Born on December 18, 1929, in Dairen, Manchuria, China; daughter of Tatsuro and Shigeko (Hiraike) Akiyoshi; married Charlie Mariano (a saxophonist), 1959; divorced; married Lewis Tabackin (a saxophonist and flutist), 1969; children: Michiru Mariano. Education: Graduated from Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA, 1959. Addresses: Record company--Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022, (212) 833-8000.

Manchurian-born Japanese pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, as an Asian woman pursuing jazz in America, battled many prejudices and stereotypes at the onset of her career. Indeed, upon her arrival in the United States in 1956, she generated more attention for her appearance than for her musicianship. "I got a lot of press. You know why? Because I was an oddity," she recalled to Zan Stewart in the Los Angeles Times. "In those days, a Japanese woman playing like [jazz pianist] Bud Powell was something very new. So all the press, the attention, wasn't because I was authentic. It was because I was strange," she added, laughing.

In time, however, Akiyoshi proved herself more than just a novelty. Earning the respect of critics and working harder than many of her peers for acceptance, she became one of the most respected pianists/composers in her field. Akiyoshi furthermore successfully upheld the tradition of the big band and is considered one of the greatest contemporary leaders for her rich orchestrations, original arrangements, and rhythmic sophistication. "The fresh-sounding musical excitement generated by this 16-piece ensemble comes not so much from its exceptional players," wrote Frank-John Hadley in Down Beat about the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, "but from the brilliant composing and arranging of Ms. Akiyoshi, whose value to the international jazz community is incalculable."

In addition to garnering numerous Grammy Award nominations, Akiyoshi won in both 1978 and 1979 the Down Beat Critics' Poll Award for Best Arranger and Best Band, and in 1989, the magazine named her the year's Best Arranger. In 1986 the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations awarded Akiyoshi the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. That same year, she became the only Japanese New Yorker to receive New York City's Liberty Award.

Born on December 18, 1929, in Dairen, Manchuria, China, to well-off Japanese parents, Akiyoshi, the youngest of four daughters, was introduced to music early in life. Her father encouraged his children to study the arts, enrolling them in lessons in ballet, traditional Japanese dancing, and piano. Akiyoshi started studying classical piano at age six but was not introduced to jazz until years later.

During Akiyoshi's early childhood, which extended into World War II, Manchuria became an increasingly dangerous area, especially for people of Japanese descent. In 1946 the Akiyoshi family returned to Japan, moving to the resort town of Beppu. Akiyoshi took a job playing piano at one of the many dancehalls frequented by post-war soldiers during the American occupation of Japan. Soon after her arrival in Japan, a teenage Akiyoshi received her first meaningful exposure to jazz. Inspired by a recording of pianist Teddy Wilson's "Sweet Lorraine," she resolved that jazz was her calling.

Desiring greater opportunities than her small town could offer, Akiyoshi eventually moved to the city of Tokyo and, in 1951, formed her first jazz group. Two years later, Oscar Peterson discovered the young pianist/bandleader during a Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic tour. Upon the elder pianist's recommendation, Akiyoshi made her first recording for Granz, receiving backing from Peterson's own rhythm section.

In 1956 Akiyoshi left Japan, traveling to the United States to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1959 Akiyoshi graduated and married her first husband, saxophonist Charlie Mariano, with whom she had a daughter named Michiru. Throughout the 1960s, Akiyoshi lived in Boston, then in New York City, where playing club gigs enabled her to further develop into a first-rate jazz pianist. She also studied and played with the Charles Mingus Workshop, co-led the Toshiko Mariano Quartet with her husband, and recorded a series of small-group solo albums.

In 1969, now divorced from Mariano, Akiyoshi married Lew Tabackin, a saxophonist and flutist. The couple moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1972, and thereafter Akiyoshi's composing and arranging skills flourished. The following year, she and Tabackin formed a "rehearsal" band as a showcase for her own work. It would soon become known as the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin. Over the next ten years, the orchestra grew in stature to become regarded as one of the best, and most innovative, groups in big-band jazz.

In the meantime, Akiyoshi was considering quitting music altogether, feeling as though she had not created a distinct identity within the jazz world. Then, when Duke Ellington, one of her idols, died in 1974, Akiyoshi was inspired to push forward. "When Duke died, I read that he was very conscious of his race," she said to Stewart, "and I thought that maybe that was my role, to portray my heritage within jazz, to utilize both. That was probably my most important discovery."

With this revelation, Akiyoshi completed and recorded one of her first pieces for a large ensemble, a work entitled Kogun in 1974. A dramatic composition, it describes, in musical terms, a Japanese army officer found living in the Burmese jungle in the 1970s, unaware that World War II had ended. Two years later, Akiyoshi and her orchestra returned with Long Yellow Road, which was named Stereo Review's Best Jazz Album of the Year. The 1975 recording Tales of a Courtesan also won praise from critics. The epic work tells the story of a young Japanese woman sold into prostitution in the seventeenth century. Akiyoshi concluded the decade with the 1978 albums Insights, Notorious Tourist from the East, and Finesse, the latter showcasing Akiyoshi's talents leading a trio.

In the early 1980s Akiyoshi continued to win acclaim for works such as the tribute Farewell to Mingus in 1980 and European Memoirs in 1984. The decade also marked Akiyoshi and Tabackin's return, in 1982, to New York City, where the couple re-formed their big band with East Coast musicians. Their move from Los Angeles back to New York was documented in a film about Akiyoshi entitled Jazz Is My Native Language.

Akiyoshi continued to record and perform in both big-band and small-group settings. The 1987 album Interlude was recorded by a trio consisting of bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Eddie Marshall. The album included Akiyoshi originals alongside the standards of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and even a classical piece. In 1990 in Japan, Akiyoshi recorded in two separate trio sessions the album Remembering Bud: Cleopatra's Dream. A tribute to one of her primary influences, Bud Powell, the set was released two years later. The Carnegie Hall Concert, also released in 1992, was recorded in 1991 and marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of Akiyoshi's arrival in America.

In late 1994 Akiyoshi and her big band returned with Desert Lady--Fantasy, the title track based on a song originally written by Tabackin. Returning to work as a soloist, Akiyoshi released Maybeck Recital Hall Series, Volume 36, part of the Concord Jazz solo-piano series, in 1995. She continues to tour all over the world with her jazz orchestra. In 1996 Akiyoshi completed her autobiography, Life with Jazz.

by Laura Hightower

Toshiko Akiyoshi's Career

Started playing classical piano, age six; returned with her family to Japan, started playing professionally in dancehalls, 1946; formed first jazz group, 1951; moved to the United States, 1956; moved to Los Angeles, 1972; formed the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, 1973; released Kogun, 1974; released Tales of a Courtesan, 1975; relocated to New York, 1982; released trio set Interlude, 1987; released Remembering Bud: Cleopatra's Dream, a tribute to Bud Powell, 1992; released with her jazz orchestra, Desert Lady--Fantasy, 1994.

Toshiko Akiyoshi's Awards

Down Beat Critics' Poll Award, Best Arranger and Best Band, 1978-79; Ellis Island Medal of Honor, 1986; Liberty Award, 1986; Down Beat Critics' Poll Award, Best Arranger, 1989.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…