The U.S. Executive Order 9066 issued in 1942 forced approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans — most of whom were citizens born in the states — out of their communities and into internment camps across the country.
This is a part of history that most of us have heard. We know that homes and businesses were lost, friendships were torn apart and the detention conditions were difficult. For many, the injustice continues to ache as national reparations and apologies feel thin. It is a period in U.S. history that we vow not to forget or allow repeated.
What is less known about this time is how live big band music played a significant role in easing the despair of confinement and loss. “Searchlight Serenade,” a documentary by mixed-media artist Amy Uyeki and KEET-TV (Humboldt County Public Broadcasting Station affiliate), seeks to tell that story.
The project started after Uyeki’s daughter, filmmaker Chisato Uyeki Hughes, made her first documentary in the ninth grade. In it, she interviewed Nisei elders about their World War II experiences.
“It was the first time we had heard mention about big bands in the internment camps,” Uyeki shared to the audience at Seattle’s Nisei Veterans Hall during a July 7th screening. The more she learned about them, the more she wanted to tell their story. “I wanted people to see that two thirds of the people in the camps were American born… and they loved the American popular music of their time, which was big band and swing music.”
At first Uyeki, whose ties to Seattle include receiving training at the New School of Visual Concepts, was only interested in creating an animated short. Inspired by the work of William Kentridge who had pioneered an animation technique using charcoal drawings that he meticulously drew, filmed, erased, changed and re-filmed, Uyeki sought to bring the same innovative narrative method using wood cuts.
But as word of her project spread, a friend suggested that she make it into a documentary. With funding and filmmakers on board, the 15-minute short expanded to a full-hour film, incorporating archived photographs and interviews with nearly a dozen former musicians.
“Searchlight Serenade” follows a chronological timeline starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent internment. With the gravity of the situation setting in, so began attempts to regain vestiges of “normal” life.
At first, it was informal. Young teens who played in their school bands began practicing together with the few instruments brought to the camps. Most were too young to fully grasp the implications of their confinement.
“It was like adventure camp,” remembered one musician.
As the jams became more popular, the bands became more organized. Auditions were held, sheet music was procured and practices were scheduled.
“[T]hese young Japanese-American teenagers were able to forget their dismal surroundings and the injustice of their incarceration and lose themselves in the music that was theirs,” says Uzeki.“They brought a bit of American culture inside of the barbed wire.”
Before long, full performances graced mess halls, converting them into dance halls. Even the guards — some not much older than the musicians themselves — made song requests. The music brought to the detainees an atmosphere of measured hope.
“It was a time to forget. It was a very good thing,” mused Frances “Chickie” Ishihara White, a singer for the Harmonaires based out of “Camp Harmony” in Puyallup.
In all, 20 bands formed across the country’s assembly and relocation centers.
The era of the big bands concluded almost as quickly as it started. By 1945 when the internment ended, the musicians had mostly left to serve in the U.S. military or begin rebuilding their lives back home. No recordings from the time are known to exist.
With fewer and fewer survivors living each year, this part of history was in danger of being permanently lost. “Searchlight Serenade” ensures that the story lives on.
KCTS-TV has reportedly expressed interest in airing “Searchlight Serenade” but at this time, there is no scheduled date. Learn more at www.searchlight-serenade.org. To request a scheduled air date, email [email protected].