Recognized in her native Japan as a jazz prodigy (in the 5th grade she was already transcribing Bud Powell solos), Ayako Shirasaki while yet a pre-teen won many prizes including the Grand Prize at the Asakusa Jazz Competition. Her professional career began at the tender age of twelve when she began regular appearances at the "J" jazz club in Tokyo. Her extraordinary talent was soon recognized, and she was featured in Swing Journal.
Extremely versatile, Ayako majored in classical music at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and performed as a classical pianist for several years after graduation. But the love of the jazz idiom instilled by her father from the age of five won out, and Ayako soon returned to her first love, winning in 1995 second prize in the prestigious First Annual Heineken Jazz Competition.