DODEA’s finest in band for fun, while supporting both Japanese and foreigner communities
Story and photos by Greg Mitchell, FLEACT Public Affairs Office
SHIBUYA WARD/TOKYO, JAPAN – Defined as an art form that combines assorted sounds together in a way that people like or find interesting, music has been described as a universal language that intends to connect with all, no matter what cultural background or ethnicity.
This connection by way of music is used by Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka’s the Sullivans Elementary School, Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) employees Bill Scholer and Leroy Bell, who both moonlight as musicians in the band, ‘Strawberry Jam’. “Time really flies,” said Scholer. “It seems like I got here yesterday. I feel like I’ve found the right people to have a lot of fun with, and I look at music at this point in my life as what’s keeping me young; it is a part of my therapy. What keeps you fresh is trying new things and not doing the same things over and over again.”
Along with Scholer ( lead guitar and vocals), and Bell (valve trombone), Strawberry Jam is a rock band comprised of fellow educators Eric Wedemeyer (bass guitar), Bryan Piccolo (drums), Brent Huber (guitar and vocals) and the brainchild/ leader of the group, Steve Tootell (keyboardist).
A native of England, Tootle has been a teacher for 40 years and currently is the Head of Creative and Performing Arts at International School of the Sacred Heart Tokyo. He teaches Pottery for grades 5-10 and AP 3D Portfolio Sculpturing for grades 11-12. He does all of this while also producing both middle school and high school all-girls’ bands. When not at Sacred Heart, Tootell works as a semi pro in the music business writing material for shows,commercials and events.
“I am usually the nucleus for startup bands in the Tokyo area that involve teaching professionals,” said Tootell. “I have been in Tokyo for 40 years, so I have many contacts. When a new musician like Bill (Scholer) arrives on the scene, someone would tell me about it and I would try to get him into a jam with other good musicians. If the chemistry is right, then we go from there. With Strawberry Jam, the chemistry was full on!”
According to Tootell, Strawberry Jam is an evolution of the former Traveling Strawberries, which was started for the charity event called Teachers for Tokyo English Life Line (TELL) conducted two years ago. TELL’s over-the-phone counseling provides comprehensive evaluations and therapy for adults and children by licensed professionals in Japan. Strawberry Jam’s most recent performance was held at ‘What the Dickens!’ live band bar in Shibuya, May 24 as a part of ‘Band Night for TELL,’ further supporting the organizations’ cause.
Along with TELL, the band performs for other organizations and events, such as Tohoku relief events, school festivals and various other venues.
“Doing these shows is a wonderful opportunity to interact with people from another part of the world like Japan, that which I never dreamed of being in,” said Scholer. “I am the new-be to Japan and I have been introduced to a lot of neat things here through music. I think that it’s really hard at this point in my life to look at music as kind of a career; you know where you’re providing for your family with it. It’s more like music is something to share with friends,something to do to help people out with it. I like these guys; they play my music, they play the songs I wrote which you know, I got to love that. It’s just fun to make the trip out here and I like the way everyone plays. It’s great that now Leroy’s (Bell) part of it I got a new driving buddy!”
Bell is the newest member of the group and plays the valve trombone. Band members felt his presence as a horn player was a key addition to their overall sound.
“They asked me to play with them, and I was pleased because I hadn’t played a horn since I was 20 years old; I stopped right after I got out of college,” said Bell. “Bill asked me to work with him on some recordings he was doing and that’s’ when I started playing again. And through that, we started performing songs with Susan (Davidson; his wife) at a bar in Zushi. One of Bill’s songs that we worked on was recorded by Strawberry Jam, and that became my first introduction to the band. I enjoy playing with them. It’s a very talented group and they are all really nice people.”
When observing Strawberry Jam, one gets the feeling that the band is not just about guys who like playing music.
“Playing at the benefit shows is really nice and everything about the band seems to fit what I believe in; playing music for a purpose,” said Bell. “I definitely feel like I am the weakest link because I am still building my chops back up again. I don’t really practice like I used to before,so it’s nice to be included in something that is for a good cause.”
Performing in Japan has presented a unique experience for the band members, due to the diversity and backgrounds of each man, representing the United States, Australia and England.
“Music has been my means to connect with people from all over the world,” said Scholer. “I’ve performed in Russia, and played in bands comprised of Danish artists and South African artists. Music is such a currency; it’s a vocabulary. If someone is a musician, I don’t care where they are from, I know who they are. If they are from Japan and they play BB King, we talk BB King together. In my neighborhood in Kamoi, I’ve played a number of concerts at the Kamoi Cultural Center for my neighbors. I go by their musical programs and I am just tickled pink that they love American music. So I try to be a part of that and we have a language; I speak musician, and I am used to speaking musician all over the world.”
For Bell, coming to Japan was destiny for him, due to a commitment he made many years ago.
“26 years ago, my college marching band came to Tokyo and we played at a bowl game in the Tokyo Dome,” said Bell. “I remember my circle of friends and I were lying on the 50 yard line and we all said, “We will be back here one day and we will all perform. Obviously, I don’t think that goal was ever set but, anyway, here I am.”
Bell and Scholer both feel that performing in Japan has been a unique opportunity they have been placed in as musical foreigners that not only perform in Japan, but honorably represent their country as Americans.
“I have played for a Japanese audience before and they were very nice and really appreciative,” said Bell. “It’s not as rowdy as playing in the bars back home in Texas. One band I was in got into a fight with the whole bar because they didn’t like what we were playing! That would never happen in Japan. So it’s really nice playing here; the people are just so appreciative and just gracious. It makes you feel like a super hero.”
When asked about making an album, Bell viewed the possibility of putting one together was definitely there. “It could happen, and it could happen all internally,” said Bell. “I see this group as being very,very talented and having the ability to produce something like that, without having to find people to do things for them so, I could see this group – if they decided to – could produce an album. But it is hard to come up with songs for an album due to various ideas and so forth; it was so hard to just get this set together.”
Upon the completion of their latest gig at What the Dickens!, Strawberry Jam will take a break over the summer, but plans to ramp things up in the fall.
“Music is what rooted me; it gave me a place in this universe and gave me something to branch out from and gain some confidence; I’ve gone on to obtain my master’s degree from UC Berkley after being a D student,” said Scholer. “It was music and art that I could build my confidence around, something that I felt I could give to the world around me. It’s carried me through; it’s taken me to places I never thought I would be. It’s taken me to this living room! I never thought I would ever be in Japan and getting ready to do a gig in Tokyo.Talking about this experience is just amazing!”
For more information regarding TELL Counseling, go to: http://www.telljp.com