THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Tom Tsuji, a versatile Nisei percussionist

(Editor’s note: The following article was co-written with Jonathan Van Harmelen.)

bioline_Greg RobinsonIn a previous article from our ongoing series on Japanese American musicians, Jonathan Van Harmelen and I profiled the trailblazing role of the Issei xylophone virtuoso Yoichi Hiraoka within the world of percussion. While Hiraoka lived and performed in New York City during the 1930s, he was not without his admirers on the West Coast, where Japanese communities also fostered the development of musicians.

In this column, we present the life of Tom Tsuji, a versatile Nisei percussionist. Tsuji led jazz orchestras even as he trained to be a classical tympanist, and in the postwar years became the first Nisei hired by a major U.S. symphony orchestra.

Tom Toki Tsuji was born in San Diego on Aug. 8, 1917, the son of Shojiro and Yone Tsuji. During his childhood, Tsuji moved with his family to Oakland, Calif. Tsuji’s sister Minnie later married Susumu “Sus” Ito, the decorated 552nd Artillery soldier and Harvard biologist noted for his photographs of Nisei soldiers.

From a young age, Tsuji showed interest in percussion. In addition to drums, he took up the xylophone and the marimba. In January of 1930, at the age of 12, he appeared on a musical program broadcast over radio station KWFM in Oakland, in which he played Franz von Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant Overture” and Franz Schubert’s “Serenade” on the xylophone. In 1931, he joined Nisei banjoist Tommy Oshidari’s seven-piece dance orchestra as drummer.

Over the succeeding years, in addition to his jazz band work, Tsuji became a regular soloist in school talent competitions and social gatherings. His performances were reported in Bay Area Japanese American newspapers such as the Nichi Bei Shimbun and Shin Sekai. For example, in December of 1934, the Oakland Press Honor Association held a banquet at Oakland Technical High School. Tsuji, then a Tech student, played a marimba solo. Three years later Tsuji and vocalist Ruby Yoshino (the subject of another of our recent columns) appeared together as part of a benefit concert sponsored by the Nisei-led Young People’s Christian Conference. Tsuji played arrangements of Fritz Kreisler’s “Caprice Viennois” and Nikolai Rimsky-Korasakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee.”

His solos won him first prize at the 1937 Oakland JACL Nisei Talent Parade, and earned him the title as the foremost “Nisei xylophonist of the West Coast.”

Around this same time, Tsuji enrolled at San Francisco State College — now known as San Francisco State University — majoring in elementary education. He also continued studying percussion and worked to broaden his instrumental skills. He was a tympanist for the college orchestra, and was named its president in 1940.

In 1941, he achieved the additional honor of being elected to the San Francisco National Youth Orchestra, one of only two Nisei so honored. During his time with the orchestra, Tsuji performed before the military at Stockton Airfield, the Presidio of Monterey and Fort Ord, and his June 22, 1941 appearance was later broadcasted nationally by NBC Radio. His last prewar concert took place at an Oakland JACL Banquet on Oct. 25, 1941, during which he performed works by Fritz Kreisler.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and President Franklin Roosevelt’s issuing of Executive Order 9066, Tsuji and his family were incarcerated at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif. in April 1942. While Tsuji was in Tanforan, he expressed his political convictions by signing a letter to Roosevelt calling for a “Second Front” and asking the president to allow Japanese Americans to serve in the Armed Forces and war production.

Despite his confinement, Tsuji continued to shine as a musician. He found work with Tanforan’s Education Department as a music instructor. Meanwhile, he formed the Tanforan Tooters, a “dance band” that programmed Duke Ellington and other jazz arrangements, and served as its conductor.

When Tsuji was sent to the Topaz concentration camp in Central Utah, he was hired as a music instructor in the Education Department. Once in camp, Tsuji reconstituted his jazz orchestra as the Topaz Tooters. The Tooters provided regular music for school dances and other functions throughout the camp years, and garnered a large following, both among Nisei in camp and outside audiences. In February of 1943, for instance, the band traveled to nearby Delta, Utah to perform at a war bond drive. The following month, the orchestra received permission to travel to Salt Lake City to play at a basketball tournament.

While in Topaz, Tsuji met Midori Shimanouchi, the daughter of an elite Nikkei family from San Francisco. In April 1943, Tsuji left camp and joined Midori in New York, and the two were married at Riverside Church shortly afterward.

While in New York, Tsuji took up studying percussion with Alfred Friese, a former tympanist for the New York Philharmonic and the famed teacher of New York Philharmonic tympanist Saul Goodman. Tsuji looked for work as a musician but was unable to find any position — his Japanese ancestry proved a handicap.

In 1946, Tsuji was hired as the chief tympanist for the New Orleans Symphony, and moved to New Orleans, where Midori soon joined him. In addition to his work for the orchestra, he was hired by the Hall Drum Co. A year later, however, Tsuji developed pulmonary tuberculosis and was forced to enter a sanitarium. Midori returned to New York to find work. In 1948, Tsuji returned to the New Orleans Orchestra, and he attracted praise for his performance, so much so that in 1950 he was hired by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, thereby becoming the first Nisei to be a member of a major orchestra in the United States. He additionally became a life member of the American Federation of Musicians, the U.S. union for musicians.

By the early 1950s, Tsuji experienced a relapse of his tuberculosis, and he returned with his wife to New York. Antibiotic “miracle drugs” were ineffective and he was forced to enter a sanitarium. In order to pay her husband’s medical bills and support the family, Midori took a job as assistant to famed theatrical producer Mike Todd. Under the pressure of their separate careers, the Tsujis legally separated in 1955 (though their divorce was not finalized until 1959).

In later years Tsuji relocated to Massachusetts, where he worked for Walberg & Auge, a famed percussion retailer noted for their invention of the hi-hat. Modern Drummer magazine quoted Tsuji in their article on the history of the company, in which Tsuji noted the innovative nature of Harold Warburg, the company’s founder, and his invention of the hi-hat and wire brushes.

Tom Tsuji died on May 4, 2006 at the age of 88. Although he had been long inactive by the time of his passing, Tsuji’s record as a multi-talented performer and educator bears exploring. His active youth as a musician in the prewar years underscores the diverse interest in music — both jazz and classical — among Issei and Nisei and the artistic world created within prewar Japanese American communities.

Thanks to the publication of “Reminiscing in Swingtime,” George Yoshida’s 1997 study of Nisei in popular music, Tsuji’s work as a jazzman and his leadership in creating a music community within Tanforan and Topaz became better known. Yet Tsuji’s achievement is equally underlined by his career as a pioneering Nisei classical percussionist.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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