Video by: Samuel Han
As a kid, Y.K. Kuniyuki, 61, would sit and soak in the R&B, jazz and soul sounds that escaped out of the backdoors of the clubs on South Jackson Street. One of the first Asian American musicians to play professionally in the unique era of soul music that came out of Seattle in the 1960s, Kuniyuki believes everything about his career pathway began with the community he was raised in.
During his growing-up years, Seattle was “plagued by segregation,” he said. Discriminatory housing policies pushed people of color into certain neighborhoods, including the Central District and Yesler Terrace neighborhood, where Kuniyuki spent his childhood.
“It was a forced situation of diversity,” he said. “But because of that segregation there was a positive side, and we were exposed to the many different cultures that were compressed in this area.”
Right next to his family’s house was a dancehall, a rented space frequented by the area’s stage jazz bands. In addition, music emanated from the numerous African American churches located within blocks of his house as well as from his own Buddhist church’s drum and bugle choir. The Filipino youth percussion unit, the Chinese girls’ drill team and the dragon drummers often played in the nearby Chinatown International District.
And Garfield High School’s robust music program drew youth, including Kuniyuki, into school bands. Garage bands were abundant as well, fueled by the growing legacy of rising star Quincy Jones.
“It was this wonderful environment if you were into music,” said Kuniyuki. “That’s how the seed was planted. By the time I got of age to learn an instrument, I was ready and very motivated.”
Only when he graduated from high school in 1968 and started to play music professionally did Kuniyuki come face-to-face with the realities of discrimination.
At that time the music scene reflected an overall social climate of segregation, and musicians of color did not have many opportunities to work outside of the Central District and historic clubs.
“I was fortunate because I was playing in a black band that had job opportunities playing within the black community,” said Kuniyuki.
But Kuniyuki, a drummer, and a handful of others were the first Asian Americans to break into that community and play professionally within the Seattle soul scene.
“Rod Manon, George Shinbo, Danny Liago, Merwin Kato — they were pioneers, along with me,” he said. “Even though we were good at what we did we were still novelties. We were the only ones that were out there.
“Asian Americans didn’t have a known history with music,” he pointed out. “If there was an image of an Asian American musician it was probably classical. There were perceptions: ‘Can this guy play? Can he really play?’ Once that they could see that you could hold your own, then everything was fine.”
After playing with numerous other bands, including The Nitemen, Kuniyuki joined Cinnamon Soul, a multi-ethnic band that played a lot of jobs for the University of Washington Black Student Union and became the house band for The Trolley Club. The owner of the latter had not yet integrated his establishment and believed that it was time.
He also connected Cinnamon Soul to a man who helped the band tour the Northwest “teen scene”, which previously had no minority bands or bands of color in the circuit. Kuniyuki toured with Cinnamon Soul for several years and then went on to play locally with other bands and musicians, including Deems Tsutakawa.
While Kuniyuki was one of the first Asian Americans to play professionally within the 1960s African American soul scene, several Asian American bands formed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and took their place in the R&B landscape.
The NW Imports was once such a band, started by Keith Funai. While they were one of the first Asian American bands to play R&B in the area, covering hits for crowds of dancers throughout the Seattle area, saxophonist Bruce Abe says that ethnicity was something that rarely came to his mind.
“We never thought about race,” said Abe. “We just all grew up together.”
Ken Kubota, who played sax and keyboards for Nine Lives, a horn-heavy band that formed in the early ‘70s, echoes a similar sentiment.
“We didn’t think about it because it was just the way we grew up. A lot of the guys in our band were coming out of a Buddhist church; it was kind of a core group of friends,” he said.
Kubota says they weren’t even really aware of their unusual status as an Asian American R&B/soul band until someone approached them at practice and said, “Don’t you guys get it? You guys are unique! You are all Asian!”
Michael Nakano, who played drums for The NW Imports, said that occasionally he would feel some hesitance from the crowd, especially when playing for African American audiences.
“We were playing black music and they were probably thinking, ‘What are they doing?’” he said with a laugh. “In the end everyone would start dancing, giving us that extra energy.”
Looking back, Abe, Kubota and Nakano all deeply relish the fact that they were able to positively influence the youth of their peers. Nine Lives had a reunion show several years ago and people came in droves to relive the memories and music of their youth, said Kubota.
Kuniyuki looks back on his history within the Seattle music scene and sees that his experiences as a musician during the ‘60s and ‘70s opened his eyes to what was going on in terms of civil rights and society as a whole.
Despite all the social shifts and tensions of his time as a young musician, Kuniyuki says: “When you are playing good music with good musicians, it transcends everything: race, culture, socioeconomic status … all of the different categories.”