Home Masthead Take Five With Trumpeter Shunzo Ohno

Take Five With Trumpeter Shunzo Ohno

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Shunzo Ohno 6RDG: When did you discover your creative space? Take me back, if you can, to the time when you first found out that music was your special calling…

SO: Thank you for this question. It makes me think back to when I was young living in Gifu in the 1950’s. Japan was in reconstruction from the war. Most people were heart broken and doing their best to rebuild their lives. No one had material things to give them pleasure or relief. Music for me became the gift of hope. Sounds so corny but the truth of the matter in those times remains the same as it does today. Songs of love, of beauty and hope, instill that spirit directly to our immediate environment. It was a vehicle to express joy even if there was little joy around our family and neighbourhood. As a teen I was playing with Tokyo Jazz Big Bands. Musicians were in a sense part of a “team”. We each had a responsibility and united it created a sound that people instantly reacted. We all became part of the creative course, which I truly enjoyed.

RDG: How much does the culture of Japan play in the music that you make – I mean, what role does Shinto, (if you practice it) play in jazz… Your good friend, Wayne Shorter is Buddhist and it does colour his music… Is this something important to you when you write and play?

SO: In the last 10 years, I have been paying more attention to the critical role folk songs play within our heritage and future. Every country has folk songs and lullabies that connect us to our roots of humanity.

Shunzo Ohno Poetry of JapanI recorded Poetry of Japan, with all folk songs. With the last 2 recordings, dedicated to Northern Japan, I have included my arrangements of Tairyo Bushi, and Okinawa, It has become songs every audience recognizes. Now international audiences identify with these roots and the global determination of recovery. Eventually, I would like to record folk music from all over the world. There is a heart in folk music that has no boundaries. Interestingly, these jazz renditions have resonated with 3 generations.

Regarding your question about Wayne Shorter and Buddhism: Wayne Shorter (sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Buster Williams (bass) and I are members of SGI (Soka Gakkai International). Our Buddhist beliefs encourage the promotion of developing one’s unlimited creativity, compassion for the dignity of life and a collective global peace. This is accomplished by the development of self-realization as we contribute to the harmony of our environment. Each of us is uniquely different with a vast potential of great good with each challenge we face. So I see each of my personal mountains as an opportunity to dig deep and reveal my best self.

RDG: You have been grievously ill not too long ago and your recovery has been remarkable. Clearly music – you love and passion for it – has played an important role here? Can you take me back to when you felt it and how you approached music before your illness, during your illness and now…?

Shunzo Ohno ReNewSO: Yes, I think even before I had the car accident and faced cancer, I faced homelessness and a great void of self-confidence. After a year or so in NYC, I lost my sense of identity. I was caught up in the fast pace of nightlife. Regaining the value of my life was the first battle. With the car accident I suffered a concussion, broken teeth and split lips, which is devastating for a trumpeter since all my abilities to produce sound came from my lips (embouchure). To this day, I have a scar tissue blockage with my lips and it took me a long time to discover a way to make a sound. Then a few years after, I was diagnosed with 4th stage throat cancer. Of course the throat is another part of the body necessary to play the trumpet.

This required a long time to create a sound on the trumpet. The many doubts the physical pain, and the seemingly endless inability to simply sit up or stand, or walk was a confrontation with my identity. More than being able to play music, my life was threatened. But I always equated my music and my life as one. The desire to live was certainly tied to a sense of purpose within my music. I have come to understand what makes my life strong, makes my music sing, and identify with infinite human conditions. There were professionals in the medical and music fields that believed it was not possible to play trumpet again. That is understandable given all the facts. But the spirit of determination is powerful. It became my mission to live to play music with people who experience ‘no hope’ and important to me to find hope not just for myself. One can’t play or write music that doesn’t exist in their own heart. I have so much appreciation for the full experience.

RDG: Now please feel free to say anything about what your life means to you in relation to your music and your family and other relationships.

SO: My wife, Kazuko and I have been together since 1976. We have gone through very dark times and even greater triumphs. Her partnership, support and imagination always have significant effect on my life. Our 3 daughters, Maya, Sasha and Lea have taught me various life lessons which I am so very grateful. Being a member of a family entails a responsibility to become a better person on the deepest level.

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Raul da Gama is a poet and essayist. He has published three collections of poetry, He studied at Trinity College of Music, London specialising in theory and piano, and he has a Masters in The Classics. He is an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep technical and historical understanding of music and literature.

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