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Yoko Miwa: New Star in an Old Sky

By Published: November 29, 2011
"The reason I wanted to study jazz is that I heard the song 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,' from a movie. I was like, 'Wow, this is beautiful.' I didn't know anything about it but I liked it. And my friend said, 'That's jazz.' Then I started to research, and I went to the CD rental place. I asked a clerk which one I should listen to. He said Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
and Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
. So I got the records and brought them home but they were too out for me. I had to turn them off." Curious that she would find jazz so demanding when she was familiar with the rigors of classical. "Jazz is completely different, the sounds and voicings. But once I listened I liked it.

"In Japan everyone wants to hear a singer, like Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
. It's very simple music. But what I was hearing now was very new to me. Minoru's playing wasn't really like that. He was really a bebop player." Minoru made even the laborious transcription process inspiring, like putting together pieces of a mosaic. And he was floored, after two weeks of effort, to hear her achievement, which he requested she perform for people throughout his school. "He wanted to show everybody. He was really surprised He freaked out. 'Play it again!...' I became one of his favorite students, and he owned a jazz club. He played weekends. He asked me to work as a waitress, so I worked Friday and Saturday night, four or five hours, and I could listen to his band. I did that for four years, and that's how I learned real jazz. Once in a while when there weren't many in the audience he would say, 'Now Yoko, why don't you come up and play?' That was great. Also he had a radio show, and he invited me to play and for an interview."

Miwa is in her element when she performs, shining brightly, everyone loving her. "I try to stay focused. For me, the most important thing in playing jazz is focus. If my mind is somewhere else when I'm playing, I can't play anything. My mind's trying to go somewhere and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, what am I going to do... Don't worry, don't worry, just play.'"

Some of her songs, "Wheel of Life" and "Silent Promise," are quite sad, even heartbreaking. "I like sad songs." But it is difficult when she's on stage, going down into these dark emotions, especially when she is tired, "always, and in the perfect way."

"When I was 23 there was an earthquake in Kobe, and Minoru's music school was destroyed. I was working at the school, teaching classical, basic jazz, and accompanying singers. But we lost all our jobs and they said, 'Do what you have to do.' I thought, 'Maybe I should study jazz, now that I have time, and I found The Koyo Conservatory of Music. In my second year, the president asked me to apply for a scholarship to Berklee. I said, 'I'm not going to America!' But I changed my mind at the last minute. The Berklee professors travel all around the world to audition for this scholarship. I wanted to see how much I could do, so I just said, 'Do it,' and I won first prize. I didn't want to miss the chance."

Miwa fell in love with her new country, though. She was playing so much jazz at Berklee that she developed a case of tendonitis. "I never had a problem with my hands when I was playing classical but when I came to Berklee, I played too much. I was too excited."

Japan still holds a complex place in her heart. "I go back once a year, when I can. I missed this year. It's getting harder and harder, especially with my new seat at Berklee. I miss my family, I miss my country, I miss everything. I wish we lived closer. I would like to be there, but it just doesn't work and I want to be here, and they know that works for me. They used to say, 'Oh when are you coming back? You told me just one year.' That was my plan. They used to give me a really hard time to be in Japan, but now they see that I am enjoying what I do, they understand more and more, and they are really supportive. They gave up, basically. I want to go home as much as possible. I have connections in Japan and they book my concerts. My dream is for more back and forth, and I can see my family more often."

In Miwa's work, the tradition is fore-grounded and her own style is set in a detailed way, though heavily, in the background, almost a reversal of the two. This is akin to Japanese art, where nature exists on a much grander scale than man. The jazz tradition, which goes back in time four centuries through slavery—she puts herself in a humble place within that, but a very strong one nonetheless. "I always respect where it comes from, so I always like to learn from the jazz tradition." Even when she dips into traditional Japanese songs with "Red Dragonfly" on her debut CD, In the Mist of Time (Tocuma, 2001), "I played it with a bluesy gospel feel rather than a traditional Japanese one."

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