CAMP ZAMA, Japan – For his whole life, Jay Clemons and music have been inseparable.
Clemons, a chief warrant officer assigned to U.S. Army Japan, was a self-described “band geek” in middle and high school. He majored in music in college, acquiring a bachelor’s degree in music education, and was a public school band director for three years before his career in the military.
He never stopped pursuing his love of music throughout his service in the Navy and the Army as a reservist, a contractor and an active-duty Soldier. Over the years, he has played electric bass with a church band and has also performed in professional gigs such as musical theater and other live entertainment.
Clemons says music and military service are sometimes at odds with each other because the nature of military missions frequently requires shift work and unexpected duties. But he says he always finds a way to stay connected to music and performing—and that includes during an overseas assignment in Japan.
Shortly after arriving at Camp Zama in August 2019, Clemons was at an izakaya, a Japanese sit-down bar that also serves food and snacks, when he saw two fellow American patrons who had trombone cases with them. He struck up a conversation with them and learned that they both were retired Army, former members of Camp Zama’s USARJ Band, and currently belonged to a local Japanese jazz band that happened to have an opening for a bassist.
Clemons says jazz is his favorite genre to play because it is the most fun and creative of all the musical styles, so he took them up on their offer and was soon added to the band as a member.
“The chances of this gig lining up the way it did are astronomically slim,” Clemons said. “This was God looking out for me.”
The ZAMA Big Band Jazz Orchestra was formed in Zama City in 1997 as an “amateur citizen band” with the motto to “contribute harmony to the community,” band leader Yasuo Shimizu said in a quote on the band’s website.
In 2014, the band began an exchange with Camp Zama’s USARJ Band that led to several joint concerts and performances at events like the Atsugi Jazz Festival. Three years later, the two trombonists Clemons met joined the band, along with third Army retiree and former USARJ Band member, and it has been a combined American and Japanese group since then.
Clemons performed with the band most recently in a two-hour concert May 3 at Harmony Hall Zama near Camp Zama.
Clemons said on that night, he felt an energy from the crowd and a sense of connectedness being able to perform live music in front of an audience.
“The concert was fantastic,” Clemons said. “The feedback I heard was really positive.”
Shimizu said the concert was foremost a success simply by virtue of the band being able to perform in front of a crowd for the first time in two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he enjoys having American members as part of the band.
“By having American musicians, it brings a sense of diversity and an international dynamic to our band and music that we appreciate,” Shimizu said.
The concert at Harmony Hall Zama was the last for Clemons as a member of the band because he is scheduled to leave Japan in the summer. Shimizu said he is sad to see his friend go after getting to bond with him through music, but he was also pleased at Clemons’ promise to recruit a replacement for him in the band before he leaves.
“We’re happy to keep the relationship going with our band and the Camp Zama community,” Shimizu said.
Clemons said his time practicing and playing with the band and getting to know his fellow members helped him forge a strong connection to Japan. Even the language barrier didn’t affect his enjoyment of the time he spent in the band because he said the music provided a creative outlet that he and the other members could all identify and connect with through their common love of the art.
“Playing music is a big part of my life,” Clemons said. “Being a musician is an identity.”