CAM’s 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient Courtney Ozaki Celebrates and Supports Marginalized Cultures in Denver Through the Japanese Arts Network

Courtney Ozaki taiko
Courtney Ozaki performs with Cultural Mixtape, a hip-hop taiko band.
ZOTTO Burlington - Martha Wirth Photography
A performance of ZOTTO. Image credit: Martha Wirth Photography
Cultural Runways - MOTTAINAI - Credit Denver Arts & Venues
Mottainai Fashion Show at the McNichols Building in Denver. Image Credit: Denver Arts & Venues

Courtney Ozaki (‘06) earned her bachelor's in music management from CU Denver’s College of Arts & Media (CAM) with a dual emphasis in Recording Arts and Music Management as well as a partial piano performance degree. After graduating, Ozaki built her resume with diverse and creative roles. She embodies the entrepreneurial creative who forges their own path even as they seek to serve the community around them. This year, Ozaki is being honored as CAM’s distinguished alumnus and will be recognized at CU Denver’s annual Distinguished Alumni Award Ceremony in May, along with other notable alumni


“Going into CAM was not a traditional path, but I was distinctly interested in learning about the music industry and how music can reach people in these really unique ways. Receiving this award is a recognition of everything I’ve learned culminating in the work that I do today,” Ozaki says.


Courtney Ozaki’s Love for the Arts Started at a Young Age


Ozaki’s love for all things artistic started at a young age and was encouraged by her parents, second- and third-generation Japanese-Americans who grew up in Denver. Ozaki’s grandparents settled in the Five Points neighborhood after their lives were uprooted by the incarceration of Japanese Americans and Japanese Peruvians during WWII.


At a young age, Ozaki was introduced to taiko music. Her aunt and uncle invited her to perform with their taiko group at Disneyworld’s Epcot Center—Ozaki’s first big, professional performance—which happened when she was in middle school.


CU Denver’s Music & Entertainment Industry Studies (MEIS) taught Ozaki about all aspects of the music industry. Because of her partial piano performance major combined with recording arts and music management, Ozaki’s education in CAM gave her a foundational understanding of the entire music production process—from the performance to the recording to getting that music out to the public. She is also grateful for the connections she made with the faculty in MEIS, some of whom she keeps in contact.


After graduating from CU Denver, Ozaki held a host of roles in the commercial music industry and the nonprofit music world. She toured internationally as a professional taiko musician, was an artistic coordinator for a chamber orchestra, taught music students, assisted the productions at a dance theater, and earned an MFA in performance arts management from Brooklyn College in New York. Ozaki sees that all these experiences—as diverse as they were—culminated in her shifting her professional focus to production. After living in New York City while earning her MFA, Ozaki felt the pull back to Colorado and the Japanese community in Denver. “I knew I always wanted to do something to support the cultural arts, but also the arts in general in Colorado,” Ozaki says.


Upon moving back, Ozaki reconnected with the Japanese community by getting involved in the Mountain Region chapter of the U.S. Japan Council (Ozaki is currently co-chair of this council) and the Denver Buddhist temple, connections which introduced her to a lot of fellow artists and creatives.


The Japanese Arts Network (Ja-Ne)


Ozaki founded the Japanese Arts Network in 2019. The organization is known as Ja-Ne, which is a play on the Japanese phrase for “see you later.” Over the last three years, Ozaki and Ja-Ne have orchestrated a whole host of events and even played a role supporting artists during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ja-Ne seeks to fill a very visceral need not only in Denver but also on a national level. Marginalized community groups don’t always know how to access connections and sometimes artists don’t know how to value themselves, Ozaki explains.


Seeking to tell the history of Asians and other marginalized cultures in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, Ja-Ne partnered with the Mile High Japanese American Citizens League to create a walking history tour called Stories of Solidarity. The project included creating an app that guides visitors to historical points in Denver and designing the sound to create a sense of space and place, as well as capturing interviews with Denver citizens who lived in the Five Points area following WWII.


During the pandemic, Ja-Ne worked with creative friends to create an immersive theatrical driving experience. This project, an early iteration of the theatrical work ZOTTO, explored the ghosts of Denver’s past through audio production, music, film, dance, and visual art. The project not only provided artists the opportunity to continue working and creating during a time of great instability and uncertainty, but it also gave viewers a creative escape. “We were happy to provide people a fun, creative, and safe way to experience theater and get outside of their homes, while also learning about Denver history and considering how their role in society and the world has an impact on the future,” says Ozaki.


In March 2022, Ozaki partnered with the McNichols Building in Denver to create the Japanese iteration of a multi-cultural fashion show. The concept of mottainai, or not to waste, was the central theme of the exhibition. Three designers who all use sustainable methods to create their work were featured. Additionally, models wore kimonos borrowed from community members paired with headdresses that were made by a designer who uses recycled materials in her clothing designs. Tangential to the fashion show, visitors were invited to shop at a marketplace featuring sustainable products made by local artisans.


The Pop-up Exhibition Colorado’s Asian Food Culture: Rice & Resilience was featured in Denver’s History of Colorado Museum for a year, wrapping up in April 2023. This visual art and storytelling exhibition highlighted the importance of food and how it has been passed down through generations among the Asian diaspora.


Most recently, Ja-Ne produced an immersive theater production called ZOTTO: a Supernatural Japanese Folktale in Sakura Square in Denver. The performance tells the story of three generations of Japanese women in Colorado through the lens of Japanese culture and lore..


If you are in the Denver area, be sure to check out the Japan Fest at the Levitt Pavilion August 27, 2023. The event will include live music, Japanese arts vendors, and food trucks. Ozaki suggested the headliner of the event, Lyrics Born, to event organizers and will also be performing with Ja-Ne’s Cultural Mixtape Group. The hybrid hip hop taiko group features an emcee, instrumentalists, and dancers (including an aerial dancer). 


CAM is incredibly proud to count Ozaki among its graduates.


Article written by Megan Briggs

College of Arts & Media

CU Denver

Arts Building

1150 10th Street

Suite 177

Denver, CO 80204


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