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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.

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