Mark Izu’s reflective journey through music with ‘Songs For J-Town’ April 23


digital graphic by Andi Wong

Nichi Bei Weekly Report

Award-winning jazz musician Mark Izu will present his latest concert “Songs for J-Town,” featuring a personal reflection of his nearly five-decade musical journey, April 23 at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco. He recently sat down with the Nichi Bei Weekly to discuss the project, and what it means to him. He was joined by his wife and First Voice Artistic Director Brenda Wong Aoki. The following was edited for length.

digital graphic by Andi Wong

Nichi Bei Weekly: The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for a lot of people, especially performance artists who haven’t been able to perform their art for the past two years. How difficult has it been to be creative during this period?
Mark Izu: I was doing these sho meditations at the beginning of the COVID lockdown. I did 10 minutes at 10 a.m., five days a week, for one month. That’s how I was channeling my creativity. … I got these followers and it made me feel really good. I really looked forward to this in the morning and it made me feel so much better because sometimes I dedicated it to certain people… I was commissioned to do this work, “Songs for J-Town,” before the pandemic and I was supposed to premiere it at that time, but of course I had to cancel. … Since then, it’s gone through so many transformations… Brenda actually said, “It really has to be personal.” … I thought about “What does Japantown mean to me, what do all these people that I’ve met in my 46 years mean to me and how has it affected what I do?” After that, it was so much easier to write. … The whole idea of doing this concert now, is to bring people together and be in a safe place… We’re doing (“Someone to Watch Over Me”) and it’s part of a memorial — anyone you want to say a prayer to… I’m playing these songs that I would not usually do in a concert, but it’s for everyone who’s in the audience to kind of feel together. … I wrote a lot of new material and it’s kind of demanding. My stuff is usually more improvisation and now I’m doing more things, somewhat pop music and another part, where

I thought was so important (was) about Japantown, it’s about the Western Addition and who lived in the Western Addition. … What made the Japanese Americans in San Francisco who they are is a lot about who they are around. …

Brenda Wong Aoki: I think that what’s beautiful about what we are doing is that with all the gerrymandering that’s going on with the districts right now, people just don’t understand the long term impact of that. This might be one of the last times that Black people and Japanese people come together as friends and neighbors… Once they split us up and we no longer live together, it just becomes all those little fiefdoms that the city likes to create, so we all fight each other…
MI: … It’s like the whole larger community makes us who we are. That’s one of the things I’m trying to let people know, that everyone is important. …
BWA: … The Fillmore Filipinos were so cool. The guys would dress so fly. … There was this whole Fillmore Filipino jazz scene. … Jazz out of the Western Addition was just so crazy fantastic. It was Japanese, Filipino and Black.

Mark Izu. courtesy Mark Izu

NBW: Please tell us a little about ‘J-Town Stories,’ including how it was conceived, and what it will entail.
MI: We’re calling it “Songs for J-Town” and it’s my kind of personal journey. That’s when I realized I can really be inspired about what all this means to me, how it’s affected me. … It’s just kind of how I feel right now, what the future is going to look like and that’s what the whole thing is about next generations. … It’s my expression to bring this community together, people who are our fans and who have been following us, please come to this. This is going to be a warm and friendly kind of concert. … We’re having this sacred tree that we’re building at the Presidio Theater. … No one was able to mourn.

So many people have passed away. I thought it would be a nice time to write their name down and share it. … This is kind of a celebration too because you’re supposed to be able to celebrate together. … Please write these things down and we’ll put it on our tree. … That’s what I think will make it a unique experience for everybody. … These songs are kind of based on Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” where you start at home, something happens, you have to leave home and go on a journey, solve the problem and come back and then you present your solution back home again. … In that way, there’s no concept where the past, present and future happen simultaneously. It’s all happening right now. … This period is like so many other periods in our lives, being forcibly evicted, for the (incarceration), for redevelopment. … There’s all these moments in time that we’re addressing. …

NBW: Brenda, what can we expect from you in this performance?
BWA: I’m helping (with) a lot of the producing, actually. I’m going to do one story about the sun goddess, the story about the purpose of the arts. … I’ll tell that story, but mainly I’m producing. …

NBW: Who else will be featured in the performance?
BWA: Devorah (Major) is writing a new piece, it will be a premiere, called “Rage.” And it’s about just everything that’s happened to people of color on this continent. … There will be some music; that’s the heaviest section. And she’s also writing a piece called “Rise,” about how regardless of that all, we continue to rise. I’m going to read a little bit from Mark’s Aunt Lily’s journal. This was a woman who came to America when she was a teenager and was pretty soon after incarcerated and then from there, she watched her relatives in Hiroshima get bombed, yet at the end of her life, she has just a wonderful perspective on life.
MI: I couldn’t believe it when I read it. Wow, that’s very special.

NBW: Who do you hope will come out to this one-night show?
MI: It sounds like as long as this variant doesn’t get really bad, a lot of people are coming. The theater thinks it’s going to be sold out, so that’s great. We (made) a big effort to the Western Addition, telling everyone to tell people and the people who said they haven’t seen us perform in a long time, they’re coming. Some of my family is coming from San Diego and LA. …
BWA: And my family from Utah.
MI: The common denominator is us. People are going because we’re performing. … I consider everyone there family. … You know me. You should know each other too. That’s the kind of audience I want and that’s the kind of community I want to build with this performance. …

NBW: You mentioned this show is “dedicated to our grandchildren’s children.” What do you hope to bestow on future generations?
MI: Our son will show his son this video. … It comes back to as a wisdom keeper, we’re trying to express what was going on for us and what our art was about. …
BWA: I feel uncomfortable saying I’m a “wisdom keeper” necessarily, because I’m not sure that my wisdom is what everybody needs. I like it if people say that I am, that’s great. … What I do know is that everybody’s like,“Well, what are you leaving for the future?” The future might not need us. The future might totally not need us. It’s more about what we are doing now that’ll make people in the future happy? … Mark does a great concert that brings everybody joy. That memory will keep longer than the (computer hard) drives because people will forget where they filed it on the drive. … Memory lasts so long, it starts to be in your DNA. If there’s a moment of epiphany, of incredible community joy, that’s something that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will feel somehow because they will somehow have it in their blood that we are somebody…This is a chance to do some healing, be present. …

NBW: How would you describe the sho, and what settings is it normally played in?
MI: It’s a gagaku (imperial court music) instrument. Gagaku has been played since 500 A.D. and it’s been continuously played since that time. … It’s the longest played orchestral music in the world because there’s about 12 or 14 members of a gagaku orchestra. … It’s played at temples. … It’s always a ritualistic kind of instrument.
BWA: As art is medicine, sound is certainly medicine. … I believe there’s something about the sho that is really good for you because when anybody hears it, they just feel better.

NBW: Where can people learn to play an instrument like this?
MI: I don’t know if you can learn it. I think maybe at some of the schools in ethnomusicology, I think you can still learn it, but it’s hard to find, especially someone who’s a master. You have to go to Japan.

NBW: What made you imagine that the sho would work with contemporary instruments and styles, like in a jazz band?
MI: Gagaku is so old it sounds new. The sense of time, the sense of pitch, the melodic elements are not like western kinds of things. … Gagaku is not metronomic, there’s a certain pause between beats every once in a while. … You can’t dance to it. The tempo is so slow, where it’s kind of hard to feel where the beats are. … Those concepts I’ve incorporated a lot into my music. …

Mark Izu’s “Songs for J-Town” will take place Saturday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave. in San Francisco. It features Mark Izu (contrabass and sho) with Mas Koga (shakuhachi, flutes and saxophone), Jimi Nakagawa (taiko and traps), Jim Norton (woodwinds), Caroline Cabading (vocals), Devorah Major (spoken word), Sara Sithi-Amnuai (trumpet and sheung), Karl Evangelista (guitar) and Brenda Wong Aoki (storyteller). Shinto blessing by Rev. Mas Kawahatsu, digital collage by Andi Wong, film by Tonilyn Sideco. Tickets are $25-$60 for adults, $15–40 for youth 17 and under, and may be purchased at

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