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A Fireside Chat With Toshiko Akiyoshi

AAJ Staff By

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It takes quite a lot for musicians to try and stay with one organization, so we developed a lot of subs. I call it the bench.
The marriage of composition and arrangement is not an easy one in modern music. Dedication to history coupled with invention of tomorrow makes the task even more daunting. Toshiko Akiyoshi has been doing just that for the past thirty years with her big band. What is impressive is not the time, but the quality of her efforts. Hope from tragedy, hope from destruction, hope from loss, and hope for tomorrow are themes not easily translated to music. Akiyoshi's latest project should be celebrated because it does justice to hope, something this world seems desperately without. Hope is all we have and I cling to it daily. Folks, Toshiko Akiyoshi, a composer/arranger of our time, unedited and in her own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

TOSHIKO AKIYOSHI: Well, I started playing piano when I was seven years old and I fell in love with the instrument. As far as jazz is concerned, after World War II, my parents lost every asset, so I could not have a piano. I was born, my father had a business is old Manchuria, today it's China. When we came back to Japan, they could not provide me with a piano. I wanted to play piano so I got a job in Beppu City, at a dance hall and shortly after that, there was a Japanese jazz record collector, he played for me one of Teddy Wilson's records. As a matter of fact, he gave it to me several years ago. I have it here. Anyway, when I heard Teddy Wilson, which was about 1947, I just wanted to play like that. That was the beginning and one thing led to another and here I am.

FJ: Without the benefit of a piano at home, it must have made the learning curve all the more difficult.

TA: At that point, I had been playing piano for ten years classically. I got the job there and basically, I was just playing with this horrible band. I thought that was jazz. I really didn't care for the music. I just had access to the piano.

FJ: When did you depart Japan for the States?

TA: In 1956, January, at that point, 1953, I was recorded by Norman Granz at the recommendation of Oscar Peterson. I was the first Japanese player who was recorded by a major label in America. Basically, on the strength of that record, the Berklee School, in those days, a very small school, gave me a scholarship and that is how I came. It was about 340 students or so. It was a small, converted townhouse and everyone knew each other. The teacher and students called each other by the first name. It was nothing like today. I was looking forward to coming to the United States because I was a very big frog in a very little pond in Japan. I knew that I had to come to the States to get better at all as a jazz player.

FJ: Let's touch on the Town Hall concert.

TA: Oh, that was 1967. In 1966, I was just barely paying rent and I was really struggling. I thought on what I had done in the past ten years and I didn't really feel that I accomplished anything, so I thought that I would have a concert. It took me a year to prepare for that. Finally, I got a concert at the Town Hall in 1967, September. It took me a year to prepare. Ironically, that particular day, the mayor at that time in New York, he declared that day 'jazz day.' It was just a coincidence and because of that, there was a free concert at Central Park and there was a black tie only jazz concert at Lincoln Center. So here I am at Town Hall struggling. Charles Mingus came to my concert and I thought that was very, very nice of him.

FJ: Lew Tabackin [see interview ] told me that he ditched your Town Hall date to play out of town.

TA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, right. It was a self-produced concert and I was looking for a tenor player. Every weekend, Clark Terry's band was playing and the regular pianist was Don Friedman. The manager at that time called me and said that Don could not make it and if I would sub for him. So I sat it and that is when I discovered Lew and I said that that was the guy that I want. He said, 'Yes,' and then he got a job with Thad and Mel doing a couple weeks on the West Coast and so he cancelled me. For him, like any New York musician, they have to make a living. It is the same today. If you have a two week job instead of one, you take the two week job. That is the way it goes (laughing).

FJ: What was the impetus for the big band? Prior to that you were mostly performing with small combos.

TA: Yes, I had always been trio or quartet. I always considered myself a pianist. I never considered myself a writer. As I said, in '66, I decided that perhaps I would have a concept and perhaps somebody would notice because like I said before, I was just paying rent and no one really paid too much attention to me. I had a solo, trio, and then it was a big band. I had written five tunes for that. When we rehearsed the first night, we rehearsed from twelve to three in the morning and that was the first rehearsal that I felt comfortable. During that time, I was getting anxious about the fact that I really wanted to express some kind of attitude and not just improvise over the tune. I think everything comes at a certain time. As I said, I never was interested in writing for the big band, but I thought I would do that and when I did the first rehearsal, I felt comfortable doing this. I felt like I could express my view on not only musical view, but perhaps, my attitude towards life. Once you start it, you have to keep it, but in those days, I didn't have the money to do that. It was something that I couldn't afford and so that was that. It ended as a dream. Then when we moved to Los Angeles, Lew was bored with the whole scene because he was making a comfortable income, but not much jazz scene in Los Angeles. He said, 'I will get the musicians together. Maybe we will play your music,' just for something to do and that is the way it started in 1973, March, I believe.

FJ: Did you see a difference in the attitude of a Los Angeles musician versus that of a New York one?

TA: Definitely, definitely, because New York is a dog eat dog place. That is the way it was in when I was in New York. When I moved to New York from Boston, I knew some people from before, even from Japan. For example, musicians that were drafted and were stationed in Japan, I met them and learned some tunes. They were nice musicians and some of them moved to New York and their attitude changed. New York is that kind of place. Some people do change and some people don't, but you have to be so aggressive. It has always been like this here, but one of the things with Los Angeles musicians was they didn't know what they were getting into. I didn't have any track record of writing big band music. Some musicians knew I was a player. They knew and respected me being a player, but they never knew what I write. So in the very beginning, I think there was a lot of confusion and so it took six months to settle down to 'regular' musicians. They were the ones that gave me all the cooperation because they didn't know what they were getting into. Most of them were studio players, so I utilized that. The first band, I have tremendous affection for because they gave me cooperation and they gave me affection and they still call me. I have a terrible affection, respect, and warm feeling. When I came to New York, there was ten years of track record. Five records were out and every one of them were Grammy nominated, so when I came to New York, there was word that we were going to start the band and young musicians wanted to participate and come into the band. They knew what they were getting into and so there is a tremendous difference, I think.

FJ: Ironically, you have documented a wealth of music on record, but this country is odd in that it record companies stateside do not keep catalogs complete, but opt to keep them current, deleting the majority of works from artists.

TA: Yeah, I know. Exactly, I think the most difficult part is that it affects my orchestra's work. When you go to the Midwest a couple of years ago for example, they said, 'Oh, you still have a band.' There is a lack of information because we have no CD. We haven't had a CD since Sony/Columbia in '94. Since then, we have three recordings for BMG Japan, but BMG America never picked them up. Lew always said that I am demographically challenged (laughing). Naturally, I would like to have them out because it takes a long time for me to write music and I think they are very well played. It is a reality that if it is not there, the main pain that I receive is that we do not get jobs because of that. I, myself, am busy. I can always play standards and sit down at the piano and make money. It is very, very difficult. The latest one came out here and was recorded in Japan two years ago. BMG Japan felt very, very badly that they did not have enough power to have BMG America put those in here and so a producer told me that if I could find someone to put it out here then go ahead and so that is what I did. And so it came out here, as you know, last month. It may not be a big company, but at least it is out. Business world of a record company is just like a film company today. They decide whether they are going to be out or not, not by music department, but by marketing department. The main thing for me is it affects our job. This year, we have out thirtieth anniversary and so this year there are some things. Last year, we didn't have anything. I looked at the books in January. I, myself, was busy doing this and that and I didn't realize that the band did not have any job outside of Birdland, except one job in Japan. That was it. It takes quite a lot for musicians to try and stay with one organization, so we developed a lot of subs. I call it the bench (laughing).

FJ: Hiroshima comes at a time where its message is as poignant as ever.

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