The First Lady of Jazz

An Interview with Toshiko Akiyoshi

Volume CIV, No. 3March, 2004

“Toshiko Akiyoshi is the first woman in jazz history ever to compose and arrange an entire library of music and organize her own orchestra to interpret it.”

— Los Angeles Times

Toshiko Akiyoshi, born in Manchuria, began her piano training at age six, and her career as a jazz pianist in 1946 in Japan. In 1952 she formed her own group and was spotted by Norman Granz and Oscar Peterson. Granz recorded her in 1953, making her the first Japanese jazz musician to be recorded by a major U.S. record company.

Akiyoshi came to the United States in 1956 and appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and toured various well-known jazz clubs with her own trio and quartet. She also performed with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and Yomiuri Symphony Orchestra as a featured guest soloist.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1972 with her husband, the tenor saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin, she formed their Los Angeles Band, which flourished for 10 years. Moving back to New York in 1982, the couple formed a new band, which was billed as the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin. The orchestra debuted at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1983 Kool Jazz Festival.

The orchestra has recorded nearly two dozen albums, 14 of them receiving Grammy nominations. The band was voted number one in Down Beat magazine’s Best Big Band category. She has received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1999 and has received many other national and international awards.

Last October, her big band performed at Carnegie Hall in what she said would be the band’s last performance in a concert hall setting.

Akiyoshi has been a member of Local 802 since 1959.

Matt Weiers, a jazz pianist and multimedia artist, caught up with Toshiko Akiyoshi in New York, and interviewed her for Allegro.

Matt Weiers: How have your musical aspirations changed throughout your career?

Toshiko Akiyoshi: They have evolved a little bit. I hope I am playing more quality rather than quantity now. When I first came to New York I thought of myself as a pianist. Later I started the big band because I wanted to hear more colors. About 30 years ago I had the opportunity to form the big band. I don’t like the big band format, actually. I just wanted to have more color in order to express my musical and philosophical attitudes through jazz language. Because of this, my music is not really typical big band music — it’s a little bit different.

The big band has been together for 30 years, and I have decided to disband the group. For the past 30 years I’ve been dividing my playing and writing. I don’t think it’s really fair to either discipline. But I have always considered myself a pianist. All my pieces for the big band have been based on my experience as a player. I’ve been feeling during the last couple of years that I’d like to go back to playing piano more. With the big band, I play very little. I am 73 years old, but still I feel I can get better at playing piano — I can get better. So I have decided to spend more time perfecting my playing. So it has been an interesting year for me this year.

MW: Did I understand you correctly when you said that you never liked the big band?

TA: Yes. I have never liked a big band. I have always been more interested in individual jazz players. The only exception was Duke Ellington because he wrote for specific players and did instrumental programmatic music. Usually big bands function as a dance band. They have always been that way and carried a singer with them for that reason. Even great Count Basie’s band, they swing like mad, but if I hear half an hour, that’s enough for me. Late 1940’s Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was very exciting, but he didn’t keep it very long. Also Thad Jones’ and Mel Lewis’ band was exciting and different. But also that band didn’t last a long time. So there are really no big jazz ensembles common in jazz. I don’t think we have long enough history of the jazz big band. Some people started it but didn’t keep it too long. Duke is a special case and took it to the most exceptional place. But he’s gone, and so those pieces are not the same. It is good for groups to keep playing those pieces, but this is where the distinction between classical music and jazz is for me.

MW: I know that like Duke, you have written for particular players like your husband Lew Tabackin.

TA: Yes, I truly believe that jazz is a music for individuals. I cannot write for the ghost band. I can only write for the players whose idiosyncrasies I know. Some pieces my big band cannot play because certain players are not there, it’s not appropriate. I’m perhaps the slowest writer in the world. Like when I’m writing five part harmonies for the band, even on a fast passage, it may take me half an hour to decide which note is appropriate for that spot. Once a player in the band said to me, “But it goes so fast, does it really matter?” I think it does matter! Each harmony can be voiced many different ways, but each has its own face. Sometimes going up and coming down a scale are different and require different voicings. I have the luxury of spending as long as it takes to decide upon which note I would like to have; no one is telling me that I have to write this piece in two hours. That is a good thing about being a writer. When I’m playing I do something and then say, “I didn’t mean to do that, but it’s gone!”

MW: As you do refine your art, could you describe what it is you feel you are moving closer to?

TA: Well, it’s like Charlie Parker, who didn’t play many choruses, but they are all very well formed. That’s what you want. I would like to play things as an improviser which are so well constructed that they sound as if they were written and I would like to write things which sound spontaneous and improvised. An elemental quality is what I’m looking for. When a writer writes for big band, sometimes I don’t like it, but when a great player like Frank Foster writes for the band, it sometimes has that elemental quality.

MW: What do you want a piece of your music to achieve?

TA: There is a part of my “Four Seasons of Morita Village” piece entitled “Winter Song,” which was commissioned by a small village in northern Japan which is very, very cold and snowy, high in the mountains. When the listeners hear the music, I would like them to able to picture the cold winter. Like with “‘Round About Midnight” you may get this feeling of late night. However, when I heard Thelonius Monk’s group play it, it was not at all what I expected. He played it fast and very dry. But say with Miles Davis’ well known version of it, that sounds like midnight to me. It is interesting to see what a composer does with his own tune versus what an interpreter does. I try, even when improvising, to express the basic idea of the tune. This especially applies to ballads. Fast tunes are somewhat different. In a slow piece, one second is a long time and you have a long time to compose your solo so to speak. A fast tune is a different story. I like to play ballads. It gives me time to think about the whole structure of the tune.

MW: How did it happen that you traveled to the United States to play?

TA: That record on the wall there is a Teddy Wilson record. A record collector in Japan knew I was interested in piano and he took me to his house and played that record of “Sweet Lorraine.” When I heard it I knew I wanted to play just like that. Sheet music versions of these things were not available and so I emulated things from records. It was occupation time in Japan and there was much need for musicians in various NCO clubs, dance halls, etc. If you could play an instrument halfway decently, you could always get the job. Because of the ease of getting playing jobs, not many musicians were interested in becoming better players, but I was. I still wanted to play just like Teddy Wilson. I later became noted in Japan with my own group. Then in 1953, when Oscar Peterson came to Japan he spotted me. Jazz is a social art. If you play with better players, you become better. I always wanted to come here and finally did in 1956, with a scholarship to Boston.

MW: Why is there such a love of jazz in Japan?

TA: People have an illusion about that, I believe, that the Japanese love jazz and there is a large audience there. They say that there is a larger percentage of jazz fans in Japan as compared with European countries. Some people say if it weren’t for Japanese tourists, it would be hard to keep New York City jazz clubs open. When I used to play in New York and there were many clubs around, the Half Note, and so on, it was a different economic situation for us musicians. This music was a regular part of life. You would see the same fans two or three times a week at the clubs. Jazz is a very personal music. It takes a sophisticated ear. But all over the world there are enough numbers of listeners to support us, many in Japan, Europe, and elsewhere. The Japanese audience listens very carefully, but many still think jazz is something where you drink and listen to “C Jam Blues” and that’s it.

MW: Are there things about your own compositions and way of playing that are connected to Japanese culture?

TA: I would like to think so. When Duke died, Nat Hentoff wrote in the Village Voice about how proud Duke was about his race, and so much of his music is based on his heritage. When I read that, I said, that’s what I should be doing. I have a different heritage than an American or European player. So I felt it was time to employ some Japanese culture in my music and I have used traditional Japanese instruments and some Noh singing in some pieces. Also, in Western music, the rhythm is vertical, no matter what the meter. In Japanese music, the rhythm is sideways, or horizontal. I have used this in some of my pieces, where there is a rhythm, but the melody is conducted, freely, without notes lining up in rhythm vertically. Some people notice this and others don’t.

MW: What part of your work do you most want to be remembered?

TA: It’s probably true that I added some elements which didn’t exist in jazz before my work. Jazz language is very important to me. I always like to stay within the language. I would like to see more of that, not people taking jazz into other genres, but bringing other elements into jazz and enriching the language. That is my position.

MW: What are your feelings about the business side of music?

TA: I went through 1963 to 1972 wondering how I would pay my rent, but some job or another always came along. I think it’s a very individual thing, different for everybody. My main thing has been always to play better, play better, and somehow I survived. Also it has been really good to receive royalties over the years. I never knew that this would be a good thing. One difficult thing nowadays is that in my big band performances, over 50 percent of the time I get some subs because the player has a record date or must travel for some other gig, etc. I have almost 100 compositions. I wanted to play certain tunes, but I must change the program according to who is there to play.

Duke did it by traveling over 40 weeks a year for one nighter engagements. But the music was so good that half the people who were there to dance just crowded up to the front of the stage to listen. I lived in Los Angeles for a time and I still remember in ‘72 when I got a chance to see Duke’s band at Disneyland. Paul Gonsalves saw me and said, “Come and sit in!” Duke was just watching me play. When I got off stage, an elderly couple said, “You sound just like young Duke!” I doubt that, but they had been following Duke’s band for 36 or 37 years.

MW: Do you have a daily routine?

TA: I try. I have a little place where I work, a little ways out of the city and away from my home. There I have a piano, a bed, and a coffee machine. That’s it. I work on composition. Many times I run out of time to practice. If we weren’t doing this interview, I would be there right now!