Yoshio Toyama [Image: AmyNguyen]

Musical Connections Between New Orleans and Japan Make A Wonderful World


On a fateful night in 1964, Yoshio Toyama met his idol Louis Armstrong. Toyama, a young trumpeter, snuck backstage following Armstrong’s concert in Kyoto for a brief but significant encounter. He convinced Armstrong to let him blow the New Orleans jazz icon’s trumpet. Armstrong spent his life as a globetrotting musical diplomat; Toyama soon followed in his footsteps.

Today, New Orleanians know Toyama as the “Satchmo of Japan” for his ability to imitate Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s signature voice and tone. The city also recognizes Toyama and his wife/bandmate Keiko for decades of charitable efforts.

After meeting Armstrong and other New Orleans musicians in Japan, Toyama and his wife Keiko moved to New Orleans. They studied under elderly jazz musicians there between 1968 and 1973. After returning to Japan, the couple forged a lengthy music career together.

In 1994, they joined forces with other Armstrong enthusiasts in Japan to start the Wonderful World Jazz Foundation. The group, named after Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” places instruments in the hands of New Orleans children. They hope that giving youth horns can deter them from gun violence. It is a fitting tribute to Armstrong, who began learning to play music at a juvenile detention facility after being arrested for firing a gun. To date, the foundation has donated over 850 instruments and around $120,000.

The Toyamas have frequently performed at New Orleans’ annual Satchmo SummerFest. The couple and their Japanese acquaintances always come to the city with instruments for the community. In 2018, Yoshio was brought to tears when festival organizers surprised him onstage with a Spirit of Satchmo Award. The Toyamas also received the key to the city of New Orleans in 2008.

In the decades since the Toyamas’ stint in New Orleans, a small but powerful number of Japanese musicians have made the city home. Trombonist Haruka Kikuchi’s reputation has grown considerably since moving there in 2013. The highlights of her New Orleans life include earning a Grammy nomination in 2018.

Kikuchi, already a devotee of New Orleans’ music, made her first trip to the city in 2009 during Mardi Gras, a season famed for colorful costumes and big parades. The experience inspired her to work toward establishing a Mardi Gras event in New Orleans' Japanese sister-city Matsue. When Little Mardi Gras debuted in 2013, Kikuchi was there to parade with locals. Despite moving to New Orleans, Kikuchi has returned to Matsue multiple times for the annual celebration.

Kikuchi continues to build musical bridges through her Japan: New Orleans series of releases. Since 2016, the trombonist has worked with visiting Japanese musicians to record sessions featuring them with her New Orleans peers. Even when these musicians don’t speak the same language, they can still communicate through the shared language of music.

Kikuchi has fallen in love with more than just music and culture in New Orleans. She also met her husband Yoshitaka “Z2” Tsuji, a Japanese pianist who immigrated to New Orleans in 2010. Tsuji is best known for his work with the internationally acclaimed group Kermit Ruffins & the BBQ Swingers.

Tsuji and Kikuchi got married in front of a mix of New Orleans and Japanese friends at Ruffins’ Tremé Mother-In-Law Lounge in 2018. Later that year, Kikuchi gave birth to their son Shouta. Tsuji and Ruffins paid tribute to the child on a recording of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” in 2020. Ruffins changes the song’s line “I hear babies cry, I watch them grow” to reference Shouta. From the Toyamas to Kikuchi’s new family, music crosses language and cultural barriers to help create a wonderful world.

William Archambeault lived and worked in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture during 2017 and 2018 as an assistant language teacher on the JET Programme.

This article is part of a guest-contributor partnership between the East-West Center in Washington and the United States Japan Exchange & Teaching Programme Alumni Association (USJETAA) in which former JET participants contribute articles relating to their experiences in Japan.

The USJETAA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational and cultural organization that promotes grassroots friendship and understanding between the United States and Japan through the personal and professional experiences of over 30,000 Americans who have participated on the JET Programme since its inception in 1987. USJETAA serves as a resource for individual JET alumni, JETAA chapters nationwide, and potential JET participants; supports the leadership of JETAA chapters with programming, membership recruitment, chapter management, leadership, professional development, and fundraising; and, supports the JET Program(me) and engages with the U.S.-Japan community.