THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Internationally-trained pianist and ‘no-no’ Newton Tani

Over the past decades, there have been numerous studies of paintings and other artworks from the Japanese American concentration camps, which have been thoroughly explored in exhibitions, catalogs and artist monographs. Much coverage has been devoted to the art schools at Tanforan, Calif. and Topaz (Central Utah) that were directed by the eminent artist Chiura Obata, and which included such renowned faculty members as Miné Okubo.

Less attention has been paid to the story of the remarkable music schools at Tanforan and Topaz, which trained talented inmates in voice and musical instruments (although most of the pupils were young Nisei, there was also an adult choir led by Frank Iwanaga). These schools featured on their faculties a number of standout musicians, including pianist Miwa Kai and percussionist Tom Tsuji. Today

I will tell the story of another internationally-trained performer who served on the faculty at Topaz, the pianist Newton Tani.

Born Newton Hiroshi Tani in 1914, he grew up in San Francisco, where his mother Mineo Tani was a local shop owner. A child prodigy on the piano, in 1925 he performed at the Congregational Church in San Mateo. The next year, at age 12, he competed in a citywide piano contest, and passed the first round. In 1930 Tani (described in the journal The Outlook of Missions as “a young talented pianist of unusual merit”) played selections at a concert commemorating the 20th anniversary of the city’s First Japanese Reformed Church. Soon after, he performed in public at an International Night of Music program at the Civil Auditorium.

During the 1930s, Tani studied with Adolph Ryss. He also trained as a composer of piano works, studying composition with William Harmans. In early 1936 he was granted a one-hour private lesson with famed pianist Josef Lhévinne. During these years, Tani hired himself out as a piano teacher in his own right, and continued to play at community and church events, notably a set of Sunday “musical” events at a YMCA. When the National Japanese American Citizens League convention was held in the city, Tani’s performance was broadcast on radio station KRKD.

In May of 1938 Tani made his official debut, performing a recital at the Community Playhouse. He played selections from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, as well as a pair of pieces of his own composition. Alfred Metzger, music critic, commented positively on the recital in The Argonaut: “Tani demonstrated that he is an exceptionally intelligent and well-equipped pianist, both technically and emotionally. He has a very restrained and mellow tone, knows how to pedal and interprets with intelligence and discrimination. At times he may be somewhat over-zealous in his repression of tone, but he shades and colors his passage with artistic taste and judgement. His technic is clean and clear and his interpretation is musically proficient. He is unquestionably a very capable pianist and composer.” Alexander Fried of the San Francisco Examiner added, “He showed a pleasing straightforward musicianship and a skill that, while frequently cramped, was at its best excellent.” Fried noted, however, that Tani’s own compositions were merely “workmanlike emulations of classic models.”

In September of 1938, Tani performed a recital in Los Angeles at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, playing the same program as he had in San Francisco. The Los Angeles Times noted, “Mr. Tani made his debut in San Francisco last May. Born in that city, his train has been almost entirely occidental though he composes both in the Oriental and occidental manner.”

In the fall of 1938, Tani decided to move to Paris for further piano study. In a column published in the Shin Sekai, he described his overseas journey. First, he traveled by train east from San Francisco. In the process, he met an intriguing man: “The ride to Chicago was peaceful. My colored porter happened to be the author of a book of poems called ‘Black.’ It is read throughout the nation in colleges and libraries. He autographed the book I bought from him.” (Upon reading this, I wondered who this author was: Was it Claude McKay, who did serve as a Pullman porter? Or Countee Cullen, who wrote the poetry books “Color” and “The Black Christ”? In the end, I determined that it was Benjamin Franklin Gardner, a poet who worked as a pullman porter in the West and who published a book of poems called “Black” in 1933.) Tani spent a few days in New York with John Fujii, and attended performances at the Metropolitan Opera, which he found old and decrepit, and at Carnegie Hall.

After arriving in France, he was hosted by Madame Kusama, a former San Franciscan who was the wife of a diplomat, and went to attend the recital of Kazon Kusama, her pianist daughter. Tani noted archly that he was starting French lessons, because he could not speak a word of French. It is not clear where in Paris Tani studied, though he announced that he was living in a dormitory at the American City university.

In the summer of 1939, Tani published another column in the Shin Sekai. This time, he recounted his impressions of Rome and Naples during a summer trip. He mentioned that he was writing from Cannes. In early September of 1939, just days after the letter was published, the young musician was once again in Italy at the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland. He did not wish to remain in Paris amid the conflict. Instead, he cut short his European trip and he returned to the United States via Genoa. He then spent the fall of 1939 in New York.

Tani returned to San Francisco in early 1940. Curiously, there is no record of his performing publicly in the two years that followed, although he did give a lecture to a local Boy Scout group. During the spring of 1942, Newton Tani was rounded up under Executive Order 9066 with his mother and his sisters Esther and Daisy Tani, and confined at Tanforan and Topaz. At both places he joined the music school faculty. At the Tanforan Music Studio, established near Mess Hall 7, he gave piano lessons. In addition to teaching at the Topaz music school, he performed a set of concerts. For example, in September of 1943, he played part of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and a Rhapsody by Brahms, then was cheered for his rousing rendition of Saint-Saëns’s “Rhapsodie d’Auvergne.”

As early as the winter 1943, Tani applied for “repatriation” to Japan. It is striking that he joined the ranks of the “no-nos.” He had never been to Japan, and did not speak Japanese well. Nevertheless, in the fall of 1943, shortly after the Topaz faculty concert, Tani was sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center. In July of 1944, while at Tule Lake, he was featured in an “Artist’s concert” sponsored by the “Tulean Music Department” at which he was soloist in a performance of Franz Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” with an orchestra led by Raymond Cheek. Tani served on the faculty of the Department and led his students there in a recital in August of 1945. Meanwhile, under the name Hiroshi Tani, he served as chairman of the Protestant Committee for Japanese Service.

In the aftermath of World War II, Newton Hiroshi Tani was deported to Japan. There he was employed for 13 years as a teacher at the Kunitachi school of music, and also undertook a concert tour of Japan. In 1957, he married Emi Kannai, a Japanese-born soprano who was a student at the school. After visiting the United States, he decided to return permanently with his new wife. The Tanis settled in Los Angeles, where Newton taught at the Institute of Musical Arts. Newton Tani died in Los Angeles in 1989.

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 The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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