Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Akiyoshi, Toshiko

Pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi combines her commanding arranging ability with her own piano style, which draws from the legacy of Teddy Wilson. One of the first Asian musicians to have a direct impact on jazz, she has made a lasting mark on big band music with the ensembles she has led since she came to the United States in the 1950s on a scholarship.

Toshiko Akiyoshi was born on December 12th, 1929 to Japanese immigrants in Dailen, China a city located in the country's Northeast. Akiyoshi was the youngest of four sisters. She started taking piano lessons at the age of seven which is when, she says, “I fell in love with the instrument.”

            Lew Tabackin & Toshiko Akiyoshi, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

The outbreak of World War II affected Akiyoshi’s family in multiple ways. First, her father lost her business and her family lost all of their belongings. After the war was over Akiyoshi and her family returned to Japan but since they had no piano, the teenager took a job at a dance hall in Beppu City, where she played for U.S. soldiers.

Not long after she took this job, in 1947 she met a Japanese jazz record collector, who introduced her to the work of Teddy Wilson. Several years later, a visiting Oscar Peterson heard Akiyoshi play in the Ginza district of Tokyo. Impressed, Peterson landed Akiyoshi a recording deal with Norman Granz who recorded the young pianist with Peterson’s rhythm section of bassist Ray Brown, guitarist Herb Ellis, and drummer J.C. Heard. The album was called Toshiko’s Piano.

On the strength of this recording, Akiyoshi secured a spot at the newly formed Berklee School of Music in Boston. Along with the help of Lawrence Berk, she was able to come to the school on a full scholarship, becoming the first Japanese student in the school’s history. Akiyoshi explains what Berklee was like in the early days, “The Berklee School, in those days, a very small school. It was about 340 students or so. It was a small converted townhouse and everyone knew each other. The teacher and students called each other by the first name. It was nothing like today. I was looking forward to coming to the United States because I was a very big frog in a very small pond in Japan.” At Berklee, Akiyoshi studied with Herb Pomeroy and Richard Bobbitt.

In 1959, Akiyoshi married saxophonist Charlie Mariano, who played with Stan Kenton and Charles Mingus. Akiyoshi also played with Charles Mingus while in the United States between 1962 and 1963, then moved back to Japan until 1965. Together they had a daughter, Monday Michiru, born on August 19th, 1963. Michiru has gone on to be a leading artist in acid jazz and has worked with Basement Jaxx and DJ Krush.

In 1966, Akiyoshi was struggling to pay her rent in New York City and began undertaking work to put on a self-produced show at Town Hall. Her Town Hall show happened on a day in 1967 that the mayor of New York City coincidentally honored as the “Day of Jazz.” As Akiyoshi put it, “There was a free concert at Central Park and there was a black tie only jazz concert at Lincoln Center. So here I am at Town Hall struggling. Charles Mingus came to my concert and I thought that was very, very nice of him.”

Following her struggling first years in New York City, Akiyoshi divorced Mariano in 1967 and soon met saxophonist Lew Tabackin, whom she married in 1969. Together, the pair moved to Los Angeles in 1972 and formed their own big band. The Akiyoshi-Tabackin big band stormed through jazz in the 1970s and was considered to be one of the strongest big bands through the early 1980s. Some of the band’s explosive chops and Akiyoshi’s stellar arrangements can be heard on the song “Strive for Jive," from their 1975 album Tales of a Courtesan. In 1982, Lew and Toshiko moved back to New York City and officially changed the name of their band to the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin.

While Akiyoshi’s big band was easily the most critically praised big band of its time, she had trouble finding recording contracts since most of her music was only released in Japan. She was signed to BMG Japan but the label wasn’t able to convince BMG America that Akiyoshi’s music was strong enough to sell in the United States. The Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra continued to play throughout the rest of 1990s and Akiyoshi released several albums of her own as a leader. In 1990, Akiyoshi released a tribute album of Bud Powell songs entitled Remembering Bud, which contained “Cleopatra’s Dream" with Lewis Nash on drums. In 1994, Akiyoshi released a live solo piano album which featured her rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s composition, “Con Alma.

The Toshiko Akiyoshi Orchestra officially disbanded and played their last show at Birdland in New York City in 2003,where they had performed every Monday night for more than seven years. Now in her late seventies, Akiyoshi remains active in music, although she has curtailed her performance schedule. Nonetheless, her big band remains a high-water mark for lovers of the genre.

Select Discography

Toshiko’s Piano (Norgran, 1954)

Toshiko at Mocambo (Polydor, 1954)

Live at Birdland (1964, released by Fresh Sound, 2005)

East and West (Victor, 1963)

Jazz, the Personal Dimension (Victor, 1971)

Remembering Bud: Cleopatra’s Dream (Nippon Crown, 1990)

Solo Live at the Kennedy Center (Nippon Crown, 2000)

New York Sketch Book (Nippon Crown, 2004)

Contributor: Jared Pauley

Related Links

In Conversation with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin by Ted Panken