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Dave Umemoto: Farewell, Good Friend

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Even as the loveliest rose is destined to wither and die, so the stoutest heart must one day fail. Even so, the news that Dave Umemoto's generous heart had suddenly stopped beating sometime during the evening of January 2-3 came as a shock to his many friends, admirers and fellow jazz enthusiasts in California, across the country and around the world. "I had talked with [Dave] on the phone [the day before], said Jeff Thompson, president and fellow board member of the Oakland-based Friends of Big Band Jazz, "and he was just fine. He was planning on leaving January 9 to head to New York City for the IAJE [conference], then on to Paris for a Don Ellis festival, continuing to London to spend time with his daughter Janell who lives and works there.

None of that was to be; Dave Umemoto's remarkable life had ended at age seventy-two. To those who knew him, the loss was as stunning as it was painful. True, he had been through a lot, including a ruptured abdominal aorta that nearly took his life in 1987, and the loss of his beloved wife Emily to kidney disease more than three years ago, but Dave was the sort of person one assumed would always be around—a large, easygoing teddy bear of a man, quick to smile and share a laugh, hard to ruffle, and always ready to share his time and knowledge.

Even though Dave played trombone and sometimes sang in a few semi-pro bands near his northern California home, his and Emily's connection to big band jazz was for the most part as devoted fans of the music. It was an arena in which they complemented each other perfectly, Emily as fun-loving and gregarious as Dave was low-key and unassuming. Several years before her passing, Emily had created Emily's Jazz Boys & Girls, an alliance of special jazz friends who could be seen at festivals and other events all over California wearing the eye-catching tee-shirts that identified them as members of the group. Even though devastated by her loss, Dave continued to show up at as many events as he could, honoring Emily's memory simply by being there for others and for the music.

Dave Umemoto was born June 21, 1934, in Salinas, California. When he was seven years old the family relocated to new quarters in Poston, Arizona, that were generously provided for them and thousands of other Japanese-Americans by their magnanimous Uncle Sam. The family returned to California at the end of World War II and settled in San Jose. When Dave was in junior high school he heard some new music on the radio and was immediately drawn to it. The music was called jazz. He started playing trombone in high school, and as he later recalled, "used most of the guys from the school band to form my own sixteen-piece band and did a few gigs around San Jose and as far away as Fresno.

After attending college at San Jose State University, Dave first noticed Emily while she was drag-racing her father's Cadillac in San Carlos, met her face-to-face at a party, and soon afterward, in 1956, they were married at the Berkeley Buddhist Church. A standing joke was Dave's assertion that he had married Emily for access to her large collection of Stan Kenton albums. Together they had three daughters and five grandchildren. In 1989, two years after his near-death experience, one of the daughters phoned to ask if he would like to join a big band that had recently been formed. "I hadn't touched the trombone in forty years, he later recalled, "so I declined but said I would be glad to try and help in other ways. . . . Well, at the rehearsal there were no trombones, so I dug out my old school days horn and it was a total disaster . . . the horn was in bad shape and so was I. Well, it's now sixteen years later, and I still play a little in a few bands and do a few vocals too.

Before his "semi-retirement, Dave worked in real estate and later opened an import-export business. In 1991, the Umemotos lost their home to the Oakland Hills firestorm, and two years later settled in Hillsborough. Through it all, they continued to support big band jazz in every way they could, and Dave was a natural choice to serve on the board of directors of Friends of Big Band Jazz, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and strengthening the music while helping young artists further their careers.

Dave's funeral on January 13 was "quite an event, according to one of those who was there, bandleader and trumpeter Mike Vax. "The funeral home was packed with people—friends, family, business associates and lots of people who shared Dave's love of big bands. Vax brought his flugelhorn and performed with a fourteen-member trombone choir and rhythm section. One of the trombonists, Mike Suter, drove from Los Angeles to take part in the service, while another, Dana Leong, flew in from New York City. Among the other trombonists was Vax's wife, Peggy. The choir played "Over The Rainbow, "When I Fall In Love, "Just A Closer Walk With Thee and closed with Johnny Mandel's "Emily. Vax was playing only nine days after throat surgery, and wasn't supposed to, but as he said, "there [was] no way he wouldn't be taking part in the service. "Much was said about Dave's love of big band music, Vax reported, "and the Buddhist minister even drew comparisons [between] making music with other musicians and having friends in life. Shortly after the funeral, the board of Friends of Big Band Jazz met to establish the Dave and Emily Umemoto Scholarship Fund, an ongoing stipend to be awarded each year to a graduating high school senior who plans to pursue jazz studies in college.

Now Dave Umemoto's many friends have only memories to sustain them—but at least they are pleasant memories, as Dave and Emily personified love and happiness wherever they went, and no one ever had an unkind word to say about either of them. The respect, on the other hand, was enormous. "I remember being invited to become one of Emily's Jazz Boys & Girls, says Norm Tompach, a trumpeter and FBBJ board member. "It was an honor equaling a Grammy nomination for me. Dave was "one in a million, adds John Akal, a drummer and bandleader in Denver. "It's hard to really tell people who didn't know him what a wonderful, kind and gentle man he was, how much he loved the music, and how he was able to spread his joy for life into an entire room.

Other friends have shared their sorrow at Dave's passing and their happiness in having known him, far too many to name here. Even though I never met Emily, and knew Dave only casually, I can appreciate in some small measure the sense of loss they must be feeling. It's a loss to the jazz community as well, as the number of the music's staunch supporters continues to wane. In life, some people are admired for their talent or generosity, some are feared for their power or wickedness, while others—such as Dave and Emily Umemoto—are loved by everyone simply because the love that they give is returned in kind. In the words of pianist Bob Florence, "They are truly a treasured pair.

Elsewhere...

Beginning this month, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Jazz at Lincoln Center launch the second season of Month Of Mondays, a program showcasing talented young jazz musicians and creators. Every Monday evening at 7:30 and 9:30 from February 5 through March 12, at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, half a dozen recipients of the 2005/2006 ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Awards will be featured. They include Matt Savage (Feb. 5), The LeBoeuf brothers, Remy and Pascal (Feb. 12), Ayn Inserto (Feb. 19), Zaccai Curtis (Feb. 26) and Kyle Saulnier (March 12). The ASCAP awards, established in 2002 and sponsored by the Gibson Foundation, are given annually to encourage the jazz creators of the future. Composers from all over the U.S. up to age 30 compete for cash awards, with the winning entries chosen via a juried national competition. You can find more information at www.jalc.org or www.ascap.com

Composer/arranger/saxophonist Kim Richmond has announced that the third annual Northwoods Jazz Camp/Jazz Party will be held May 16-19 at the Holiday Acres Resort in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. As before, there'll be an all-star faculty including Richmond, ample time for close encounters with the various instructors, and a closing concert on Saturday evening. Those who are interested are invited to visit the web site, www.kimrichmond.com/JazzCamp/JazzCamp.html

That's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin'!

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