In conversation with toshiko akiyoshi and lew tabackin

By Ted Panken

For Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi, partners in marriage and art for close to forty years, “We could make such beautiful music together” is a phrase that transcends cliche.

         Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

They have made this music on 22 recordings by the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band and the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra Featuring Lew Tabackin. Since 1973, when the couple formed a 16-piece orchestra in Los Angeles, Akiyoshi has deployed Tabackin as her primary soloist, in presenting a corpus of music as formidable as that of any composer on the jazz timeline. She has incorporated highbrow modernist harmony, forceful rhythms, traditional Japanese music, and a tonal palette inspired by Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, both hands-on mentors during her early thirties.

Most of these albums are long out of print, but five—Kogun, Long Yellow Road, Tales Of A Courtesan, Insights and March Of The Tadpoles, recorded between 1974 and 1976—comprise the 2008 compilation Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band (Mosaic Select, 033).

It’s fascinating that a man and a woman born a decade apart, on opposite sides of the globe, could generate such creative sparks within each other, and feed the fire for such a sustained length of time. Akiyoshi’s well-documented life (see the 1984 documentary Jazz Is My Native Language or her 1996 autobiography Life With Jazz) began in Liaoyang, Manchuria, in 1929. Displaced and impoverished by World War II, she settled with her family in Beppu, where she learned jazz under the circumstances she describes below. Born in Philadelphia in 1940, Tabackin trained formally at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, and quickly became a fixture on New York’s still thriving studio scene during the latter ‘60s, playing his jazz as an evening moonlighter.

Over Independence Day weekend this year, Akiyoshi and Tabackin joined me at WKCR to publicize a Birdland engagement with a quartet comprising bassist Peter Washington and drummer Mark Taylor. Along with Tabackin’s new self-released trio date, Live in Paris, with bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Mark Taylor (, they brought along a 2006 quartet album—with George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums—recorded in Japan. As the copy in the jacket notes was exclusively in Japanese, it was necessary for Tabackin to translate the title before we could proceed.

The title of your new recording on the Japanese label, TOC, roughly translated, is “Fiftieth Anniversary.” Correct?

LT: Good enough. “Fiftieth Anniversary”...

TA: In America.

LT: Of Toshiko’s Fiftieth Anniversary in America. That’s quite a title. A little long.

You’ve been married for many years, and played together almost as long in the Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band with Lew Tabackin as featured tenor saxophonist and flautist. How much small ensemble playing have you done?

LT: We do it occasionally. We could do it more, I’m sure, but the problem is that Toshiko has her trio, I have my trio. People will be happy with the quartet because it’s probably more saleable—in America at least. But if we did that, our identities get into the Siamese Twin area, as used to happen. We play together quite well. But we have different approaches and we each want to pursue our own individual thing. If we do too many quartet gigs, it will cut into her trios and my trios, and etcetera.

How long have you been together?

LT: Since ‘69.

39 years. How did you meet?

LT: Do you want the whole story?

The radio version.

LT: We met at the Half Note. I was playing in Clark Terry’s band, and Toshiko was filling in for Don Friedman. She needed a tenor player for a concert, because Joe Farrell copped out. Anyway, she heard me play (I was pretty new in town), and she liked what she heard. So she called a contractor, who was Bill Berry, and hired me. To make a very long story shorter, I took the gig, then I cancelled. I went to California with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis for two weeks.

You gave her notice?

LT: I gave her notice. Eddie Daniels was around, so I figured it would be cool. It wasn’t like I didn’t have a good replacement. That’s how we met, and she didn’t hate me.

A very romantic beginning.

LT: Yeah, exactly. Then she hired me for a small group gig in Connecticut, I think it was.

TA: The first job was the Hartford Jazz Society. I didn’t know him that well, and I just heard him as a tenor player. When we got there, he played a long solo, like he always did—he always played great. For me, it was interesting, because we’re talking about quite a long time ago, and there was no younger tenor player who had that Coleman Hawkins-Lucky Thompson family tree of the sound. Lew was still in his mid-twenties, and heavily influenced by a cross between Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, which was an interesting combination. Anyway, on the second tune, he pulled out the flute, and I said, “Oh my God, he’s going to play terrible flute”—most of the great saxophone players played lousy flute. That was my introduction to his flute playing.

And how was the flute playing?

LT: Terrible.

TA: [loud laugh]

LT: Didn’t disappoint. But loud.

TA: I was really extremely surprised.

From that, a marriage was born.

LT: Right. Out of all that confusion. Actually, Jake Hanna, the drummer, was the driver for that gig. He didn’t do the gig, but he drove us to Connecticut. I still can’t quite understand why he didn’t do the gig. If he was going to drive us to Connecticut, he could have done the gig. I should ask him.

TA: But actually, I didn’t know he would do that. At the last minute, he offered us a drive.

LT: Oh, he volunteered.

So in 1969, when you met...

LT: We met in ‘67.

You received a lot of press when you came to the States in 1956. People not only were impressed by your style and musicianship, but were intrigued at the background and gender of this accomplished young virtuoso. How did things play out for you in the 1960s, after that first burst of publicity? What happened in your own career during that decade?

TA: I came to this country on a full scholarship to Berklee School of Music. In those days, it was a small school, with about 340 students. Now, in 1953 Norman Granz recorded me at the suggestion of Oscar Peterson. I think everybody knows that. It came out in 1954. So basically, the school was looking for a way to advertise itself, and I was the one. I wanted to come to the States, because it came to the point in Japan where I was the biggest fish in a small, small pond. Jazz is a social art. If you play with a better player, you become a better player, and I wanted to have opportunities to play with all these players that I’d been listening to on record.

As you said, there was a lot of publicity, and so on. Now, when I came, I thought when I finished school I’d go back to Japan and show my fellow musicians what I’d learned. But when I finally finished three-and-a-half years later, I realized that I didn’t really learn anything. What did I accomplish? I thought, “Well, I can’t go back now.” So I moved to New York, and at that point, I became just like any other jazz musician who doesn’t have a name, barely surviving, paying the rent. From that point on, it was kind of tough. But before that, I was getting a lot of publicity. Sometimes I would get negative things written. I think some people were annoyed at the fact that I was getting too much attention. But that was gone, and I think it was good that I had almost seven years of barely paying the rent.

You were scuffling, in other words.

TA: In New York! [laughs]

When did you start writing big band charts?

TA: Actually, when we met in 1967, I was in the midst of trying to have my own concert at the Town Hall in New York. The reason for that was that in 1966, at New Year’s. . . . The Japanese always do this. It’s an introspective time. I said, “What did I accomplish here? I’ve been in this country ten years, and what did I do? I haven’t done anything.” I thought, “Maybe I will have a concert. Maybe people will pay attention to me.” It took me a year to prepare and also to get a fund by playing the Holiday Inn circuit! So I had this concert, and I had a very good review from John Wilson in the The New York Times, but my life didn’t change.

It took more than that to change.

TA: Yes. Because in ‘67, that’s when I thought I’d try to do everything I have, which was to play solo and trio, and then have big band writing. I wrote five charts for that concert. That was the beginning.

It’s pretty well-known who your early piano influences were—Bud Powell, Monk, Tatum. But who were your main inspirations for composition and arrangement?

TA: I would like to think that is all my experience as a player. When I came to this country, the jazz scene was not quite so produced like it is today, so if you know the tunes (which most of the tunes I knew, because I listened to all the records when I was in Japan), they would let you sit in. Much more open than today. Today it’s pretty much like a group demonstration of what they do, and so on. So I came at a very good time. I was sitting in with Max Roach’s group, or Miles’ group, or even Duke Ellington’s band. I like to think that my writing comes from the sum total of all my experience and what I learned from records. Not just pianists. I learned a lot from Max Roach’s drumming, because I was always interested in rhythm.

Later, in 1974, when Duke died, that triggered me on how proud he was being a black American, and so much of his music was based on that. That opened my eyes to look into my heritage. That’s the beginning of my trying to infuse. . . to blend in some Japanese culture, which hadn’t existed in jazz history.

These things have been written about a fair amount, but could you describe how you first heard jazz, how you became interested in it, how as a young girl and young woman in Japan you were able to assimilate the feeling and sound in a way that struck so many people when they heard you?

TA: Are you talking about big band writing?

I’m talking about piano playing.

LT: How did you get turned on to jazz?

TA: I was born in old Manchuria—today it’s China. I had a piano. I studied piano from 7 years old, so I never heard of jazz. Then when the war was ended, my parents lost everything, so I didn’t have a piano, so I took a job in a dance hall. This was a Japanese dance hall for Japanese people, and there was one Japanese jazz record collector. He invited me to his home, and played the Teddy Wilson “Sweet Lorraine.” Actually this became a pretty famous story. That’s when I thought, “Oh, I’d like to play just like that.” That was the beginning.

Was this in Tokyo?

TA: No, it was Beppu, which was a small but very well known city for hot springs.

LT: It’s in the south of Japan.

So Teddy Wilson’s “Sweet Lorraine” is what spurred you. . .

TA: Yes, that was it.

LT: She was playing in this dance hall which was really horrible, and she thought that was jazz. So she really hated the whole idea until she heard that recording. “Wow, jazz can be beautiful.”

Lew, in 1967, when you met Toshiko under the circumstances you mentioned, you certainly knew who she was.

LT: Oh, yes. Actually, when I lived in Philadelphia, I heard Charles Mingus’ group with Toshiko which played at a place called Pep’s. So I was familiar with her. I knew who she was and I knew a bit about her playing because I heard her with Mingus. That was about it.

Toshiko mentioned that she was initially intrigued by the vocabulary you used, that it differed from what was commonly played by musicians your age during the 1960s, mixing things from Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, and Coltrane as well. What put you on that path, given all the stylistic streams that were roiling about at the time?

LT: Basically, as a young player, it didn’t take me long to become a Coltrane clone. But I would go hear other players. . . I hate to sound racial, but I’d hear some white guys trying to play like Coltrane, and I said, “Boy, it sounds bad—but maybe I’m just as bad as they are.” I thought, “I have to find my own voice somehow, I have to find a way.” There was a trombone player who was a bit older than me who had a record collection, and he played me a bunch of great tenor saxophone players that I’d never heard before. Actually, the first guy I liked was Al Cohn, and then I moved on to Sonny Rollins, then Coltrane, blah-blah-blah. He played me all these guys, and it was an amazing revelation. The only one I couldn’t understand was Hawkins. That was too hard for me. I couldn’t relate to Hawkins. But I could relate to Ben Webster, and of course, I could relate to Lester Young and Byas. It was really ear-opening. So I started to try to develop in parallel motion—be a today person, but always check back to stuff I’d missed. Because anything you haven’t heard is new. I realized that I had to pay attention, investigate the history, then put it in a pot and mix it up, and eventually I’d find my own voice.

I started listening to all these people, trying to absorb the elements of their styles. A lot of times, it’s not the notes; it’s just the aura that they project. Then when I would go to hear one of my heroes, like Sonny Rollins, I could hear it in a different perspective. I’d say, “Wow, that sounds like Lester, that sounds like Chu Berry, that’s Hawkins, that’s Bird.” Now, you can do a Byas, you can do a Ben Webster, you can do a Lester, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about putting all the elements together and creating your own voice. I felt that started to happen consistently when I reached around 40. I miss that in a lot of the younger players, because they tend to deal with about thirty years of history. Hank Mobley is considered old. Hawkins, forget about it—they can’t relate to it. I try to point out that if you really pay attention, you might not like it or it might not make sense at first, but the lightbulb goes off at a certain point, and you realize the incredible scope of some of the earlier players, and then you have more in your arsenal. Like the way that you deal with sound. You don’t have to play with one little sound all the time; you have a variety of sounds that you can use to express yourself.

Basically, I kept on that track, and I’m still in the process. To me, it’s the process that’s important in playing or doing anything. It’s like you’re in-becoming. Hopefully, every year I become stronger musically and express more of my individuality.

As an instrumentalist and stylist, how has constant exposure to Toshiko’s original concept of composing affected the way you think about things?

LT: It started when I got the gig in Clark Terry’s band. Zoot Sims got me the gig. He never wanted to go to rehearsals, so he kept sending me to rehearsals, and I wound up in this all-star band with Clark Terry. I was trying to find where I was, and I played a little out. When I was playing in this band, I felt I was imposing myself on the music—it didn’t work. I thought, I’m really not approaching this right. So I started listening to Clark, to try to grow out of the spirit that he projected. I tried to use that concept, not necessarily to impose myself, but to grow out of the feeling. Toshiko writes a lot of what I’d guess you’d call program or narrative music that tells a story. I wanted to know the story, and when I know the story, then I can improvise. It’s not all about G-minor-7, C-7. When she started introducing Japanese stories and motifs and music, I’d ask her about what she was saying. So I tried to play in a narrative sense. I still had to listen to some shakuhachi music to try to understand a bit about how that works, and that Zen concept, kind of at-one with the environment and with the music. When she played her music, it exposed me to that aspect. In the non-Japanese stuff, too. . . she would write ballads and so on for me, and sometimes it would take me a minute to figure out how to approach it. But it certainly expanded my horizons, so to speak.

Toshiko, as a young person, how much was traditional Japanese music and folk culture part of your upbringing?

TA: Actually, not formal training. For whatever reason, always in school in Japan classes were European. My father was a student of Noh, a men’s performing art, and my second sister was a quite accomplished Japanese traditional dancer. She was studying. So I was surrounded by all that. But my training was always European.

Are you from a family of artists?

TA: Not really. I am the only one. . . . My mother used to say she didn’t understand how in the world, of all her children, I am the only musician. My mother always liked music. My father, as I say, was a student of Noh. My sister had her interest in dance. I think the family was always interested in doing something, but never was a musical family. I don’t say that.

But I guess since you were surrounded by these procedures as a young person, they’re part of the fabric of the way you think about things.

TA: Yes. I really liked tsuzumi, which is a Japanese drum, used often in Noh. I really liked that sound. Much, much later, I wanted to employ that.

When you heard jazz, particularly the type of jazz you were drawn to, by black American musicians, the velocity and intensity of it, did it seem of a piece with what you’d been raised with, or did it seem like something completely new?

TA: People always ask me why-why-why. I may be wrong, because I don’t quite remember. But as I said, when Teddy Wilson played such a beautiful piano, I thought, “Wow, I’d like to play just like that.” In Japan, no records were available, no books were available, and so on. You couldn’t even buy a record. I was working at the American club, the Officers Club, places like that, where they had V-disks, and I’d listen to them, and I copied the music. That’s how I learned the language and got used to it. It wasn’t much intellectual. I didn’t really analyze myself. I just really liked it. It was something that agreed with me.

Interview notes: Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin were interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on July 3, 2008.


December 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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