Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Jazz Orchestra is one of the most innovative big bands in jazz — not just in Japanese jazz, but worldwide. Her work has received both critical praise and consistent popularity over the course of 50 years of live performances and some 40 recordings.
Haved taught herself jazz piano from records and honed her technique in the servicemen’s clubs after World War II, she was noticed by Oscar Peterson during a Japan tour and given the chance to record a debut release in 1953.
Not long after that, Akiyoshi was offered the opportunity to move to the United States and play with the musicians she had only heard on record. After a decade of hard-driving bop quartets and quintets in New York, she eventually formed her own big band, with husband and saxophone player Lew Tabackin. For three decades, this big band, going under slightly different names, helped redefine the big-band sound for a new era. At the same time, she kept up her powerful piano playing, nicely captured on 1994’s solo recording “Live at Maybeck Hall.’‘
Her orchestra, still active today, has gone through many personnel changes over the past 40 years, but has remained not only an incubator of talent, but consistently creative. Akiyoshi has also incorporate Japanese influences into her work, most recently with a jazz suite, “Hiroshima,” recorded live during a performance there at the turn of the century.
In October, Akiyoshi came to Japan to receive a Japan Foundation Award for her achievements. Over coffee at a Tokyo hotel, she took time to talk about her career and music. Chatting with the relaxed ease of someone who has spent a lifetime touring, she also at times spoke with the command of a bandleader used to directing 16 headstrong jazz players into a progressive and unified musical voice.
Did you feel the award was for carrying Japanese culture abroad or bringing jazz to Japan?
Well, as you know, jazz is a fusion of African with European culture, born in America. There was nothing Asian in there. Meanwhile, jazz became a very universal music. A long time ago when I was still in Japan, regular people, including players, thought that being Japanese was a kind of handicap if you wanted to play jazz. So after I went to the States, it took me about four years to realize that I had to have my own idiosyncrasy. Then, it took 20 years more to realize that what I should do is bring in Japanese culture.
What brought you to that realization?
Actually, Duke Ellington’s death [in 1974] opened my eyes. I realized that he was very proud of his race, and much of his music was based on his race. At that point, I had a lot of experience with American players. That was a very valuable lesson to me, but I thought I should look into my heritage, and maybe I could fuse some of my own culture. Instead of just getting something from jazz, maybe I could also return something.
The funny thing was that before I even realized it, I had already written something Japanese in 1961, “Long Yellow Road,” which later became my signature piece. Bill Evans, who really liked it, said there was something oriental about it. But it took me 20 years to realize I should try to do that.
When you first heard jazz after the war, it must have seemed very American to you.
I really didn’t feel like that. I was born in Manchuria, as it was called, where my father was a businessman. I started to play piano when I was 6 years old there. After the war, we lost everything, and had to come back to Japan. Because my parents weren’t able to buy a piano for me, I took a job in a German dance hall in Beppu City [Oita Prefecture]. I was 16 years old, but hired immediately because after the war there was a lack of musicians. The camp was there, and the military had to have an officer’s club and a show club and the Japanese wanted to dance also. That was a wonderful combo — violin, accordion, drums, alto sax and piano. I thought that was jazz.
One night, this jazz-record collector, Mr. Fukui, invited me to his home and played this record, Teddy Wilson’s “Sweet Lorraine.” When I heard that, I wanted to play just like that.
So, you heard jazz only on records?
I was so interested in everyone’s playing, and the only way to learn was to listen to records. I used to go to copy the records, in those jazz coffee shops. Those were very important places to learn new tunes.
Like jazz kissaten Chigusa?
Yes, in Yokohama, and there was another one in Yurakucho [in Tokyo] called Combo. Chigusa is still there. Now it’s a little bigger, but it used to be very small. They had many records. If I asked the owner to play that particular little bit again, he would pick the needle up and drop it there. So, on some LPs, that particular little place on the record would get worn out. That was a very important place for me.
Were there a lot of places to play at that time?
In 1959, I was playing in a group called the Six Lemons, the best combo in town, at a nightclub called Ginbasha, in Ginza. There were a lot of hostesses, beautiful hostesses, and basically everyone danced. I was one of the best-paid sidemen in Japan, but I just didn’t want to do it. So I quit, and formed my own quartet, called the Cozy Quartet. There were only the American service clubs and also a place in Yokohama called the Seamen’s Club. It was a real rough place. Once a week they would have a fight. But it was a place where my quartet and I could play. People could dance if they wanted to, or fight or whatever. But I could play whatever I wanted to play, and so that was very important.
Did you feel nervous at first when you went to America?
I really didn’t have room, or time, to see where I was. Am I doing OK or not? In those days, [the jazz world] was very open. If you knew the tune, you could sit in. You can’t do that today. Jazz wasn’t quite so much a business, or so produced as it is now. I sat in with Miles, a great quartet, but no one came to listen to it.
But you must have experienced troubles in America, too?
Yes, yes, of course. But less so, because I went to Berklee College in America, there was a lot of attention, but positive attention. There was a very strong anti-Japanese feeling, but I personally didn’t get that. When you get musical recognition, then you start to get that kind of reaction. In Japan, we have the saying about the nail sticking out getting hit first. Actually, when I had a band and became something everyone wanted to hear, then I would get a critic writing in the newspaper, “I question her authenticity.” But America has a good saying: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” If you do something new, then those things come with it. It’s an occupational hazard.
So, how did you get from those quartets and quintets to your big band?
At first, I was never interested in big bands. I was only interested in individual playing. There came a certain point where I was writing music so I could develop my own originality. It started to get difficult for me to express my political views, and — if I may expand — my philosophical views, through what I was doing. I wanted to have a little more color, and that needed more instruments. At that time, I had five pieces for a big band.
Then, in 1972, I met Lew [Tabackin] and moved with him to Los Angeles. Lew had a job with “The Tonight Show,” but Los Angeles didn’t have any jazz scene, and he got terribly bored. Lew said he could get the musicians together, so maybe we could play those five pieces I wrote. For him it was something to do.
That was 1973. We practiced every Wednesday morning. A few months later, people started talking about this, and 10 months later, since everyone had been coming, I thought maybe I would record it.
To run a big band, it’s like you have to be everyone’s personal manager all at once. How was it dealing with the musicians?
The able players never have a chip on their shoulder, but the not-so-able players become very defensive. It took time to decide if this or that player was inappropriate, and many players themselves said they couldn’t do it. I kept writing new pieces, and we got together every Wednesday morning. There was a bass trombone player, a studio musician with a beautiful sound, who had never done jazz before. It took him six hours every day, but finally, he could play the music I had written. There are some musicians who just say, “You can’t do that,” but then others find a way to play the music. That’s what separates the real musicians from the rest.
Did the big band let you express your ideas more fully?
The first album with Japanese themes was “Kogun” , when the lone soldier was discovered in the Philippine jungle. He was there for 30 years not because he wanted to, but because he was a victim of the war. Wars are usually decided by the people “upstairs,” those for whom we all have to work. I felt terribly sad for him. When I wrote that one, I thought the Japanese fans and critics would really put me down, since it was such a different concept and they are really jazz purists. But I didn’t give a damn, so I was really surprised when that became a best seller.
The second album was “Tales of a Courtesan” , which was about an Edo Period courtesan. They were the most cultured women of the time and highly educated, but at the same time they were penalized by death if they escaped from Yoshiwara. I just wanted to express my feeling in jazz language.
Tell me more about the “Hiroshima” piece. It’s such a horrifying subject, but you put beauty and hope in it.
That came about because of a Buddhist priest in Hiroshima. He was quite familiar with jazz, and knew about my piece on [the] Minamata disease [caused by an environmental disaster] and other such topics, so he thought I would be an appropriate person. At that time, I was doing something already, so I said, “I don’t know.” He sent me some material anyway.
One was a book of photographs taken three days after the [atomic] bomb had dropped. I had never seen that before. When I saw that book of photographs, it was so terrible and horrifying, I thought, I couldn’t write something about that. I couldn’t find the meaning in it.
Then I saw one photo of a woman coming out from underground, looking up and smiling just a little bit. It could have been a May calendar picture, she was so beautiful. So I thought, maybe I can write something. No matter what the circumstances, no matter how horrifying, we always have to have hope. The people in Hiroshima, and people like myself, all want to say to the world that we don’t want war. There is nothing good about war. We are going to keep talking about this and sending a message to the world to keep hopes high. The whole piece is 43 minutes long, but “Hope” is a very short section. To me, though, that’s the punch line.
Do you still play it?
When I came back to the States around 9/11, I was really shocked, and I guess everyone was. So, in New York every Monday when the band plays, we always play “Hope.” It may be corny, but it’s my way of saying, “I am concerned.”
Today, people tend to forget. War today is not like in the past. Then, we were all affected by the war. Nowadays, if you don’t think about it, it seems like everything is wonderful, and nothing is happening. I felt I wanted to do that piece on Hiroshima because I thought the world is getting worse. It’s hard to imagine how someone like Bush could get re-elected. How could this happen?
We know what will happen with someone like Bush, but at least with Kerry we might have had a chance to get a little better, and there would be some hope. With Bush, we know it will get worse. There will be more terror, more deficit and more making things up. Unfortunately, now, in America, whoever becomes president, their policies affect things all over the world.
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