In the state of Wyoming
, if you wanted to hear live swing music
, there was only The George Igawa Band. If you wanted to dance to the tunes of Benny Goodman
, Artie Shaw
, and Jimmy Dorsey
, the GI Band was the band
you hired to play at the local high school auditorium
or American Legion
And when the gig was over, the band would pack up and head back to their residences behind the barbed wire and armed guards at Heart Mountain Relocation Center.
George Igawa, a tenor sax player, had been the leader of Los Angeles' Sho Tokyans, playing swing in the Nisei clubs of the West Coast and doing a tour of Japan before the war. In 1942, while incarcerated at the Pomona "Assembly" Center, he pulled together musicians from the weekly talent showcases to put together a swing band. The Pomonans featured Igawa on sax, along with Toyo Niitake and Tetsu Bessho joined (Bessho played alto, and could also play clarinet). Yoneo Fukui and Bill Furukawa were on trumpet, Frank Hayami on guitar, Eiko Watanabe on piano, and June Yoshino sang vocals.
In 1943, the Pomona internees were transferred to Heart Mountain, where they found new members. Jimmie Akiya was on drums, Alfred Tanaka played the string bass (in addition to leading a Hawaiian music combo, the Surf Riders, that would play on a double bill with the GI band) , and Tami Hirashiki and Yutaka Yamamoto added their trombones to the horn section. Sax and clarinet players: Harry Takamura, James Toyama, Susumu Chikami, George Azuma, Kenneth Oku. Harry Shimoto, Walt Hayami, Frank Hirahara, Max Koga, Tomo Fukui added their trumpets. Haruku Satow was another piano player. Vocals were taken over by Takoko Tunimatsu and Joy Takéshita Teraoka when June Yoshino left the camp.
Igawa still played lead sax, and was the band's arranger. Not only did he create arrangements of the popular swing tunes of the day, but he'd listen to recordings of shakuhachi, shamisen, and koto. To please the Issei audience in the camp, the big band would play
traditional songs of Japan at the camp dances.
Members of the band were employed by the recreation department. The salary was $12/month (it was considered unskilled labor). As the camp had to be self-supporting, passes were given to internees that could earn money outside. The GI Band might earn $50 or $100 for playing a war bond drive dance, church socials, or a high school prom in towns like Cody, Laramie, and Thermopolis. Band members recall being warmly received and considered themselves goodwill ambassadors of the Japanese-American community.
As detainees were gradually relocated in 1944 and 1945, the band grew smaller. Tetsu Bessho took over when Igawa himself left the camp, but by now the only musicians available were high school students. Igawa himself returned to Los Angeles, and started the Taiheiyo Band, playing popular Japanese music. The band ended with the closing of Heart Mountain in November 1945.
Source: George Yoshida, Reminiscing in Swing Time: Japanese Americans in American Popular Music: 1925 to 1960, National Japanese American Historical Society, San Francisco, 1997.