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Toshiko Akiyoshi

From Academic Kids

Toshiko Akiyoshi (穐吉 敏子, born December 12, 1929) is a jazz pianist and a composer/arranger. She was among the first successful female instrumentalists in jazz. She is recognized as a major figure in jazz composition, and her music is studied at several universities. She has received 14 Grammy nominations, and she was the first woman to win the Best Arranger and Composer awards in the Down Beat Readers Poll. In 1984, she was the subject of a documentary film titled Toshiko Akiyoshi: Jazz Is My Native Language. In 1996, she published her autobiography, Life With Jazz, which is currently in its third Japanese printing.

Toshiko was born in Darien, Manchuria to Japanese emigrants. She was the youngest of four sisters. In 1945, after World War II, the territory was overrun by Communist soldiers. Toshiko's family lost their home and returned to Japan, settling in Beppu.

Toshiko began to study piano at age seven. When she was 16, she took a job playing with a band in a local club. Beppu was crowded with US soldiers, and musicians were in high demand to provide entertainment. Toshiko had planned to attend medical school, but she loved playing piano; and since she was earning good money, her family didn't object to her pursuing music.

A local record collector introduced Toshiko to jazz by playing a record of Teddy Wilson playing "Sweet Lorraine." Toshiko immediately loved the sound, and began to study jazz. In 1952, during a tour of Japan, pianist Oscar Peterson discovered Toshiko playing in a club on the Ginza. Peterson was impressed, and convinced producer Norman Granz to record Toshiko. In 1953, under Granz's direction, Toshiko recorded her first album with Peterson's rhythm section: Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and J.C. Heard on drums. The album was titled Toshiko's Piano, and has since been reissued on CD.

In 1955, Toshiko wrote a letter to Lawrence Berk asking him to give her a chance to study at his school, Berklee College of Music. After a year of wrangling with the State Department and Japanese officials, Berk secured permission for Toshiko to study in Boston. He offered her a full scholarship, and he mailed her a plane ticket to Boston. In January 1956, Toshiko enrolled to become the first Japanese student at Berklee. (As of 2000, roughly 10% of Berklee's student body was comprised of Japanese students.) While in Boston, Toshiko studied with legendary jazz masters Herb Pomeroy, Madame Chaloff, and Richard Bobbitt. The latter taught her about Joseph Schillinger's System of Musical Composition, which influenced her approach to composition.

Toshiko married saxophonist Charlie Mariano in 1959. The pair formed several bands together, until their divorce in 1967. That same year, she met saxophonist Lew Tabackin, whom she married in 1969. Toshiko and Tabackin moved to Los Angeles in 1972. In March 1973, they formed a 16-piece big band comprised of studio musicians. Toshiko composed and arranged music for the band, and Tabackin served as the band's featured soloist, on tenor saxophone and flute. The band recorded its first album, Kogun, in 1974. The title, which translates to "one-man army," was inspired by the tale of a Japanese soldier lost for 30 years in the jungle, who believed that World war II was still being fought and thus remained loyal to the Emperor. Kogun was commercially successful in Japan, and the band began to receive critical acclaim. By 1980, the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band was considered one of the most important big bands in jazz.

The couple moved to New York City in 1982, where they promptly assembled a new big band (now called the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra). Toshiko toured with smaller bands to raise money for her big band. BMG continued to release her band's CDs in Japan, but remained skeptical about releasing the music in the United States. Big band music rarely achieves commercial success in the US; so while Toshiko was able to record several domestic albums featuring her piano prowess, her big band's output was largely relegated to export status. On Monday, December 29, 2003, her band played its final concert at Birdland, where it had enjoyed a regular Monday night gig for more than seven years. Toshiko explained that she disbanded the ensemble because she was frustrated by her inability to obtain domestic recording contracts for the big band. She also said that she wanted to concentrate on her piano playing, from which she had been distracted by years of composing and arranging. She has said that although she has rarely recorded as a solo pianist, that is her preferred format.

Toshiko's music is distinctive for its textures and for its Japanese influence. When Duke Ellington died in 1974, Nat Hentoff wrote in the Village Voice about how Ellington's music reflected his African heritage. Upon reading this, Toshiko was inspired to investigate her own Japanese musical heritage. From that point on, she began composing with Japanese themes, Japanese harmonies, and even Japanese instruments (e.g. kotsuzumi, kakko, utai, tsugaru shamisen, etc.). Her music remained planted firmly in jazz, however, reflecting influences including those of Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Bud Powell. Toshiko has spoken of approaching her arrangements vertically, voicing each chord individually, which contrasts with the philosophy advocated by Herb Pomeroy, Bob Florence, and others, of writing phrases in a linear fashion. Toshiko often uses five-part harmony in her voicings, which yields a bigger sound from her horn section.

In 1999, Toshiko was approached by a Buddhist priest named Nakagawa. He asked her if she would consider writing a piece for his hometown, Hiroshima. He sent her some photos depicting the aftermath of the nuclear bombing. Her initial reaction was horror. She didn't see how she could compose anything to address the event. Finally she found a picture of a young woman, emerging from an underground shelter with a faint smile on her face. Toshiko said that upon seeing this picture, she understood the message: hope. With that message in mind, she composed the three-part suite Hiroshima: Rising From the Abyss. The piece was premiered in Hiroshima on August 6, 2001. This date was the 56th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, and just a few weeks before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The Hiroshima suite was featured on a 2002 CD release bearing the same title, Hiroshima: Rising From the Abyss. On March 24, 2004, BMG Japan released the final recording of Toshiko's big band. Titled Last Live in Blue Note Tokyo, the CD was recorded on November 28 and 29, 2003.

Toshiko lives on the Upper West Side with her husband. Besides being musicians, they are both avid wine collectors.ja:穐吉敏子

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