In a way, Toyoji Tomita has come full circle in his musical career. He’ll be playing next to his high school trombone teacher, Dan Livesay, this Friday in a performance of the Oakland Chamber Ensemble. A career that began in the Oakland public school system continues at Mills College, where Tomita received his M.F.A. in 1986. But it’s the years in between that define the Berkeley-born trombonist and new music aficionado.
Tomita took up the trombone at age 11 after a couple of years on trumpet.
“My teacher told me when I was 8 my arms weren’t long enough to play trombone,” he laughs. A few years later, inspired in part by “the high, sweet sound” of Tommy Dorsey, he began a lifelong love affair with ’bone.
It’s taken him all over the United States and Europe.
Upon completing high school he first attended Julliard School of Music in New York, and then the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He returned to California, trying to stir up some interest in new music, but found the experience frustrating. Small audiences and little money, he says. He made ends meet by answering calls for orchestra parts and such. (Tomita still receives residuals for the musical soundtrack of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was recorded at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios).
He took a flyer, literally, in 1976. “I bought a one-way ticket to Holland,” he said. He won the First Prize in the Gaudeaumus International competition for Interpreters of Modern Music in Rotterdam. Based on that competition, he was invited to play in Paris, and there he found what he was looking for: a society that actually appreciated, and paid, its modern musicians.
Tomita toured Europe extensively both as a soloist and as a member of the Ensemble Musique Vivante. “Sometimes we’d only play one or two gigs a month, but we got paid enough to make the rent,” he said.
He returned to California, but not immediately to music. In the early 1980s he spent two years in Yosemite National Park, without his trombone. He was rock-climbing. When he returned to the world of music, he received an M.F.A. in electronic composition from Mills College in 1986.
Tomita has continued to push toward the interesting and avant-garde. He cofounded the Mills College Didjeridu Ensemble in 1989, and has performed on albums and concerts in tribute to modern composers like Pauline Oliveros and Albert Ayer.
He teaches at Mills, but isn’t shy about expressing an opinion of why many women still don’t play trombone.
“It’s still a real sexist instrument that women are discouraged from choosing when they’re young. … so I don’t get a lot of students,” Tomita said.
He’s frustrated that “the whole traditional orchestral set-up … was founded on fascist, racist and sexist principals.”
One woman in particular plays an important role in Tomita’s life: his wife Marianne Tomita McDonald. She and Toyoji met in the 6th grade, but they attended different Oakland high schools. They were re-acquainted at a 20th anniversary school gathering and married three years ago. She plays the Scottish harp and has collaborated with Toyoji in the Rhythm and Muse series at UC Berkeley as well as the Didjeridu Ensemble.
A second generation American, Toyoji has never visited Japan and has no real desire to go. He pulls no punches on this topic, either.
“My view of it is a very fascist country,” he says frankly. “I think they’ll spit on me and kick me out,” he says, only half-joking. “The Japanese tie up so much a sense of themselves with their language.” Although he speaks fluent French from his time in Paris, he does not have a full command of Japanese.
“My interests lie more in Europe than in Asia,” he says flatly. (His mother, Mary Kimoto Tomita, still lives in Oakland and wrote Dear Miye: Letters From Japan, 1939-1946 about her experiences as an American-born student in Japan during World War II.)
His attitude toward having women playing the trombone (there will be one at the Mills College concert on Friday) seems to be a reflection of his broader philosophy of music and life. “It’s just a matter of opening people’s minds,” he says.