People Behind the Music

Behind The Music: Toshiko Akiyoshi — Jazz Music Became a Way of Life!

By Angela Bird

Born December 12, 1929 in Manchuria, the youngest of four daughters, Toshiko Akiyoshi began playing the piano in first grade at age 7. An older student in third grade played Mozart’s Turkish March, which piqued her interest in playing classical piano. She took private lessons twice a week and practiced at school.

When the war ended in 1945, her family moved to Japan to avoid the Russian occupation of Manchuria. Toshiko was just 16 years old when she began playing piano in a Japanese dance hall in the town of Beppu. Her family didn’t have a piano in their new home, and she wanted a place to practice. It was there that she heard jazz music for the first time: Teddy Wilson’s Sweet Lorraine. She noted that after hearing jazz, “I spent all of my time and energy on music. I used to forget to eat because what I was listening to was so interesting. Jazz became a way of life.” She transcribed and played along with jazz records to learn the style, the language, and to improve her ability to improvise. She was seventeen when she moved to Fukuoka city to play jazz piano in a big band.

A Chance Encounter with Oscar Petersen

While on a Philharmonic tour of Japan, Oscar Petersen heard Toshiko play in a Tokyo nightclub in 1952. After that chance encounter, Oscar suggested to producer Norman Granz that he should record her. That album, Toshiko’s Piano, was recorded and released in 1953. On the strength of that album, she was granted a full scholarship to Berklee School of Music in Boston, MA. Founder Lawrence Berk was impressed by Toshiko’s talent, and by the fact that she was a female Japanese jazz player. After about a year of coordinating between the U.S. State Department and Japanese officials, Berk received permission to enrol Toshiko as a student and he mailed her a plane ticket to Boston. In 1956, Toshiko Akiyoshi traveled to the United States and became Berklee’s first Japanese student.

She started to play Storyville four nights a week in March of 1956, which was arranged through Berklee. She began recording albums in earnest while living in Boston!

Shaping her Jazz Sound

She moved to New York City in 1959, playing at such notable jazz clubs as the Five Spot, Birdland, the Half Note, and the Village Gate. She toured Japan in ‘61 and ‘63, staying in Japan for a year after the birth of her daughter Monday. She met tenor saxophone/flutist Lew Tabackin in 1967, marrying him in 1969. They moved to Los Angeles in 1972 and formed a 16-piece big band called Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin the following year.

Toshiko began experimenting with her sound in the 1970s, infusing traditional Japanese themes, vocals, and instruments into her compositions. She and Lew moved to New York, re-forming the band with New York artists in 1982. The band debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1983 as part of the Kool Jazz Festival. Toshiko’s reputation as a prolific jazz composer, arranger and player grew throughout the 80s and 90s.

Toshiko completed her autobiography in 1996 called Life With Jazz. She has been the subject of documentaries, feature interviews, countless interviews, articles, and blogs. She has been given a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award and was honoured in 2018 with the Living Legacy Award from Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. Her discography boasts over 60 recordings and her big band jazz albums have been nominated for 14 Grammy awards.

We are honoured to feature Toshiko Akiyoshi’s riveting jazz music on two Calm Radio stations: Jazz Piano & Light Jazz Piano. Listen for free.

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