I am grieved to make this post a memorial to the talented avant-garde trombonist, Toyoji Tomita, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack this morning.
I met Toyoji through an odd, round-about connection. I had first befriended his mother of all people, Nisei writer Mary Tomita ("Dear Miye: Letters from Japan, 1939-1946"), and felt an uncanny connection with her from the moment I first stumbled across her book. "Dear Miye" is a memoir in the form of one-sided correspondences between Mary (who was accidentally stranded for most of the duration of WWII in Japan, while her family was interned in the US.) and her best friend, Miye, who, like the Tomita family, was forced out of their homes and farms in California's Central Valley, and sent into one of ten American internment camps. "Dear Miye" had a tremendous impact on me, as so many things about Mary's life somehow paralleled and resonated deeply within me. Thus, I was overjoyed to learn that she was still very much alive and living not but 5 miles away from me, in Oakland. We met and stayed loosely in touch for a few more years (one incident I remember poignantly was being invited over for lunch at her house with several other prominent Asian American women activists in attendance, including the renowned Yuri Kochiyama).
On one such occasion, I learned that Mary had a son. Toyoji Tomita, who was not only helping to arrange for his mother's book to become the libretto for an opera, but who had founded the Mills College Dijeridoo Ensemble (!!) and was an active member of the Bay Area new music community, the very same circle of musicians that my boyfriend belonged to. It didn't take long for us to meet- often during cigarette breaks outside the warehouses or theaters where Toyoji and Bill would both be performing. At one particular concert for SF Sound, Toyoji and I stood out on the curb and I mentioned that I knew his mother. He nodded between drags and acknowledged that he knew who I was too. Later, there were longer talks about his music, literature, his mother, and the kind of research and writing I was engaged in. Always the burnished warmth of his eyes behind his glasses, the mouth of a lifelong brass player, enabling a smile.
I did not know Toyoji very well, and our conversations were brief. But our paths crossed right at the juncture of art and life and ancestry, and it is one of the reasons why I grieve today. Having seen him on stage on numerous occasions and knowing the wild and sonorous kind of improvisational music that he favored, I can only imagine how much depth there was to his soul and intellect. The world of sound, in its boundless palette, is that much greyer today with the loss of Toyoji Tomita's song.
An article on Toyoji Tomita appeared in Asian Week in 2004:link here