George Yoshida


Name George Yoshida
Born April 9 1922
Died May 13 2014
Birth Location Seattle, WA
Generational Identifier

Nisei

George Yoshida (1922–2014) was a musician, educator, and writer who used music to explore Japanese American World War II experiences through publications, an exhibition, recordings, and performance projects. His book, Reminiscing in Swing Time: Japanese Americans and American Popular Music, 1925–1960 (1997), grew out of the Nikkei Music History Project, which Yoshida directed for the National Japanese American Historical Society. This seminal project was powered by an intergenerational creative collaboration between Yoshida, a Nisei, and Mark Izu, a Sansei, who together founded the J-Town Jazz Ensemble in 1989. Yoshida's research was particularly important for its documentation of Japanese American swing musicians active in the 1930s and during World War II. His book profiles dozens of Issei and Nisei musicians, most of whom he personally interviewed, and it contributed to expanding awareness of the diverse vocations and avocations of Japanese Americans.

George Yoshida was born in Seattle, Washington. He and his two younger sisters grew up near the International District in an apartment above the Japanese Congregational Church. His father, who worked as a produce vendor, also volunteered as caretaker of the church. Music was a part of Yoshida's life from childhood. His grandmother played shamisen, his mother was the church organist, and his father loved choral music, including popular American songs of the day.

In 1936, the family moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of better economic opportunities. Yoshida completed his junior high and high school years in the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Boyle Heights, where, in his words, his musical life "opened up." He was a drummer in the local Japanese American Boy Scout troop's drum and bugle corps. He played baritone saxophone in his high school orchestra. And he threw himself into the music of such figures as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton. Music was so central to his life that when his family was forcibly removed from their community during World War II, among the items he carried with him to Poston concentration camp in Arizona was a portable case filled with his favorite 78s.

In Poston, Yoshida was pleasantly surprised to meet other young Nisei who shared his passion for jazz and swing. He played saxophone in a camp band, the Music Makers—a formative experience that shaped his later music history projects. And even after leaving camp in 1943 for Chicago, where he was drafted, he continued to seek opportunities to play music, including in a Nisei dance band in the city and, while attending the Military Intelligence Service Language School in Fort Snelling, for a band called the Eager Beavers (which referenced a popular tune of the day by Stan Kenton).

During these years in Chicago, Yoshida met and married his wife Helen Furuyama. They resettled after the war in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they raised their four children: Cole Koji (named for Yoshida's dad as well as Cole Porter and Nat King Cole), Clay Masao, Maia Toshiko, and Lian Kayoko. After earning a degree in education, Yoshida worked for the Berkeley United School District for thirty-five years, fifteen of which were spent as a teacher at Washington Elementary School. He continued to engage his musical passion, playing in the school faculty swing band, taking up the drums, and joining San Francisco Musicians Union Local #669, a Black union. Together with a friend who had played in a Topaz camp band, he also formed a quartet, Sentimental Journey, which performed locally in Chinatown and for Japanese American Citizens League meetings and dances.

Yoshida later became involved in the Berkeley school district's adult and senior education programs, teaching tai chi and leading classes on issues of aging. In 1989, he and Mark Izu founded the seventeen-piece J-Town Jazz Ensemble, performing World War II classic standards. Later, Izu, Yoshida, and Anthony Brown collaborated on the multimedia performance and recording Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire, which used music to educate the public about the Japanese American confinement experience.

Music has been the vital backbeat of Yoshida's life—it provided entertainment and connection for him and other Nisei who came of age in the years just before and during World War II, and it became a means through which they affirmed their American identity. In Reminiscing in Swing Time, Yoshida joyfully unwinds a lyrical description of the musical landscape from which he carved out his creative purpose: "My personal spirit is embodied in the divine swing of Count Basie's band, in the provocative sounds of Duke Ellington's jazz, in Jimmy Witherspoon's soulful blues shout propelled fiercely by Ben Webster's goading tenor sax and in Mahalia Jackson's sweet crooning of 'Silent Night' in three-quarter time."

Authored by Sojin Kim

For More Information

The Asian American Jazz Orchestra with San Jose Taiko. Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire. Narrated by George Yoshida. AsianImprov Records. 1998.

Bryant, Dorothy. "George Yoshida: Still Swingin'." Berkeley Daily Planet July 30, 2009: 1.

Don't Lose Your Soul DVD/documentary film. Directed by Jim Choi and Chihiro Wimbush. San Francisco, California: Jim Choi Independent Production, 2012.

Wong, Deborah Anne. Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

Yoshida, George. Reminiscing in Swingtime: Japanese Americans in American Popular Music, 1925-1960. San Francisco, California: National Japanese American Historical Society, 1997.

Yoshida, George. Interviewed by Alice Ito and John Pai. Densho Digital Archive. Seattle, Washington, February 18, 2002.

Yoshida, George. Interviewed by Darcie Iki. Boyle Heights: The Power of Place Project. Japanese American National Museum. El, Cerrito, California, July 23, 2001.