Toshiko Akiyoshiis a Japanese-American jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader.
She has received fourteen Grammy Award nominations and was the first woman to win Best Arranger and Composer awards in Down Beat magazine's annual Readers' Poll. In 1984, she was the subject of the documentary Jazz Is My Native Language. In 1996, she published her autobiography, Life with Jazz, and in 2007 she was named an NEA Jazz Master by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.
BiographyAkiyoshi was born in Liaoyang, Manchuria to Japanese emigrants. She was the youngest of four sisters. In 1945, after World War II, Akiyoshi's family lost their home and returned to Japan, settling in Beppu. A local record collector introduced her to jazz by playing a record of Teddy Wilson playing "Sweet Lorraine". She immediately loved the sound and began to study jazz. In 1952, during a tour of Japan, pianist Oscar Peterson discovered her playing in a club on the Ginza. Peterson was impressed and convinced record producer Norman Granz to record her. In 1953, under Granz's direction, she recorded her first album with Peterson's rhythm section: Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on double bass, and J. C. Heard on drums. The album was released with the title Toshiko's Piano in the U.S. and Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi in Japan.
Akiyoshi studied jazz in at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. In 1955, she wrote a letter to Lawrence Berk asking him to give her a chance to study at his school. After a year of wrangling with the State Department and Japanese officials, Berk was given permission for Akiyoshi to enroll. He offered her a full scholarship, and he mailed her a plane ticket to Boston. In January 1956, she became the first Japanese student at Berklee. Soon after, she appeared as a contestant on the 18 March 1956 broadcast of the CBS television panel show What's My Line?. In 1998, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.
Akiyoshi married saxophonist Charlie Mariano in 1959. The couple had a daughter, Michiru. She and Mariano divorced in 1967 after forming several bands together. During the same year, she met saxophonist Lew Tabackin, whom she married in 1969. Akiyoshi, Tabackin, and Michiru moved to Los Angeles in 1972. In March 1973, Akiyoshi and Tabackin formed a 16-piece big band composed of studio musicians. Akiyoshi composed and arranged music for the band, and Tabackin served as the band's featured soloist on tenor saxophone and flute. The band recorded its first album, Kogun, in 1974. The title, which translates to "one-man army", was inspired by the tale of a Japanese soldier lost for 30 years in the jungle who believed that World War II was still being fought and thus remained loyal to the Emperor. Kogun was commercially successful in Japan, and the band began to receive critical acclaim.
The couple moved to New York City in 1982 and assembled the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin). Akiyoshi toured with smaller bands to raise money for her big band. BMG continued to release her big band's recordings in Japan but remained skeptical about releasing the music in the United States Although Akiyoshi was able to release several albums in the U.S. featuring her piano in solo and small combo settings, many of her later big band albums were released only in Japan.
On Monday, 29 December 2003, her band played its final concert at Birdland in New York City, where it had enjoyed a regular Monday night gig for more than seven years. Akiyoshi explained that she disbanded the ensemble because she was frustrated by her inability to obtain U.S. recording contracts for the big band. She also said that she wanted to concentrate on her piano playing from which she had been distracted by years of composing and arranging. She has said that although she has rarely recorded as a solo pianist, that is her preferred format. On 24 March 2004, Warner Japan released the final recording of Akiyoshi's big band. Titled Last Live in Blue Note Tokyo, the album was recorded on 28–29 November 2003.
MusicAkiyoshi's music is distinctive for its textures and for its Japanese influence. When Duke Ellington died in 1974, Nat Hentoff wrote in The Village Voice that Ellington's music reflected his African heritage. Akiyoshi was inspired to investigate her Japanese musical heritage. She composed using Japanese themes, harmonies, and instruments (kotsuzumi, kakko, utai, tsugaru shamisen). But her music remained planted firmly in jazz, reflecting influences from Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Bud Powell.
One reviewer of the live album Road Time said the music on her big band albums demonstrated "a level of compositional and orchestral ingenuity that made her one of perhaps two or three composer-arrangers in jazz whose name could seriously be mentioned in the company of Duke Ellington, Eddie Sauter and Gil Evans."
In 1999, Akiyoshi was approached by Kyudo Nakagawa, a Buddhist priest, who asked her to write a piece for his hometown of Hiroshima. He sent her some photos of the aftermath of the nuclear bombing. Her initial reaction was horror. She could not see how she could compose anything to address the event. Finally she found a picture of a young woman emerging from an underground shelter with a faint smile on her face. Akiyoshi said that after seeing this picture, she understood the message: hope. With that message in mind, she composed the three-part suite Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss. The piece was premiered in Hiroshima on 6 August 2001, the 56th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. The Hiroshima suite appeared on the 2002 album Hiroshima – Rising from the Abyss.