The first lady of Japanese jazz comes home

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

For Japanese jazz musicians these days, going to the United States to further mastery of the genre is a much-pursued rite of passage. This route has enabled a number of acts to gain international recognition and success.

The first person to venture out on this path, though, was pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. She was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame in 1999 and is a recipient of the NEA Jazz Master Award in 2007 (in both cases, the first — and so far only — Japanese artist to receive the honors). She has also racked up 14 Grammy Award nominations and is in many ways the first lady of Japanese jazz.

The 83-year-old was born in Manchuria to Japanese emigrants, who later relocated to Beppu, Oita Prefecture, after the war.

While her early years were an adventure in unto themselves, her musical journey began back in the early 1950s. Talking to the Japan Times by telephone from her home in New York, Akiyoshi takes up the story.

“In 1952, Oscar Peterson came to Japan to tour and while he was here he saw me playing in a club, and he told producer Norman Granz that he should come and record me.”

Granz, the music impresario behind the Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts and founder of the legendary Verve label, was convinced and came to Japan to record what would become the album “Toshiko’s Piano.”

Feeling that she wanted to improve her technique, Akiyoshi decided the best way to learn more about jazz was to go and study in America, the birthplace of the genre, but this was no easy task.

“You know it was a very different world back then,” she explains. “There was still a prejudice against Asian people in those times and only a handful of visas (to the U.S.) were granted each year. Also the idea that a Japanese female could play jazz was unthinkable to many people back then. It took a lot of effort, but I managed to get a scholarship to study at Berklee, though the key to all of that was that session with Norman Granz.”

Nowadays, Boston’s Berklee College of Music is one of the largest independent music colleges in the world, with a significant number of Japanese students enrolled, However, in the early ’50s it was a small school with only around 300 students, so Akiyoshi’s arrival made her something of a celebrity.

After graduating from Berklee, Akiyoshi went to New York, though this hadn’t been her original plan.

“Initially, I felt it was my responsibility to return to Japan to pass on what I’d learned,” she says. “But by the time I graduated I felt I hadn’t made as much progress with my technique as I’d originally hoped, so I went to New York — and New York is the world’s biggest jazz school, the best place to be for a musician. But when I arrived, I was just another jazz player, like all the others (except the odd superstar like Miles). I learned a lot, but it was tough, and I was barely paying the rent.”

Leading various trios and quartets throughout the ’60s, the arrival of a new decade saw a dramatic shift in Akiyoshi’s style as she formed a big band together with her husband, saxophonist Lew Tabackin.

“You know, jazz is essentially all about taking a song, either your own or someone else’s, and then improvising on it,” Akiyoshi says. “But by the late ’60s I was no longer getting satisfaction from what I was doing. This was an age of huge social change in the States, with the civil-rights movement breaking down a lot of the barriers that had been in place, and black jazz musicians turning to more African influences in their music.

“I felt it was my job to try to infuse some elements of my own heritage into what I was playing. I also wanted to write music that reflected my own views and my own concerns with what was happening in the world. To use the analogy of a painter, I felt I needed a little more color on my palette to express my thoughts.”

Akiyoshi moved to Los Angeles with her husband in 1972. Unlike New York, LA was not a hotbed of jazz activity, which was initially frustrating for both of them. Gradually, however, the pair began to form a vision of what they wanted to do.

“I wasn’t really that interested in big bands — and I’m still not, to be honest — but I began to realize that having more musicians would give me that extra color,” Akiyoshi says. “Lew assembled the musicians, and with LA essentially being a city for studio musicians, these musicians have to very flexible in order to get work. So a sax player would also play the flute or the clarinet.

“This inspired me to write pieces for five flutes, or have a reed section that would include flute, clarinet and bass clarinet as well as saxes. This wasn’t because this was initially what I had planned to write, but simply because I had these resources at my disposal, so I decided to use them. This was unlike anything else around at the time, and is still very rare today, and these arrangements soon became my trademark.”

Moving back to New York in 1982, Akiyoshi and her husband left behind the big band and formed the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Jazz Orchestra, going on to play as a unit for two decades.

In the 30 years that Akiyoshi led a big band format, she used this larger canvas to portray some of her views and concerns, notably “Kogun” (about a Japanese soldier lost in the Philippine jungle for 30 years thinking that the war was still being fought), “Minamata” (about the 1950s environmental disaster in the small fishing village of the same name in Kumamoto Prefecture) and “Hiroshima: Rising From The Abyss.”

“I wanted to be able to express my views in some way,” she says. “I had a story to tell and expressed this through the idiom of jazz.”

In 2003, however, Akiyoshi decided to disband her orchestra.

“Basically, jazz musicians are happiest when they’re playing solos, and for that reason the big band will always be the second choice for most jazz players,” she says. “Big band arrangements leave less room for solos, and because I wanted to give solos to other players in the orchestra, my own solo slots were getting fewer and fewer. I began to miss playing the piano, and I decided it was time to get back to that.”

Akiyoshi has spent the last 10 years either playing solo or in trios with concerts in Japan, Europe and other parts of the world. Now, however, she and her husband are about to bring their jazz orchestra back to Japan for a series of reunion concerts.

Blue Note Japan celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and to celebrate the milestone, the Tokyo club invited the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Jazz Orchestra to play.

“I feel very honored to be invited to perform,” says Akiyoshi. “All of the musicians are looking forward to playing together again after all this time.

“While jazz never has been (and never will be) mainstream music, there are enough fans around the world to keep the music alive. I just know that the audience for these shows will be full of jazz nuts. I’ve been carefully selecting what to include on our set lists and hope that we can put on something memorable.”

The Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin plays Blue Note Tokyo in Minato-ku from April 28 till May 2 (except April 30). There will be two shows a day starting at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets cost ¥9,000. For more information, call (03) 5485-0088 or visit www.bluenote.co.jp.