From the classroom to the bandstand, Paul Yonemura returns

Drummer Paul Yonemura celebrates the release of his new album “Kindred Spirits” Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory with pianist Frank Martin, bassist David Dunaway, and saxophonist Rick Condit. Photo by Frank Leonard.

Paul Yonemura wants everyone to know that he’s back and raring to play. The Berkeley-raised jazz drummer spent nearly three decades teaching music in East Bay schools, from elementary kids to college students, but since retiring in 2013 he’s started diving back into the freelance pool as a drummer for hire.

Despite his hectic teaching schedule Yonemura never completely left the scene, and in recently years he’s released a series of impressive albums featuring some of the finest musicians in the region. He celebrates the release of his new quartet session Kindred Spirits (Girod Records) Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory.

“I’m just getting back into playing after teaching for 27 years,” says Yonemura, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1969 and spent several productive years on the Los Angeles scene in the early ‘80s. “I’ll go down to 7 Mile House in Brisbane to sit in sometimes, but my career has kind of stalled. Some people think I’m still down in LA. I’m looking to stir a few things up.”

Featuring bassist David Dunaway, pianist Frank Martin, and well-traveled alto saxophonist Rick Condit, Yonemura’s new album Kindred Spirits should start fanning the embers. The quartet plays a fascinating book of material ranging from jazz standards like Herbie Hancock’s “Toys” to melodically charged pieces by veteran players like trumpeter Dennis Dotson and Romanian pianist Ion Baciu.


Yonemura will be joined by the album’s cast Saturday at the CJC, a daunting feat in itself as pinning down Martin for a gig can take serious temporal contortions. The Oakland pianist, producer, arranger and conductor is sought after by international jazz and pop luminaries, such as Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, and Sting (whom he joined last month for the 20th year as assistant music director for his Carnegie Hall gala).

The four musicians met as college students back in the 1970s when they “used to have a zillion jam sessions at my house in Oakland,” Martin says. “We started doing jazz gigs locally and then all went our separate ways. David and I kept playing full time. Rick was on tour with Stan Kenton, then he and Paul took teaching gigs.  I’d go to Paul’s schools for years and do workshops, especially at El Cerrito High. When we get together now it’s like family. We pick up where we left off. You know what kind of stories they’re going to tell musically, so there’s an ease in playing together.”

Paul Yonemura, photo by Kandice Chandler.

The youngest of three children born into a prominent Japanese-American family, Yonemura had to contend with two academically gifted older sisters while growing up. Music provided an alternative route, and he eventually won grudging support from his father, immigration attorney Masatatsu “Mas” Yonemura, who was finishing his law degree at Boalt in December 1941. While Mas’s parents and sisters spent the rest of World War II in internment camps after President Roosevelt’s notorious Executive Order 9066, he joined U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Unit as a linguist.

Paul’s love affair with the drums was sparked by a family friend, long-time Berkeley resident George Yoshida, a tenor saxophonist and teacher who went on to write about his experience playing jazz in internment camps in his 1997 book Reminiscing in Swingtime: Japanese Americans in American Popular Music, 1920-1965.

Paul had taken piano lessons as a child, but he was already a teenager when he found himself captivated by a drum kit in Yoshida’s living room. “I was standing there staring at it and he said ‘Are you interested in learning how to play those?’” Yonemura recalls. “I said ‘Yes, but I’m too old.’ He said, ‘It’s not too late,’ and hands me an old pair of drum sticks and a method book. ‘Give it a try.’ Without that I would have been lost.”

He learned a vast number of show tunes singing in George Felker’s Willard Middle School glee club (when the group’s pianist was future music historian and New York City cabaret mainstay Peter Mintun). The East Bay garage band scene was exploding in the mid-60s, and Yonemura played every day, while getting turned on to soul and R&B by his Berkeley High classmates.

“The only problem was that the Berkeley High campus was very segregated, and the audiences were too,” he says. “The black students listened to certain kinds of music, and white students listened to certain kinds of music. The Asian students were more on the black side. I listened to everything. Black friends turned me on to music you’d never hear on Top 40.”

In the late ‘60s, the Berkeley Jazz Festival provided exposure to the entire history of jazz drumming, from New Orleans patriarch Zutty Singleton to modern jazz pioneers Max Roach, Roy Haynes, and Tony Williams. He spent a year at SF State, where the highlight was taking improvisation classes with saxophone great John Handy, and then headed east to Boston’s Berklee College of Music.

When Yonemure returned to the Bay Area after graduating in 1974 he slowly established himself as a freelancer while also teaching privately. He landed a breakthrough gig in 1976 when he, Dunaway, and guitarist Steve Erquiaga hooked up with accordion virtuoso Art van Damme at Roland’s, a jazz spot in the Marina. It was trial by fire, but he was up to the challenge of van Damme’s searing tempos and ended up playing a long-running annual gig with him.

“From the first tune we knew we were in the tiger’s den,” Yonemura says. “He didn’t kill us the first set, but he liked those flagwaver tempos. On the third set he called ‘Cherokee’ and it was about the tempo of Woody Herman’s ‘Caledonia.’ That was the first time being reviewed by the Chronicle, by John Wasserman, and we sold out all the shows.”

Other musicians took note too, and by the end of the year, he was working constantly while continuing to teach privately. After a four-year stint in LA, he returned to the Bay Area and took a position teaching music at El Cerrito High, responsibilities that curtailed his playing career. His passion for working with young musicians is evident when he talks about his students, like trumpeter/keyboardist Stephen Bradley, an El Cerrito High alum who has spent some two decades touring and recording as a member of No Doubt.

One reason why he connects with students so well is that he approaches music as a perpetual student himself. Already a formidable player, Yonemura still considers himself a work in progress.

“Paul plays everything, but jazz is his home ground, and technically he’s fantastic,” Frank Martin says. “That’s one of the strengths, his ability to swing really well, and tempo has never been an issue, so he’s fun and exciting to play with. But I love the fact that he’s open to learning. The last recording session he had a former student come and give him guidance on how to play certain things. Not every musician would be open to that, letting ego go away. It’s a positive that many of us don’t have, including myself. He’s matured to the point where he’s open to learning more. He’s going to get a lot better now that he’s back to playing.”

Recommended gigs

Speaking of Berkeley High alumni, trumpeter Erik Jekabson celebrates the release of his fantastic new album A Brand New Take at the California Jazz Conservatory on Friday (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes). It’s a big week for him as his creatively charged big band, the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra performs at the SFJAZZ Center tonight.

Flutist/vocalist Elana Pinderhughes performs Saturday at the SFJAZZ Center as a special guest with John Santos, along with her brother pianist/composer Samora Pinderhughes. Photo by Julie Vastola.

And on Saturday, Berkeley High alumni siblings Samora and Elena Pinderhughes are featured guests at the SFJAZZ Center with percussion maestro John Santos. Based in New York City, Elena is a rising star on flute and vocals who has been performing regularly with legends like pianist Kenny Barron and powerhouse trumpeter Christian Scott, while Samora, a pianist and composer, recently release The Transformations Suite, a politically charged statement inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.