Who is Toshiko Akiyoshi?

Toshiko Akiyoshi

One of the first Asian-born musicians to succeed in the jazz and big band arenas, Toshiko Akiyoshi (born 1929) is also a pioneering woman in these tradition-ally male-dominated arts. Her jazz orchestra has be-come one of the most popular of its kind and has received 14 Grammy Award nominations since 1976.

Atruly international music star, Akiyoshi was born of well-to-do Japanese Buddhist parents in Darien, Manchuria Province (now part of China), on De-cember 12, 1929. Her father, the owner of an import-export textile business and a practitioner of classic Japanese Noh drama, encouraged Akiyoshi and her three sisters to take music, acting, and dance lessons. Akiyoshi later recalled feeling a strong affinity for the piano by the age of six, and her early training was exclusively in classical music.

Early Interest in Music Interrupted by War

By the early 1930s the ancient kingdom of Manchuria had become a furiously contested piece of land as Japan, the Soviet Union, and China battled over its sovereignty. The conflict worsened during World War II, as one country’s domination quickly gave way to that of another. Soldiers commandeered the Akiyoshi home several times, eventu-ally prompting the family to flee to the resort town of Beppu, Japan. Financially ruined, they were met at Beppu by Amer-ican occupation troops who deloused the entire family with DDT.

When asked if she remembers the American atomic bombs dropped in nearby Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, that put an end to World War II in August of 1945, Akiyoshi, who was then age 15, recalled in a Down Beat interview with Michael Bourne: ‘‘All I knew was that the war was ended. We knew that a bomb was dropped, but we didn’t know the effect. People at that time tried to avoid speaking about it. Even the victims didn’t want to talk about it.’’

Living in Japan during her teen years, Akiyoshi heard for the first time the jazz rhythms popular with the American GI’s occupying the country after the war. Although she had begun to consider a career in medicine during the tumult of wartime, by the time she was 16, Akiyoshi had found a job as a jazz pianist for four dollars an hour at one of the many new dance halls being set up for occupation troops. Her parents initially disapproved but told her she could play until school started in March. The musician later remem-bered, ‘‘March came and went, and no one noticed. I just kept playing!’’ A young admirer and record collector also introduced Akiyoshi to the music of Teddy Wilson. She fell in love with the song ‘‘Sweet Lorraine’’ and swore that she would one day play ‘‘like that.’’

Started New Life

Akiyoshi eventually tired of the dance-hall scene and in 1952, at age 23, got permission from her parents to move to Tokyo. After playing with ten jazz groups and three sym-phonies, she started her first band in Tokyo and quickly became the highest-paid studio musician in Japan and within a year was discovered by popular American pianist Oscar Peterson. At Peterson’s request, Akiyoshi made a recording in 1953 for entrepreneur Norman Granz, who was running the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of Japan. Peterson was very impressed by the young woman’s work, telling Granz that she was ‘‘the greatest female jazz pianist’’ ever. Peterson recommended Akiyoshi for a full scholarship to the Berklee School of Music (now Berklee College of Music) in Boston, Massachusetts. She won the scholarship, moved to the United States, and began attending Berklee as a full-time student in 1956.

In the United States Akiyoshi’s passion for music con-tinued to build. She quickly developed a reputation as a fierce bebop pianist but had to deal with constant sexual and racial prejudice. As she told Downbeat, ‘‘I played clubs and TV wearing a kimono, because people were amazed to see an Oriental woman playing jazz.’’ She soon met saxo-phonist Charlie Mariano while playing in a quartet. They fell in love and married in 1959 and had a daughter, Michiru, together. Akiyoshi finished her studies at Berklee in 1959.

Began Band with Second Husband

During the 1960s Akiyoshi often traveled to Japan for extended periods, and she also worked with bassists Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettfried in small combos in New York City and around Japan. She made her debut as a conductor-composer in 1967 in the Town Hall in New York in a concert for which she had raised funds by playing the Holiday Inn circuit for seven months. She had by now divorced Mariano, and now she met Lew Tabackin, a Jewish saxophonist and flautist. Marrying in 1969, the couple formed a group they thought of as a rehearsal band that designed to showcase Akiyoshi’s new jazz and big band compositions.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1972, the couple transformed their rehearsal band into the wildly successful Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra in 1973. Following the death of jazz great Duke Ellington in 1974, Akiyoshi read an article about how proud he had always been of his heritage. This prompted her to begin studying Japanese music for the first time, looking for ways to, as she put it, ‘‘return to the jazz tradition something that might make it a little bit richer.’’ In the meantime, the awards poured in as the band began recording albums such as Long Yellow Road (1976), Insights (1977), Minamata (1978), and Kogun (1978), the last which included her first Japanese jazz pieces. Meanwhile, Akiyoshi and Tabackin received increasing kudos for what had become one of the most innovative and accomplished big bands in the jazz world.

In 1982 Akiyoshi and Tabackin moved to New York, where Akiyoshi recreated her band with local musicians. The following year the new Jazz Orchestra received high critical praise during its debut at the Kool Jazz Festival. Also in 1983, Renee Cho released a documentary film about Akiyoshi titled Jazz Is My Native Language. Unlike others before them, the husband-and-wife team impressed people with their equality. Akiyoshi composed, conducted, and played piano, emulating such greats as Fletcher Henderson, Ellington, Earl Hines, and Count Basie, while Tabackin served as the ensemble’s principal soloist.

Japanese Heritage Integral to Music

Once she accepted her Japanese heritage as an asset, rather than fighting it as a liability in a world of prejudice and racism, Akiyoshi decided to make Japanese themes and cultural elements part of her music. The 1976 album Tales of a Courtesan, for instance, was reportedly inspired by Akiyoshi’s interest in the courtesans of the Edo period in 18th-century Japan. Other pieces, for both small groups and big band, incorporated elements of traditional Japanese folk songs, such as susumi and taiko drumming and vocal cries from Noh dramas, to evoke Japanese grace and delicacy. In addition, Akiyoshi and Tabackin liked to emphasize the juxtaposition of what they call the ‘‘vertical’’ rhythmic syn-copation of jazz music with the ‘‘sideways’’ way Japanese music is played. Playing these elements against each other produced what many critics call an unparalleled sound in jazz. Despite its quality, however, much of Akiyoshi’s music (like many of her predecessors in jazz) was given short shrift in the United States, finding appreciative audiences instead in Japan, Brazil, Germany, and France.

Main Influences

When asked who has influenced her career the most, Akiyoshi has frequently cited Ellington as her main inspira-tion. From the way she composed pieces to highlight the virtuosity of particular bandmembers—usually Tabackin—to how she has led and conducted the band, Akiyoshi clearly showed her admiration for the late bandleader. Other musicians she credited in helping shape her musical development include Roy Haynes, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins, while her big-band compositions often paid tribute to such artists as Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, and Gil Evans. Akiyoshi even recalled her piano teacher at the Berklee School who insisted that she learn pieces back-ward and forward in order to create an intimate familiarity with the music. This practice may have led to Akiyoshi’s unique multi-meter compositions in which accents are of-ten placed in unusual spots and forms are extended beyond what the listener expects.

Akiyoshi and her band continued to produce powerful and popular music throughout the 1980s and 1990s, includ-ing such milestone albums as Farewell to Mingus (1980), European Memoirs (1982), Wishing Peace (1986), and Four Seasons in a Morita Village (1996). Her 2001 work, Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss, received a great deal of attention from critics everywhere, not only because of its quality, but for its subject matter. The album was recorded in Hiroshima on the anniversary of the bombing of that city, and reviewers and fans alike found the work haunting and evocative. Akiyoshi was reportedly inspired to write the piece, after a lifetime of avoiding the subject, by the wish of a Buddhist priest and jazz fan from Hiroshima.

Closed down the Big Band

On October 17, 2003, Akiyoshi, then age 73, and Tabackin played a farewell concert with their Jazz Orches-tra at New York’s Carnegie Hall, recording the event live for their last album. The event marked the end of three decades’ work and 30 years of Akiyoshi composing for and holding a band together—an unprecedented accomplishment. Akiyoshi told reporters at the concert, ‘‘I started my career as a pianist, and I want to devote my remaining years to com-posing and playing in solo and small-group formats. I am artistically challenged by this decision and want to become a better pianist, and for me this is the way.’’

Akiyoshi never formally became an American citizen. She and Tabackin live in New York City, where they own a brownstone on the upper West Side, Akiyoshi reportedly writing and practicing upstairs while Tabackin works in the basement. They both enjoy collecting wine and keeping track of baseball, their favorite sport. Their last gig at Birdland, the famous New York City nightclub where the Jazz Orchestra once performed every Monday, took place in December of 2003. Akiyoshi published her autobio-graphy, Life with Jazz, in 1996.


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