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Toshiko Akiyoshi: Fine Wine

Ken Dryden By

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You can't use a piano at the beginning, you have to hear, because you're the first audience. My early compositions were vehicles for the player, then it became programmatic music that tells a story
Toshiko Akiyoshi's reputation as a brilliant composer/arranger is widely heralded. She was the first woman to lead a big band for an extended period of time, while she was also the first Japanese jazz artist to achieve international acclaim. A pianist of incredible talent, Akiyoshi's abilities were somewhat hidden within her orchestra, though she made a number of small group and solo recordings, many of them only issued in Japan. She is also very proud of her 2007 NEA Jazz Master Award.

Toshiko Akiyoshi was just 23 years old when Oscar Peterson heard her perform in a night club during a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of Japan in 1953, which provoked him to insist that Norman Granz immediately record her. Over the next 55 years, Akiyoshi recorded dozens of albums and over one hundred of her compositions, often blending her love of bop with elements of traditional Japanese music.

Born in Manchuria in 1929, her family returned to Japan in the summer of 1946. During a recent phone interview, she recalled, "I was playing dance halls. We had Stephen Foster songs in our books, but I was exposed to American popular songs like 'Sweet Sue' for the first time. I was 16 and took the job because my family could no longer afford to have a piano for me. I played in Japanese dance halls, where Americans were not allowed during the occupation. I met a Japanese record collector who invited me into his home. He played Teddy Wilson's record of 'Sweet Lorraine' and I had never heard anyone play so beautifully."

By the time she left Japan to study at Berklee (its first Japanese student), Akiyoshi was a seasoned pianist, composing for radio. "They were still teaching the Schillinger system, it was a totally different approach to music theory. Herb Pomeroy taught orchestration." The day she arrived in Boston, she was able to hear the Bud Powell Trio at Storyville. After moving to New York City, Akiyoshi noted, "I ran into him a lot. I'd be playing at the Showboat, he'd be around the corner at the Band Box. He came down to watch me play when I played a couple of months at the Hickory House. I was directly influenced by Bud then."

After leaving Berklee, she married saxophonist Charlie Mariano and co-led a quartet with him during the early '60s, though both the partnership and marriage were short-lived. But Akiyoshi knew she had to find her own style. "That's why I started writing my own music for my trio. I had no interest in big band music until I produced my concert at Town Hall in 1967, hoping people would notice and I would get more jobs. I wrote five charts for a big band. But I had to rent a studio to rehearse, as the union didn't have a rehearsal room at that time."

Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin are hardly the first musical couple to perform together, but they have an admirable track record. "I met Lew in 1967 and, in 1972, when his job required him to move to Los Angeles, which had very little jazz activity, he was bored. He said, 'I know you have music and I'll get some musicians together to play your charts.' That's how my band started in 1973. At the time the union had a rehearsal hall available for five dollars for three hours! If Lew had not said that, I probably wouldn't have had the band. Lew recruited all of the musicians and everyone in the saxophone section doubled. If it was there, I utilized it. All of them played flute, so I thought I would write for five flutes. I always wanted to use Japanese drums, I loved their sound. Lew listened to a lot of classical flute. There was one contemporary piece that was a capella, where you have to bend the note. I told Lew, "I know you can do that, because you have a French model flute. Lew's a great player. Instead of saying, 'This can't be done,' he says, 'Find a way to do it.' Lew is underrated, he made my band sound special. Count Basie had Lester Young, Duke Ellington had Ben Webster, I had Lew Tabackin." Once Akiyoshi had rehearsed the band, she was ready to showcase it. "I contacted a Japanese record producer [whose specialty was actually classical music] and we made our first record, Kogun. Then people wanted to hear the band."

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