Jazz standards and blues tunes from the 30’s and 40’s will be featured in the Grateful Crane Ensemble’s upcoming production of “The J-Town Jazz Club” on Sunday, Nov 20 at 2 p.m. at the Toyota Meeting Hall in Torrance.
Written by Soji Kashiwagi and directed by Darrell Kunitomi, “The J-Town Jazz Club” will tell a largely unknown story of what happened to Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo during WWII when the Japanese American community was forcibly removed and incarcerated in America’s concentration camps.
“Over 50,000 African American war workers from the South settled in Little Tokyo and called it ‘Bronzeville,’” said Kashiwagi, the Executive Producer of the Grateful Crane Ensemble. “They were here to help the war effort by building airplanes and ships, but when it came to their housing, most of Los Angeles was off limits to ‘Negroes.’ Bronzeville became their home, complete with hotels, restaurants, bars, clothing stores and several jazz clubs.”
In Grateful Crane’s show, the year is 1945 and a group of Nisei jazz musicians and singers return home to Little Tokyo from camp, stop in to see an old friend at an African American jazz club, and are invited to perform.
Led by Scott Nagatani and the J-Town Jazz Band, a small group of jazz singers will perform popular jazz songs from the era including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Take the A Train” and “Blues in the Night.”
The cast includes John Freeland, Jr., Darrell Kunitomi, Haruye Ioka
and jazz singers Keiko Kawashima, Kurt Kuniyoshi and Miko Shudo. The J-Town Jazz Band includes Scott Nagatani on piano, Danny Yamamoto on drums, Gordon Bash on bass and Justin Klunk on sax.
Along with the songs and music, another theme explored in the show is the friendship between the Nisei character Tosh and African American Bill Williams, who knew each other before the war when they used to hunt rabbits in Baldwin Hills as kids in the 1920s, and later as members of a Boy Scout troop at the old Centenary United Methodist Church.
“Our story is fiction, but the relationship that existed between these two characters is based on real people who were good friends before the war,” said Kashiwagi. “And when the call went out to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast, one of the things we talk about is how individual African Americans stepped up to store Japanese American belongings, and spoke out against the unjust incarceration.”
The fact that both groups were living in confinement —the Japanese Americans in camp and the African Americans in what became an overcrowded and disease-ridden Little Tokyo slum—is another one of the story’s greatest ironies, added Kashiwagi.
“The one thing we both have in common is the blues,” said Kashiwagi. “And that’s what we’ll be singing in this show.”
The Toyota Meeting Hall is located at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center, 3330 Civic Center Drive in Torrance. Plenty of free parking is available. General admission tickets are $40.00, and $35.00 for seniors (65+), students and groups of ten or more.
For information and reservations, call the Grateful Crane ticket line at (310) 995-5841.