Dave Umemoto: Farewell, Good Friend
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 arounda 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.