George Yoshida, musician and educator, dies

George Yoshida performed at the 2013 National Japanese American Historical Society awards dinner in 2013. photo by Ben Hamamoto
George Yoshida performed at the 2013 National Japanese American Historical Society annual awards dinner in 2013. photo by Ben Hamamoto

George Yoshida, a longtime musician, educator, band leader and author of a book on Japanese American contributions to music, died on May 13, 2014 due to a stroke. He was 92.

“A giant has fallen … a modest man whose enormous musical soul and heart-filled zest for life that touched people around the world has joined the ancestors,” musician Anthony Brown, director of the Asian American Jazz Orchestra, told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Yoshida was a saxophone player with the Music Makers in the Poston, Ariz. wartime Japanese American concentration camp, helping to “wash away the dust of everyday life,” said Brown.

After being released from the camp, he went to Chicago where he heard the Duke Ellington Orchestra perform on the South Side. He married Helen Furuyama, started a family and settled in the East Bay.

Educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Yoshida taught in Berkeley for more 65 years. According to his family, Yoshida was one of the first Asians to work in the Berkeley School District as an elementary school teacher at Washington Elementary School, was the vice principal there, taught in the Berkeley Adult Education Department, and most recently taught tai chi and yoga to seniors at the Berkeley Adult School.

An accomplished musician, in addition to the sax, he also played drums and the piano.

With Sansei musician Mark Izu, Yoshida formed the 17-piece J-Town Jazz Ensemble in 1989, performing music of the World War II era.

He would go on to author “Reminiscing in Swingtime: Japanese Americans in American Popular Music, 1925-1960,” published in 1997 by the National Japanese American Historical Society, which had a corresponding exhibit.

Like the book, the exhibit chronicled the Japanese American contribution to music, including camp bands that helped to make life behind barbed wire all the more bearable, as well as Japanese American musicians who, in the face of discrimination in America, relocated to Japan to help pioneer jazz there.

Gary Otake, who worked on the development of the “Reminiscing in Swingtime” exhibit with Yoshida in the late 1990s, remembered him as an “amazing soul.”

“It was an honor to work with him,” said Otake. “I’ll never forget his stories of the transcendent power of music behind barbed wire. Tonight I’ll listen to ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and honor the passing of one cool cat.”

According to Brown, in 1998 Yoshida and Tsuyako “Sox” Kitashima served as the principal advisors and consultants for “Jazz & Justice: Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire,” a federally-funded, multimedia touring program designed to educate the national public about the Japanese American incarceration experience. The Asian American Jazz Orchestra was founded as a “cultural component” of this program and Yoshida can be heard recounting his camp memories of the “Last Dance” on the Orchestra’s 1998 recording, “Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire.”

In 2012, Amy Uyeki helped to produce “Searchlight Serenade: Big Band Music in the WWII Japanese American Incarceration Camps,” a documentary that features Yoshida and other musicians performing and talking about their camp experiences.

He was remembered fondly by those in the music community.

Yoshida “imparted a deep appreciation of the music and its place in our humanity,” said saxophonist Francis Wong. “(He) always emphasized the fun and joy as he would ‘swing!’”

“George Yoshida will be remembered by all for his humanity and humility, his gracious manner, his generous heart and his musical soul,” Brown said. “We members of the Asian American jazz community are especially indebted to George for his mentorship, perseverance, and inspiration, and I believe all who knew him are truly grateful to George for making the world a better place.”

Yoshida was predeceased by his wife and lifelong friend of 63 years, Helen. He also leaves behind his four children: Cole (Carrie), Clay (Lynn), Maia (Richard) and Lian (Jerry); his grandchildren (Derek, Alan, Lane, Christopher, Colin and Mariah) and numerous nieces and nephews. 
Yoshida was the oldest of three children and is also survived by his two younger sisters, Masako (the late Mitsuo) and Toshiko (Carl) and families.

Plans for a celebration of Yoshida’s life are currently being developed and will be announced when finalized.

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