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Migiwa Miyajima: The Colorful Journey Into Jazz

Migiwa Miyajima: The Colorful Journey Into Jazz

Courtesy Hayato Sakurai


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I knew that even really successful, famous, or well-known people are human beings, and if we try hard, we can do something big.
—Migiwa Miyajima
Migiwa "Miggy" Miyajima is a Japanese, New York-based composer, producer, and pianist. As a producer, she has received multiple Grammy nominations. Her list of awards includes the 2021 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) Creative Engagement grant and Restart NY grant, 2020 New York City's NYC Women's Fund For Media, Music, and Theatre grant, 2020-2021 Asian American Arts Alliance's Artist In Residence, 2019 Jerome Foundation's Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship, 2012-2013 Japan-US Friendship Commission, and Japanese Government Overseas Program for Artists. All of these awards are proof of an already highly successful career. Yet Miyajima's path to becoming a professional musician was not straightforward, to say the least.

Miyajima started playing classical piano at the age of three. At the age of fifteen, she won a Japanese nation-wide competition for composition. That award could have lead her into a music career there and then, but she wanted to learn more about society. In Japan, the college system did not allow her to get a double major. Therefore, she quit playing the piano and went to the Sophia University in Tokyo, to major in Education.

Early Encounters with Jazz

The place Miyajima grew up in had little to do with jazz. Her hometown was not far from Tokyo, yet it was far culturally speaking. No one knew much about jazz there. The only time she got a chance to have a brief encounter with jazz was through listening to Quincy Jones' album Back on the Block (Qwest, 1989) when she was a teenager. It was not a jazz album, but in the track "Jazz Corner of the World," Jones inserted solos by jazz giants: James Moody, Miles Davis, George Benson, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Joe Zawinul.

"I liked the whole album, but I especially liked that piece that he [Jones] kind of puzzled jazz improvisations... That was the first time I listened to jazz. But then jazz came back to me when I was nineteen."

When Miyajima was nineteen, her best friend insisted that she should get back to music. Her friend found a school big band that was looking for freshmen and recommended Miyajima to them. That was the beginning of her deep immersion into jazz. She started listening to Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Little by little, she learned to improvise, as well.

"I fell in love with it. That was when I was nineteen, and I became a member of the school big band. Then my journey as a jazz lover started at the moment. Later, I started writing my music."

Basie's style affected Miyajima as a pianist, especially in the early stages of her becoming a jazz musician. She enjoyed listening to Basie and admired how different his playing was from the classical pianists that she had grown up with. It was a surprise for her to discover that the piano can sound so much more percussive in jazz compared to classical.

"I listened to and transcribed Count Basie so many times while I was in the school band. It was so fun. It was a completely new style for me."

Another pianist who inspired Miyajima's playing and informed her harmonic language was Bill Evans. She fell in love with his harmonies.

"I think I listened to him when I was really young. I was still in my teens, I guess. That was a totally new experience for me. I just saw so many colors when I listened to him."

Quitting a Traditional Route

After graduating from university, Miyajima continued a more traditional path and worked in advertising and IT for several years. She became an editor-in-chief of a popular travel magazine in Japan. It seemed to be a promising career, but her passion for music was too great a pull. At the age of thirty, she decided to quit her job and become a full-time musician. That path was what her heart truly wanted and she embraced it, despite having no degree in music. Throughout her life, she saw many examples of how one's hard work eventually pays off. One example was Ayako Miura (1922-1999), a famous Japanese novelist. Miyajima's mother was Miura's secretary. So, from early childhood, Miyajima knew this famous person as a human being who worked hard to build her writer's career.

"I knew that even really successful, famous, or well-known people are human beings, and if we try hard, we can do something big... When I talked to Jim McNeely, I knew that he is amazing, like a god of composition, but he is still a human. That affected me so much. That became my motivation to try harder."

In February 2008, after already being a professional musician for four or five years, Miyajima came to New York. Her friend recommended her to visit New York for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra anniversary week. During that week, the VJO performed every day. By that time, Miyajima had her own band in Japan and had already written about thirty compositions, but she had no teachers and learned jazz composition by herself. She used the trip to New York and in particular the VJO concerts to learn more about jazz composition. Being a huge fan of the VJO from her time in the school jazz band, Miyajima attended every day of the anniversary week concerts. She always took a front seat, right in front of the saxophone section, listened to voicings, and made notes about every concert. It was a dream coming true for her and such an emotional experience.

"I was really happy, and I could not stop crying... These people, [in] their fifties at the moment, looked like they were going to die right after it. They looked like they were playing to the maximum, like that was the last thing that they had in life. I was so moved by them, and crying, and taking notes."

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

At one point in the VJO anniversary week, the world-famous baritone saxophonist, Gary Smulyan, approached Miyajima and asked if she was a professional musician, as she was taking notes all time during the concert. At that time, she barely spoke English, and mostly she could only say "yes" or "no." Smulyan kept asking her questions, and soon almost half of the band joined their talk.

"That is how we met each other. I went to every concert, and the members found me every day. They were so kind. They sometimes took me to the green room, and we still had like yes-or-no conversations."

Soon, Miyajima found out that VJO functioned as a nonprofit educational institute. Their mission statement—to communicate with kids and to teach about humanity through jazz—resonated with her deeply. She made a promise to bring VJO to Japan so that Japanese people can learn about jazz.

"I truly loved their concept, and I thought that they are the people that I need to take to Japan. Then, I finished that trip, and went back to Japan. In total I visited around one hundred people to talk about how I could actually bring this band to Japan, to change the educational situation in Japan."

Bringing a band like VJO to Japan would require a lot of money. Most people discouraged Miyajima. Some said that she should focus on promoting her music instead. After almost a hundred people said "no" to her, she talked to the Blue Note Tokyo. She used all of her knowledge and experience in marketing to convince them. They finally said "yes."

During the first tour to Japan in 2009, VJO had eight sets. The shows were completely sold out. Blue Note managers even had to take the chairs from the green room to accommodate all the audience. For many, those VJO performance were among the best shows in the recent history of Blue Note Tokyo.

"After that, the next year we moved to a different venue called Billboard Live Tokyo and Osaka. That was really successful, too. Around 1400 people from teens to people in their sixties-seventies could study about big band ensemble with VJO in person and 16,000 people could experience its sound in person. After the tour's success, the promoters started hiring more big bands from the US and other countries since they learned it can be a good business. Now we can enjoy more big band concerts in Japan, and people do not know how it started ... Well, there are always hidden secrets in history and it is one of those. VJO was happy about how the Japanese audience reacted to their performance."

VJO wanted to record its performance in Japan in 2010 and release it later. Miyajima singlehandedly worked hard to make that recording happen in Japan and to record as many sets as possible. The next year, in 2011, the Japan was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami, so VJO wanted to encourage the Japanese people with the live album release. Miyajima and Douglas Purviance, one of the leaders of VJO, rushed to mix the recording, and three months after the earthquake, Forever Lasting—Live in Tokyo (Planet Arts Records, 2011) was released as a thank you message back to Japan.

Miyajima worked hard on her English and brought it to a higher level, which allowed her to communicate and work with VJO on a much deeper level than their first yes-or-no conversations. After the first recording in Tokyo, VJO discovered her abilities as a producer and they entrusted her with the production of another album, OverTime—Music of Bob Brookmeyer (Planet Arts Records, 2014). Both albums brought her, as an associate producer, Grammy nominations. Her work with VJO continued through 2017, and she organized eight Japanese tours with concerts and workshops.

BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop

Working with Vanguard Jazz Orchestra opened many doors for Miyajima. After her first Grammy nomination, she received the Japan-US Friendship Commission and Japanese Government Overseas Program for Artists awards (2012-2013). These awards allowed her to study jazz composition and arrangement with Jim McNeely and jazz ensemble with the VJO. From 2012 to 2015, she also participated in the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop in New York.

"I got lucky. You can be there for three years for the BMI workshop, and that was the last three years for Jim McNeely and Mike Holober. And when they graduated, I graduated."

While being honored to receive the financial support from the Japanese government that allowed Miyajima to live and study in New York, she blamed herself for taking that money. She was in Tokyo when the shattering earthquake of 2011 happened, so she experienced the horror of it firsthand. She knew that many Japanese people at that moment needed money to recover from the natural disaster.

"If they [the Japanese government] gave that chunk of money to someone, probably like one family could survive. Because I got that money for me to live in New York and to study with Jim [McNeely], and all the money included. I was so blaming myself, but that was the first year for me in New York, so that changed my life. So, I still appreciate that the government gave me that money to me."

The more Miyajima worked with VJO and studied jazz composition, the more influences her music got from VJO composers. The three major influences for her were Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, and Jim McNeely. These influences became a part of her composer's language.

"What's the main diet for you? For me, it is rice. Eating rice is really in my body and heart, and everywhere, so when I eat rice, I am totally feeling I am at home. The same thing happens when I listen to Jim [McNeely], Bob [Brookmeyer], and Thad [Jones]—this is my music, this is my DNA."

After finishing BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop, Miyajima worked with VJO for a couple of more years. She never asked them to play some of her music, although everyone knew her as a big-band composer. During one of VJO's tours in Japan, a Japanese person came to thank her for bringing VJO there. Seeing a live concert of VJO was his dream come true. Then he pointed out that she did so much work for VJO, but she should focus on her music and record her album. He gave her some money to support the first album, and that is how the story of Colorful (ArtistShare, 2018) began.


The piece "Colorful" (which later gave the name to the whole album) was written in 2017. Miyajima wrote it with an ideal society in mind where everyone is different and enjoys who they are without the oppression of other people. There is a spot in the piece when all members of the band have a two-bar solo, which gives everyone a moment to shine with their own "color."

Colorful was possible with the support of many fans on ArtistShare, a crowdfunding platform that also operates as a record label. As Miyajima says in the description of the project, "Colorful is a state of mind. Colorful is the life you live. Colorful is inspiring others to fearlessly pursue their passions. Colorful is my mission." This album reflects many aspects of her life, such as the Japanese earthquake, her move to New York, and the experience of her mother battling cancer.

"Sometimes you have bad things, sometimes you have good things, but everything, in the end, will just shape you and make you who you are. Good things are good things, but sometimes bad things can form you in a very unique way, and it is okay to be like that. It just happened in your life—and that is that. That is what I wanted to say. Everyone's life should be colorful and different. We do not need to be in one color."

The last piece of the project, "An Ending: I Love You" stands out from the rest of the pieces on the album as the only one that features a singer, Tomoko Nagashima. Miyajima wrote this piece as she was thinking about the last words she would want to say in this world. It resulted in a beautiful and peaceful piece with only three words: "I love you."

"It is interesting to try that, to take time and think about what would be the last words you could say. I thought it would be 'Thank you' or 'I love you.' I just wanted to say 'I love you' to everyone. 'Thank you' is not enough for me."

The piece "Captain Miggy's Age of Discovery" tells a story about the rough first year of living in New York that Miyajima experienced. Instead of crying over the rough year, she wanted to embrace it by writing a piece about it. The trumpets playing high notes to imitate the sound of a big ship that starts the journey in the ocean. It is followed by an accelerando section, as a ship speeding up and going full steam ahead. In a broader sense, this represents Miyajima's bright journey into jazz.

Leadership and Mentorship

Miyajima is open to talking to people of different ages. Her friends are from teenagers to some in their seventies. She constantly keeps learning but also feels a need to give back to society. Finding a balance between the time spent for herself and giving to others is what makes her happy.

"Every age range has its own mission. When you are young, your mission is to go out, see more things, educate yourself, and make yourself be yourself. That is your mission when you are young. Then, when you become thirty, forty, fifty, you eventually return things to the society, little by little."

Miyajima offers a "pay when you can" system for emerging musicians. If they do not have money to buy her score, she is willing to give it to them for free and asks to pay when they can. That system does not have any restrictions or limits. That is her way to return to society.

Since 2019, Miyajima has become a committee member of the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers (ISJAC). Initially, Remy Le Boeuf, a saxophonist and big-band leader, recommended her join this organization. From the first ISJAC symposium she attended, she was impressed by the organization and offered her services to them.

"I was just amazed because when I was in Japan, I could only see two professional jazz composers in my whole life. Then, when you go to ISJAC, you see like three hundred jazz composers, right? This is big!"

Miyajima regularly participates in ISJAC committee meetings. She wants this community to keep growing and to let more people know about it and join it. That is also her way to serve the jazz community.

Jazz and Beyond

Although much of her "composer's DNA" is jazz, Miyajima does not lock herself within a certain music idiom. She successfully collaborates with classical musicians. During the pandemic in 2020, she started exploring various instrumentation because it was not possible to get a performance of a large ensemble during that time.

"I got some requests to write a new piece, so I decided to try solo piano. I was writing the solo piano pieces before it, but I was not really active in that. Then, during the pandemic, I needed to try something new. I wrote many duo things, with alto sax and me. I also wrote a string quartet and a saxophone quartet."

Her string quartet Reconciliation Suite was written for Ethel, a New York-based ensemble, as a part of their "HomeBaked" commission series. These series are funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. The pieces by winners of this commission are to be included in Ethel's touring program.

"I wrote a short suite, like a 12-minute suite for this string quartet. They are super open-minded. They are classically trained, amazing classical musicians, but they are open to jazz, too. One or two players even sing or play ad lib in jazz style."

For the "Samurai Jazz Project" founded with Kyo Kasumi in 2019, Miyajima wrote her Shu Ha Ri Suite. This project is a collaboration between tate (the art of Japanese sword fighting) and a jazz big band. The purpose of the "Samurai Jazz Project" is to empower people facing unprecedented events and hurdles through observing the collaboration of these two otherwise distant art forms that find a way to blend together in this project.

With The Unbreakable Hope and Resilience (ArtistShare, 2021), Miyajima fulfills her mission of giving back to society. In this project, she interviewed fifteen survivors of the Japanese earthquake of 2011. After interviewing them, she wrote original music based on their personal experiences, including her experience as a survivor. In her video on the project, Miyajima says that everyone was focused on the positive moments when they told the stories of their survival, and that inspired her to share that message of hope and resilience in the book Your Future Story, in addition to the music she wrote. While many people like to classify everything by categories, Miyajima sees the future of jazz as going beyond any borders and creating music across genres and styles. As with her album Colorful, she embraces different influences in her music and lets them shine in all the projects she creates.

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