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'It took our minds off of the bad things'
They are old men now, decades removed from the nightmare that was World War II. Yet when they think of that time, they don't linger on the suffering and the indignities they endured.
Instead, they hear music -- the tunes of Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw -- that they played in the internment camps for Japanese-Americans, where the United States government locked up them up during the war.
Today, the story of the young, Japanese-American swing musicians who helped make life tolerable in the detention yards is practically unknown, even to jazz aficionados. But thanks to a photo exhibition on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art and an accompanying book, the jazz and swing culture that thrived behind barbed wire belatedly is coming to public attention.
"The music got our minds off the war and what was happening to us," recalls Chicagoan Art Hayashi, a 79-year-old former singer/bandleader and one of the last living survivors of the internment camp bands.
"We would try to convert almost all of our arrangements to the Glenn Miller sound, which was so beautiful. We would be in there, in the camp, working up these [musical] scores, then we'd test them out during our rehearsals.
"And because we were so concerned about the music, it took our minds off of the bad things," adds Hayashi, who led the Harmonaires, named for Camp Harmony, the housing area of the detention camp at Washington State Fair Grounds in Puyallup, Wash.
"I'm sure prisoners of all kinds do this kind of thing -- find some way to take your mind off of your misery.
"Otherwise, you'd go crazy."
The impulse to make music under dire circumstances proved universal, with swing bands sprouting in all the internment camps. Some were sleek swing machines, such as the Harmonaires, staffed by technically proficient young musicians who had played big-band music long before the onset of WWII. Other ensembles were perpetually out of tune, their personnel barely able to play horns they only recently had begun to study.
In this setting, even the worst band was received like a godsend.
"I must admit our band sounded very meek," remembers Chicagoan Todd Yamamoto, who formed the Music Makers at the Gila River Butte Detention Camp in Arizona.
"The kids in the band weren't professionals. They weren't even musicians. If they happened to own a saxophone, they played a saxophone, so it was pretty hard on the ears.
"You had to have patience to listen to this band," adds Yamamoto, one of only two bona fide musicians in the Music Makers, having earned his union card as a teenager.
"But there's a lot of time in camp -- what is there to do, besides playing ball? So I started the band to get some people involved in doing something, just anything."
Yet there would appear to be an unspoken but inescapable irony here: The Japanese-American families that were rounded up and detained as "enemy aliens" on American soil were playing and dancing to the music of the very culture that imprisoned them. Was this evidence of some kind of masochistic self-loathing or simply a way to earn favor with the captors?
"Neither one," says Hayashi, who was born in Seattle. "We're Americans. Why shouldn't we love American music? Glenn Miller was our idol."
Indeed, though most of the elders in the internment camps were emigres from Japan, their children generally were American born, attended English-speaking schools and listened to American radio.
"You have to remember that we had American-style dance bands in the Japanese community in the United States as early as 1926," explains George Yoshida, 79, who lives near Berkeley, Calif., and was incarcerated with his family in Poston Detention Camp No. 1 in Arizona.
"We literally grew up with this music, we absorbed the American culture very quickly. We certainly did not dig the Japanese music that our parents brought over with them."
Or, as Yamamoto puts it, "We were brought up in the American style, for everything. We might eat some Japanese food, but we stilled liked American food, American movies, American music, American everything.
"What people forgot was that we were Americans, and we are Americans."
Different kind of American
But on Dec. 7, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans discovered that they were a different kind of American -- at least so far as white America was concerned. Before that infamous day, Hayashi could lead his Mikados of Swing band in a tour of the entire state of California, during the summer 1941.
"The thing that's amazing is that the night before Dec. 7, 1941, my band, The Mikados of Swing, played at a dance hall in Seattle, and our orchestra sounded great, and I was very happy," remembers Hayashi.
"I went to bed that night at around 2 o'clock in the morning, and I always kept the radio on at night, in those days. Next thing you know, I hear someone screaming on the radio: `There are planes over Honolulu, they're dropping bombs, and it looks like they're Japanese planes.'
"And I remember thinking to myself, `I hope it's not Japanese,' but it was.
"I ran downstairs to tell my father, but he knew already, and he told me that some of his friends already were being picked up by the FBI, and he might be going soon."
Within weeks, Japanese-Americans along the entire stretch of the West Coast were rounded up, dispatched first to temporary camps, then sent by train to larger, more permanent facilities in remote, scorching parts of the southwest.
"When you got to camp, they asked you questions," Hayashi says. "The first one was: `Do you consider yourself an American citizen?' I said, `Yes.'
"The next one was: `Would you volunteer for the U.S. Army to prove it?'
"And I said, `Why should I? I haven't done anything wrong. Draft me. Treat me like any American citizen.'"
Carefree existence for teens
For the elders in the camp, this turn of events was a tragedy, for many lost the property they had owned in civilian life and feared for their lives. But for the teenagers who played in the swing bands, life was more carefree, perhaps because many did not grasp the gravity of their situation, turning to music as a pleasant distraction from boredom.
"The youngsters like us were basically happy," recalls Yoshiko Yamamoto, Todd Yamamoto's wife, who danced to his band in camp.
"We were all teenagers, and I think it's our parents who were kind of down or depressed. We didn't fully understand, and we just had a good time dancing to the music.
"I don't even know if the music was good or bad. It was just fun to dance to."
Soon enough, however, even the youngsters would learn that the years in the internment camps held profound implications for the rest of their lives. Hayashi, for instance, forfeited a scholarship to Oberlin, the esteemed arts school, when he was interned. After the war, he never got to Oberlin, facing the more pressing task of supporting himself.
Dreams for the future
Yamamoto and Yoshida, meanwhile, harbored dreams of becoming great jazz musicians, "But there was no future for a Japanese-American jazz musician in the United States," Yoshida says. "It was hard enough to be a black jazz musician in the U.S."
As the war ended, each of these survivors headed to the same city to start over: Chicago.
"What happened was that a year or so after we were put in the camps, the government decided that we were law abiding," Yoshida says. "So if you could line up a job or go to school, you could leave the camp [before the war ended].
"You could not go to the West Coast, however, because the government did not want us there. So we came to Chicago, thousands upon thousands of us. Chicago was the mecca.
"There was a big labor shortage during the war, and we were able to find jobs in Chicago. In fact, we were flooding into Chicago at the same time as blacks from the south.
"We even set up another jazz band in Chicago, because people loved this music here."
Indeed, hotels in the Loop were swinging buoyantly during and immediately after the war. So even though musicians such as Yoshida, Yamamoto and Hayashi needed day jobs to help make ends meet, the swing music they played in the internment camps helped set the tempo for their lives afterward. Each has maintained some contact with swing music ever since, whether it's singing weekly in a karaoke bar, as Hayashi does, or playing in swing bands, as Yamamoto and Yoshida regularly do.
Yet for all they've been through, none of these survivors seems particularly bitter.
"The Japanese are not an angry people," Hayashi says. "We have this attitude that we call `shikata ga nai,' which means, `you can't help it.'
"In other words, what can you do? In a war, you can't change much, so you have to learn to get along."
Not surprisingly, each of the survivors notes parallels between their experience and that of Muslims in the United States today. Though internment camps have not been established in the wake of last month's terrorist attacks, "You know that Muslims are taking a lot of heat these days," Yamamoto says.
And that's why Yoshida spent years documenting the swing-band experience of the internment camps in his book, "Reminiscing in Swingtime: Japanese Americans in American Popular Music, 1925-1960" (National Japanese American Historical Society).
"We were put into camp mainly because the mainstream didn't know who we were," says Yoshida, who for years belonged to the black musicians union in San Francisco because its white counterpart would not admit him.
"It's still happening too. There's a lot of ignorance about who the Asians are, because we look different.
"What the American mainstream didn't realize was that we were very much like everyone else, which was why we were so attracted to the swing music.
"If people just listened to us play, they would know that we're as American as anyone else."
"Reminiscing in Swingtime" is on view through Oct. 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.; phone 312-280-2660. And George Yoshida, author of "Reminiscing in Swingtime: Japanese Americans in American Popular Music, 1925-1960," will participate in the Asian American Jazz Festival, Oct. 26-28, at the Museum of Contemporary Art and other locations; phone 312-397-4010.