Jazz Monthly: We here at Jazzmonthly.com are so excited to be chatting with one of the founding members and an incredible creative force, and also the band leader from the legendary jazz fusion band Hiroshima, Dan Kuramoto. To say that Hiroshima was and is delightfully unique is an incredible understatement. Merging Japanese music, Jazz, Funk, Latin and other types of World Music was not only absolutely unheard of some 35 years ago but also very, very risky for Dan, who is our guest today. It was also risky for June Kuramoto, and for all of the other original band members of Hiroshima. They not only caught on in a very big way back in the mid- 1970’s, but here they are, decades later, more popular than ever. They have sold over 3 million records and deservingly so. Hiroshima’s brand new CD on the Heads Up International label is titled Legacy; it’s a fabulous retrospective of the first decade of Hiroshima’s recording period, with re-recordings of some of their great hits and songs that we’ve loved over the years. We’re delighted to be talking to you, bandleader Dan Kuramoto, welcome Dan.
Dan Kuramoto (DK): Thanks Joe it’s a real honor to get the chance to chat with you and to reach out to your audience. We’ve been so blessed. This marks our thirtieth year in September, in this industry. To survive this long is mind blowing to us because we never thought that taking the path that we chose to take, and wanting to stick to it would allow us to have lasted this long, but we’ve had so much support along the way both from: listeners, from other musicians and many mentors. Many of the great Jazz cats, like James Moody, Don Cherry, and a lot of the L.A. cats, were the first people to say, “You guys are doing something unique and special; don’t stray from that course”. I don’t know how it was that we were so blessed to be in an environment where we got to play with some of these acts – playing like little free boat festivals and things around town. All of these people really gave us a lot of encouragement and inspiration. We’ve been truly blessed.
Jazz Monthly: Sure, you’ve been unyielding man, and uncompromising. Dan, before we actually talk about your great new release, on the Heads Up International label, Legacy, you mentioned 30 years but I want to remind all our readers that – yeah, 30 years for Hiroshima recording – but actually you and June actually formed this band more like thirty -five years ago back in 1974 right?
DK: Yes, Joe you just busted our chops again man. (Laughing)
Jazz Monthly: You mean I’m reminding you of your age. (Both Laughing)
DK: No, no… we look at that “thirty” in terms of Legacy because that is what people are most interested in. But in fact, it goes to December 1974. I was, along with another fellow, the musical arranger, conductor, and writer for a one-performance-musical in Los Angeles. It was based on the “Chinese Monkey King”, and it had all Asian actors and performers. By Asian I mean from China, Japan, Korea, and many Asian- Americans like myself (I’m third generation). My dad was born in L.A.; he was an all city football player. But, my roots are very clear because I grew up in the same house with my grandparents – who only spoke Japanese. This 2,000-seat theater sold out and got phenomenal reviews, but the producers said it was too risky. We never did it again.
But, I was allowed to do what ever I wanted, so I put together an eclectic group of musicians; most of them were my friends. This made for a really interesting sonic experience. It would be jazz, and categories such as world, but it embraced a lot.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely. I used the word Fusion in my introduction, but I hate to use categories and especially with your band man because it’s so hard to categorize you guys. But, that was the word back in the seventies, before Smooth Jazz or Funk Jazz.
DK: Right. Well, we initially sort of identified ourselves as a band that played Cultural Fusion. We had too much respect for Jazz to call ourselves a Jazz band. We were embracing many things, and we didn’t assume that we were doing anything right. We just did it from the heart, if that makes any sense, because no one had ever attempted to do what we had done with Japanese music and Jazz before us. So every single day that we would get together would be an absolute experiment.
So, going back to 1974 when we did that musical, I had written some songs that used Koto and then Tyco – the big Japanese festival drum. I had never worked with a Tyco drummer before, but I knew some players, and I said, “Why don’t we all get together… let me put together some real simple charts and lets see how this works with steel drums.” How does this work with a great Jazz guitar player who ultimately became the guitar player in our band, Peter Hata, a great mainstream player who now teaches master classes at a university here in California in Jazz? How do we blend a great keyboard player who’s played with everybody? We have this very interesting ensemble of cats that are very open-minded. You know how those things go: you have five quick rehearsals, everyone is looking at the charts, we start talking, and rearranging the stuff.
Jay, as a matter of fact, had a lot of input – having played with Chase he was into like odd meters and stuff – and we just grew something. I remember at the sound check for the musical, I went out to hear what the balances were like. Years ago I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a band with a voice for Japanese Americans and Asian Americans as there is Earth Wind and Fire – who would not only play Jazz but also cross over to Rock and R&B?” You know, the amazing things that Jimi Hendrix was doing… Carlos Santana was creating a voice for Latin folks. But, there was nothing for Japanese or Asian people and we thought, “Man, it would be cool one day if there was a band like that.” I was into many different things, but I wanted something that could represent our people in some way. So when I went out there, and I saw that sound check on December 1974, I was like, “This is it! This is exactly it; it’s what it was meant to be. It was going to embrace diversity as its main theme so it was always going to be about: Caribbean, and Latin, and R&B, and Jazz, and Classical Japanese music, and many more elements beyond that because it was all tied into how we would grow as a band.
Jazz Monthly: Lets talk a little bit about the three instruments that you mentioned. The traditional Japanese instruments: the Koto, I know, is one of the national instruments of Japan, but it’s derived from the Chinese I think “Guzheng” I think it’s called.
DK: That’s correct
Jazz Monthly: Which was the parent instrument, and the Koto is in the zither family isn’t it?
DK: You’re a bad man, you are exactly right. You know, I talk to people who may know that its roots were in China, but almost no one knows that its in the zither family, it is absolutely that.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, 13 strings as I remember.