Born on March 26, 1940, in Philadelphia, PA; married Toshiko Akiyoshi (a pianist). Education: Graduated from the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, 1962. Addresses: Website--Lew Tabackin Official Website: http://www.lewtabackin.com. E-mail--Ltabackin@aol.com.
Lew Tabackin was first exposed to jazz as a child, when his mother took him to movies at Philadelphia's Earl Theater. In addition to films, each day's feature also included a live stage show. "The stage shows usually involved a band, and I can still remember seeing bands like Cab Calloway and Lionel Hampton," Tabackin recalled to Martin Richards in Jazz Journal International.
Tabackin's interest in the musical form was piqued, and when he entered middle school he joined the school band hoping to play the clarinet. When the clarinet wasn't available, he was switched to the flute. "Not too many people wanted a flute," he explained to Richards. "It wasn't exactly a macho thing, and where I grew up in south Philadelphia guys didn't play the flute. Nobody even knew what it was! Anyway, I was stuck with this instrument, but it was something to do so I started playing."
Tabackin learned to play the tenor saxophone at 15 when Frankie Avalon, a fellow Philadelphian, needed one for his band. Too young to enter the clubs they played, Tabackin scored fake identification to get in. After high school, he attended the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, where he returned to the flute--the school didn't teach saxophone. He also began to study with composer Vincent Persichetti during this time.
After graduating from the conservatory in 1962, Tabackin was drafted into the army--and even while serving in South Carolina and New Jersey he found time to jam with fellow musicians. Upon his discharge in 1964, Tabackin headed straight for New York. "That's when my real musical life began," he told Richards. "I went to New York with $400 and found a place to stay and I figured that the only way I would be able to do anything was to force myself to go places and sit in." Soon he began playing with Elvin Jones, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band and others, often substituting for saxophonist Joe Farrell when Farrell couldn't make a gig.
In 1965 or 1966 Tabackin joined Cab Calloway's band and, from there, began playing with trumpet players Maynard Ferguson and Clark Terry. In 1967 composer and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi invited him to join her for a concert at New York's Town Hall. Contrary to popular legend, Tabackin declined the gig to tour with the Alan Mills Band. Afterward he and Akiyoshi reunited and began collaborating; he also joined saxophonist Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show band. In 1969 Tabackin and Akiyoshi married; the following year they went to Los Angeles.
The move came at an opportune time, since the social and political factors of the time, Tabackin told Fred Jung of the All About Jazz website, made work for white jazz musicians hard to find. "New York was very strange because there was almost like a black revolution happening. Martin Luther King was assassinated ... [as was] Malcolm X and it was very difficult for white jazz musicians. It was really tough and I respected it and I understood it and I didn't have any bitterness, but I remember Duke Pearson was trying to get me a contract with Blue Note and they weren't interested in white musicians. It was rough."
Tabackin stayed with Severinsen's band for only a short while before jumping to the Dick Cavett Show. In 1970-71 he and Akiyoshi toured her home country of Japan. In 1973 Tabackin, Akiyoski, and other Los Angeles musicians began to rehearse Akiyoshi's compositions, with Tabackin on both flute and saxophone. The ensemble rented the Wilshire Ebell Theater for their first concert later that year, where they were joined by drummer Shelly Manne. The group then recorded Kogun as the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band. The album was released by BMG in Japan, where its fusion of eastern and western sounds became a major hit, selling 30,000 copies. Their album Long Yellow Road was released domestically the same year. The Big Band drew its first major attention in the United States when it was invited to play at the 1975 Monterey Jazz Festival.
The Big Band remained active throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and Tabackin also pursued solo and small group projects with both Manne and Billy Higgins. His first solo album, Tabackin, was released on RCA in 1974 and featured Akiyoshi and pianist Roland Hanna. Dual Nature, released on the smaller Inner City label the following year, emphasized Tabackin's split musical personality. His mystically tinged, eastern-influenced flute playing spans one side of the album, while his hard bop tenor sax fills the other. While the early albums are difficult to track down, later releases from Tabackin's longstanding relationship with the Concord Jazz label are more readily available. This fruitful partnership began with 1989's Desert Lady, which features pianist Hank Jones, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Victor Lewis.
Tabackin and Akiyoski returned to New York in the early 1980s, seeking creative reinvigoration and additional performing opportunities. Tabackin told the All About Jazz website that his time in Los Angeles had been crucial to his musical development, however. "[W]hen I was in New York, I was involved in everyone else's projects. I played in so many bands at the same time, but I never focused on my own thing. In Los Angeles, I felt that I had to make an attempt to create my own little world, which I did.... There were some wonderful things that happened and it forced me to find out who I was because I had to create my own identity, so the ten years we spent in L.A. were quite important. But I felt like I had to get back to a certain energy that I missed in New York."
Tabackin primarily pursued independent projects in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, although the Big Band became more active around its thirtieth anniversary in 2003. In addition to major retrospectives at the Detroit Symphony's Orchestra Hall, Chicago's Jazz Showcase, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall, the ensemble released two CDs on BMG: Tanuki's Night Out and Tales of a Courtesan. Tabackin has also focused on his international jazz trio, featuring Russian bassist Boris Kozlov and British drummer Mark Taylor. Even after four decades, Tabackin makes it clear his sound is still evolving--and that his sense of humor is intact. "I am trying to find ways to be more expressive and reach a larger audience without doing anything stupid," he told Jung. "I am trying to develop little projects and trying to keep my music as pure as possible."
by Kristin Palm
Lew Tabackin's Career
Moved to New York City, 1965; joined Cab Calloway's band, then played with Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Joe Henderson, and Elvin Jones; main soloist with Danish Radio Orchestra, 1968-69; joined Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show orchestra, moved to The Dick Cavett Show, 1969-70; toured Japan with Toshiko Akiyoshi, 1970-71; formed Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band, 1973; principal soloist with Big Band, 1973-; released Kogun with the Big Band in Japan, 1974; performed at Monterey Jazz Festival, 1975; recorded as soloist/bandleader for Inner City, 1974-77; Ascent, 1979; and Concord, 1989-.
- Selected discography
- Tabackin RCA, 1974.
- Dual Nature Inner City, 1976.
- Tenor Gladness Inner City, 1976.
- Trackin' RCA 1976
- (With Toshiko Akiyoshi Orchestra) Road Time RCA, 1976.
- Rites of Pan Inner City, 1977.
- Black and Tan Fantasy Ascent, 1979.
- Desert Lady Concord Jazz, 1989.
- I'll Be Seeing You Concord Jazz, 1992.
- What a Little Moonlight Can Do Concord Jazz, 1994.
- Tenority Concord Jazz, 1996.
- In a Sentimental Mood Camerata, 1998.
- My Old Flame Atlas, 1999.
- Pyramid Koch, 1999.
- With Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band
- Kogun RCA, 1974.
- Long Yellow Road BMG, 1974.
- Insights BMG, 1976.
- March of the Tadpoles BMG, 1977.
- Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band Live RCA, 1977.
- Tales of a Courtesan BMG, 2003.
- Tanuki's Night Out BMG, 2003.
- Down Beat, June 3, 1976.
- Jazz Journal International, January 1989; February 1989.
- "A Fireside Chat with Lew Tabackin," All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com (February 1, 2004).
- "Lew Tabackin," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 1, 2004).
- "Lew Tabackin," Grove Dictionary of Music, http://www.grovemusic.com (February 1, 2004).
- Lew Tabackin Official Website, http://www.lewtabackin.com (January 30, 2004).