The “Right” to Jazz: Evidencing Authenticity with Tatsu Aoki and Other Nesei Jazz Artists

Throughout their long history in U.S., whether as immigrants of native-born citizens, Asian Americans have been made to be the perpetual foreigner in the American imaginary. The majority white American populace purposefully constructed this image out of racism and white ethnocentrism, which was then explicitly strengthened by public policy sanctioning discrimination and foreign policy overtly restricting the immigration of people from several Asian countries. Over time the model minority myth began to take root and Asian Americans are now often seen as the minority racial group that has “made it” through a successful assimilation to American culture and utilizing the “pull yourself up by your boot straps” mentality to make a better life for themselves with hard work. Nevertheless, perception of Asian foreignness remains, especially within American music, and with this question of social citizenship comes the question of authenticity.

Whether they are against it or not, most Americans would take pause at the sight of an Asian American musician performing in the genre of hip hop or folk, or rock, or anything that is not traditional “oriental” music reminiscent of their Asian ethnic background. Foreignness, specifically in music, predisposes people to mark an artist as inauthentic. Consequently, in a society in which Asian Americans are constantly “othered”, how they can fully understand, or embody, and therefore successfully perform American music at the same or higher standards of “true” American artists is not consistent with the American imaginary. Then, for this inconsistency to be resolved in any capacity, Asian Americans must validate their experience and position both to fellow artists as well as to spectators of the art form. For the purposes of this piece, I will be focusing on Asian Americans in jazz, a genre that thought of and cited as quintessentially American.

In George Yoshida’s book Reminiscing in Swingtime, he provides a semiautobiographical ethnographic account of prominent Japanese American jazz artists of the 1940s and 50s. Through his narrative writing, Yoshida highlights these artists and makes a point to engrave them in this time and place, not just as bystanders, but also as active participants and influencing agents in the genre. From Neisei vocalists like Susumu Takao who ended up singing in jazz bands of the likes of Lionel Hampton, to Nesei band Leaders themselves like saxophonist James Araki, Yoshida does not shy away from recognizing the Japanese heritage of these artists, but actually uses it as a means to validate their presence in the jazz scene (Yoshida, 1997). In the World War II era of the 1940s, Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans had experienced greater discrimination and distrust as well as the unjust hardship of internment camps. Upon their release back into American society, many found jazz to be the perfect expression of their newfound freedom, an outcome that parallels the origins of jazz being a symbol of African American expression the face of oppression. In fact, musician, critic and author Fred Ho even goes as far as to define jazz as any music that comes from an oppressed people group. All this to say that the Nesei jazz community was able to authenticate their presence in the jazz world through their experience as “othered people”, instead of being denied because of it.

Additionally, we see evidence of the authenticity of these Nesei jazz artists through their honest engrossment in and embodiment of the genre. For these artists, jazz was not just a hobby or something to dabble in because it was trendy or they wanted to fit in, it was a way of life that they loved and were emotionally invested in. In my opinion, this emotional connection is really key because it often points to what most Americans (whether in an “othered” people group or not) consider genuine motivation, thereby validating an artists’ “right” to be there. Yoshida recounts a story of trombonist Paul Higaki who sat through the same news reel, cartoon and a “class-B Western” film twice, will all fervor and excitement, in order to watch all three performances of fellow trombonist Tommy Dorsey performing with Frank Sinatra in the same night. This emotional connection as validation remains true for contemporary artists in all genres. For instance, when I saw jazz bassist Tatsu Aoki perform with his band The Miyumi Project, his expressive joy when playing struck me with the thought that he belonged there. The emotion he presents in his performances places him as a true embodiment and representation of the jazz art form, just as much as any African American artist or non-othered American could have.

Through his work, Yoshida fulfills his goal of acknowledging “the creative, energy, irrepressible vitality and the spirituality of a relatively small cohort of sons and daughters of Japanese immigrants who experienced the joys of making popular American music – call it pop, swing, or jazz.” (Yoshida, 1997). The resulting emotion and genuineness with which these artists, Tatsu Aoki, and others, play and perform authenticates their experience in the genre even in the face of questionable social citizenship.

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

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