The Steve Griggs Ensemble performs “Panama Hotel Jazz.” • Photo courtesy of Steve Griggs

Each note gently rose from Susan Pascal’s vibraphone formed like a droplet and then fell, delicately merging into air. The piece, titled “Poem,” was performed as part of the show “Panama Hotel Jazz” by the Steve Griggs Ensemble. Using five- and seven- note arpeggios to mimic the sound of water dripping in the Sento of the Panama Hotel on East Main Street, the piece emulated the thoughtful, metered nature of Japanese poetry through sound.

The Steve Griggs Ensemble has been performing “Panama Hotel Jazz” for the past three years. Performances feature Steve Griggs on tenor saxophone and narration, Susan Pascal on vibraphone, Milo Peterson on guitar, Jay Thomas on trumpet and Phil Sparks on bass.

“Panama Hotel Jazz” tells a story that is deeply rooted in Seattle. Griggs was commissioned to create the project around the Panama Hotel and as he delved into the research phase, he grew increasingly interested in the history of racism and social justice. The show features original jazz com- positions interwoven with stories narrating the Japanese-American experience, with a heavy focus on World War II.

Griggs’ compositions for the production contain a simplicity that still packs a punch. “I was at the Japanese garden and arboretum and I just was noticing how everything was pruned so you could see through the plants … there’s a transparency to it but also an integrity. I wanted the music to sound at the same time simple and transparent, but also very powerful in its impact. I felt like there is kind of a Japanese design aesthetic where things are very simple but powerful,” said Griggs.

In the piece “Desert,” Griggs creates a melancholic landscape through the melody, emoting the first glimpse of a barren desert where Japanese Americans were housed in barracks during the incarceration. “Kimi Ga Yo,” an instrumental rendition of the Japanese national anthem, begins with a simple melody played by the vibraphone and slowly gains layers as other instruments join in. The piece is Griggs’ favorite and he said it often moves audience members. When the ensemble first started playing “Kimi Ga Yo,” audience members would softly hum and sing along to the familiar melody.

“Some Japanese Americans came up to me [afterward] and said that they hadn’t heard that song in 40 years and appreciated hearing it,” said Griggs.

As part of his research while creating “Panama Jazz Hotel,” Griggs looked through archives, and read many books, such as John Okada’s No-No Boy to compose pieces that told the story of the Panama Hotel and Japanese Americans in Seattle. He also talked to individuals with family backgrounds connected to the time period.

Sometimes, history naturally presented a scene for Griggs to paint with music. At other times, he said that he would have to look harder to find nuanced emotions he could weave into his pieces. For Griggs, Mary Matsuda’s Looking Like the Enemy gave him an especially intimate look at what individuals experienced during the incarceration.

“One of the things that stood out for me was that she really described her feelings,” Griggs said. “Many of the memoirs that I had read described a lot of information but didn’t really reveal their feeling, so Mary’s story gave me kind of access to that inner life … I decided to use a scene from her book and so then I started realizing I needed to coalesce a story around scenes.”

The Steve Griggs Ensemble performed “Panama Hotel Jazz” at Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience on February 2. The seamlessness with which Griggs and his ensemble have sewn together history, narrative, and music gives the show depth and the ability to keep the audience engaged. The music isn’t just situated between stories; it carries the story forward, much like a cinematic score, where the music helps create moving pictures in the mind’s eye.

Over the years, audience members have come up and shared their personal stories with Griggs.

“In August I met a Japanese American man in the audience and he told me, ‘I was the youngest evacuee from Seattle.’ He was three months old when he was taken to camp and I found his picture in the Seattle Times. People have brought photos, some people told me the stories of how they met their spouse in the camps. Some people brought letters and things that were written by people in camps. … It’s just been an amazing experience to connect with these stories,” Griggs said.

This mélange of music and history highlighting local social justice struggles has become a staple of Griggs’ work. This August he will premier his next show which tells the story of Native American carver John T. Williams, who was killed by a Seattle police officer.

All of Griggs’ work is free to the public. He tries to fund his pieces through grants as much as possible. He believes it is important for these performances to be open to the public because of the nature of their content.

“The kind of impact this program has had has been beyond my wildest dreams and I invite people, everyone to enjoy the music and hopefully learn something important about the place we live,” said Griggs.

The performances are made possible by 4Culture Historic Site Specific Grant, The National Park Service’ Japanese Confinement Sites Grant, and a grant from City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. Funding for “Panama Hotel Jazz” runs out this month. The last show will play at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center on February 19, on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

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