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Story of Seattle’s ‘Unforgettable’ Lotus Skyliners Band Highlighted in Book

In the 1950s and 1960s, a Caucasian band leader, accompanied by a talented group of boys and a female vocalist — all Japanese Americans — stepped onto the gymnasium stage of the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple.

They were a swing dance band known as the Lotus Skyliners and it wouldn’t be long before they were one of the most widely recognized bands in the Seattle area. Within this group were Japanese American teenagers who were among the youngest people incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II.

From 1953 — when the Lotus Skyliners formed — to 1962, the Lotus Skyliners commanded the stage at many dances, school proms, private parties, and even a bar mitzvah.

For those who are familiar with the Seattle Betsuin, piano player Akira Ichikawa and trombone player Shinya Ichikawa, sons of Rinban Rev. Tatsuya Ichikawa, were members of the band.

The Lotus Skyliners also toured the West Coast and played at temples in Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

One of those stops was at the Civic Auditorium in San Jose, sandwiched in between the night after legendary jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald sang and the day before famed jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong played.

The newly released book, “The Lotus Skyliners — How a Big Band Lifts Up a Small Community,” memorializes the experiences of this unforgettable group of Japanese American band members after World War II.

Dedicated to Don Kinsley, the band’s leader, mentor, and friend, this powerful story looks back on an important part of the Japanese American experience in Seattle and exemplifies the hope that can be inspired by combining capable leaders with talented youth in a vulnerable community.

“Like all great teachers, Don made us dream of becoming better than we could ever be,” said Vic Kihara, the lead trumpet in the band, who wrote the introduction to the book. “As far as he was concerned, there wasn’t a chart too difficult for us. Stuff like ‘Early Autumn’ and ‘Intermission Riff’ made the Glenn Miller numbers seem easy in comparison. Without our being aware of it, he taught us patience, team work, pride, and the rewards of practice, practice, practice!”

A volunteer committee of five former Lotus Skyliners and four volunteers felt it was important to tell their story, so they joined forces to help create the book over the past three years.

But they weren’t alone. Much of the initial help came from Kemi Nakabayashi and the BCA Music History Subcommittee and Andrea Mano and Dana Nakashima of Seattle Betsuin’s Archive Committee. Rev. Irene Goto and the Dharma Exchange also hosted an announcement of the Lotus Skyliners project with book committee members Janet Baba and Shinya Ichikawa.

Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada made a donation from the BCA Bishop’s Expansion Fund and Seattle Betsuin’s Rinban Rev. Katsuya Kusunoki wrote an endorsement for the book. We are grateful for their assistance.

The book was also funded by numerous former Lotus Skyliners members and friends and accompanied by equally generous grants from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and 4Culture of King County.

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is the fiscal sponsor and Chin Music Press is the publisher.

Make plans to attend “Unforgettable — The Lotus Skyliners Story,” the first in-person book signing event. It will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. June 11 at the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, 1427 S. Main St., Seattle, Washington, 98144. The book is priced at $19.95.

Purchase a book, have it signed, and meet some of the former Skyliners band members. Live music will be performed by the Pat & Rich2 Quartet.

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