascinated by jazz master Louis Armstrong, we moved to New Orleans in 1968. There we learned about the roots of jazz, by studying and playing with legendary jazz musicians. We wanted to return the favor. Jazz is a wonderful present that America gave to the world, and we thought people across Japan and the world would want to express their appreciation for that. Yet we were shocked by the reality of New Orleans, where children were surrounded by the danger of guns, drugs, and even murder. We knew that Louis Armstrong – “Satchmo” – was sent to a juvenile detention center for shooting a pistol in his youth. It was there that he took up music and went on to lead a wonderful life.  We wanted young people in New Orleans and all over America, where guns are prevalent, to remember the story of Satchmo.

Under the slogan of “Horns for Guns,” we launched a program to send instruments to young people around the age of Satchmo’s grandchildren. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, we also sent instruments and donations to musicians who had lost their instruments in the disaster. Between 1994 and 2013, we’ve sent a total of 800 musical instruments to schoolchildren in New Orleans.

New Orleans Sends Instruments in Return

On March 11, 2011, Japan was struck by a terrible disaster – the Great East Japan Earthquake. After the quake, we immediately began to receive emails from our friends in New Orleans asking whether we were okay. We were pleased to see that one of the messages was from a foundation organized by a local jazz club operator in New Orleans. They said that in return for our efforts to help New Orleans, they wanted to send instruments to the Japanese children who had lost theirs. We helped the foundation locate the Swing Dolphins in disaster-stricken Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture. The young musicians had lost not only their instruments, but all their sheet music, their costumes, and in some cases even their homes.

Because they had no instruments, the Swing Dolphins were not going to be able to perform in a jazz concert scheduled for April 24. The concert was supposed to be held in front of a gymnasium designated as an evacuation center and was meant to help cheer up the people in the devastated areas. The goodwill of the people of New Orleans was immediately transmitted across the ocean, and brand new instruments were delivered to the Swing Dolphins on April 12, just one month after the disaster. With the new instruments, the young jazz musicians were able to make a swift comeback and play in the concert.

Kesennuma Kids Go to New Orleans

Yoshio and Keiko Toyama Perform Martin Behrman

The parents of the Swing Dolphins members told us that their children had started rehearsing with their new instruments even before school started up again! When we met them, we saw a twinkle in their eyes and a glimmer of hope in their smiles that truly inspired us. The instruments they were playing had been donated by the people of New Orleans – the same people who had experienced the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. We felt strongly that we had to take the Japanese kids to New Orleans someday, to show them the city that had given them this gift!

Impressed by the story of the Swing Dolphins’ comeback performance, U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos posted comments about the band on his Twitter account. This led to our introduction to the TOMODACHI Initiative. And this summer, our dream of taking the Swing Dolphins to New Orleans miraculously came true. The TOMODACHI Initiative’s Fund for Exchanges, which was established with generous contributions from Toyota Motor Corp., Mitsubishi Corp., and Hitachi Ltd, provided the financial assistance to make the trip possible. The New Orleans-Miyagi Youth Jazz Exchange itself was held there under the joint sponsorship of Tipitina’s Foundation, the Japan Foundation, and the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation.

Swing Dolphins arrive in New Orleans

On the eve of the band members’ arrival in New Orleans, the local TV station, WWL-TV, broadcast a documentary called “Tragedy to Triumph.” The documentary described an exchange program in Japan last year for young musicians from New Orleans and their interaction with the Swing Dolphins. The young Japanese musicians who appeared on the TV program became famous overnight, and local New Orleans people called out to them in the streets saying, “Hey! Aren’t you the Swing Dolphins?” During their trip, the Japanese youth listened to music, took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi River, touched an alligator on a swamp tour, and much more. It was such a thrill for us to watch these students take the trip of their dreams and spend a jazz-saturated summer in New Orleans. We would like to express our appreciation to all the people who were involved in this program.

The great Satchmo is probably looking down from heaven at the exchanges between these adorable young Japanese and U.S. jazz musicians, and saying in his deep, gravelly voice, “Oh, yes!”