Big Bands in the Camps


Twenty bands. Names like the Jive Bombers, the Melody Makers, the D-Elevens, the Stardusters. Playing music from the top of the charts outside of the barbed wire: Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Duke Ellington... all that swing, all that jazz.

Big bands proliferated in the camps like the sagebrush that surrounded them. It was the music of the youth, the young Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans. And for the time that they performed or they danced or they watched, these young Americans were able to escape the drudgery, the humiliation and the discomfort of being behind barbed wire and connect with their music. It proved to be a healing and regenerative force, and created self esteem and pride where those attributes were beaten down by the injustices of their imprisonment.

Band leaders like Nob Kuwatani, Tad Yamamoto, George Igawa, Norman Ishimoto, Bill Wakatsuki, Paul Higaki, Mickey Tanaka, Woody Ichihashi, Riki Matsufuji, Tom Tsuji, Hideo Kawano -- all played music before the war and quickly got talent together in the assembly centers and detention camps. Instruments were lugged into the camps as essential items for survival. Others were eventually purchased or donated by friends on the outside. Laundry rooms, any spare room became practice rooms and the dances where the band played proved wildly popular and something to look forward to each weekend.

Music Makers, Amache Detention Camp

Jivesters, Topaz Detention Camp

Music Makers, Poston Detention Camp #1

Jive Bombers, Manzanar Detention Camp

Gila River Dance

Amache Detention Camp Dance

George Igawa Band, Heart Mountain

Detention Camp

Downbeats, Tule Lake Detention Camp

Heart Mountain Dance

Manzanar  Detention Camp Dance

Heart Mountain Dance

Big Bands in the Japanese

American Incarceration

Camps 1942-1945:

The Starlight Serenaders

Santa Anita Detention Center,

Arcadia, CA

The Music Makers

Poston Detention Camp #1, Arizona

Camp #2 Band

Poston Detention Camp #2, Arizona


Poston Detention Camp #3, Arizona


Camp Harmony Detention Center

Puyallup, Washington

Starlight Serenaders

Gila River Canal

Detention Camp, Arizona

The Music Makers

Gila River Butte

Detention Camp, Arizona

The Densoneers

(aka The D-Elevens)

Jerome Detention Camp, Arkansas

The Pomonans

Pomona Detention Center, California

The George Igawa Band

Heart Mountain

Detention Camp, Wyoming

Jive Bombers

Manzanar Detention Camp, California


Merced Detention Center, California

Music Makers

Amache Detention Camp,

Granada, Colorado


Tule Lake Detention Camp, California

The Down Beats

Tule Lake Detention Camp, California

The Tanforan Tooters

Tanforan Detention Center, California

The Topaz Tooters

Topaz Detention Camp, Utah

The Jivesters

Topaz Detention Camp, Utah

The Savoy Four

Topaz Detention Camp, Utah

The Rhythm Kings

Topaz Detention Camp, Utah

Band members from the camps went on to make a lasting contribution to Asian American popular music in the 20th century. Japanese American musicians who played overseas were instrumental in promoting and influencing the jazz scene in Japan before and after the war.

Photo credits: Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives and private family collections (Special thanks to Asano Kuwatani for her camp memorabilia)

website design and copy: Amy Uyeki © 2013

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Jive Bombers, Manzanar

4th of July, 1942, Music Makers, Poston

Yoshindo Shibuya,

Jive Bombers

Invitation for farewell to  camp army Inductees,

Amache Detention Camp

Camp dance invitation, Amache

As we embraced the irresistible music of Glen Miller and Duke Ellington, we were shouting, "We are Americans! We are Americans! When the war is over, we will still be seeking our American Dreams as we did before.”     George Yoshida

Amy Uyeki Art