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Jazz trailblazer Toshiko Akiyoshi gets her due

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash
Pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi broke through many barriers to a successful jazz career.

For Jazz Appreciation Month, Robin Lloyd salutes pianist, composer, and arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi. As a musician she is a trailblazer on the piano, in the jazz genre in her 64 year career, she has experienced many firsts.Classically trained from first grade, Japanese pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi was introduced to jazz by a record-collector who played Teddy Wilson records for her.  She loved the sounds of the swing-era pianist, especially the rhythms.  Music became the most important part of her life.

Toshiko’s family lost everything in World War 2.  She started playing in dance halls and officer’s clubs in occupied Japan, just to get her hands on a piano.  Her reputation as a musician grew, and she started getting gigs in Tokyo’s nightclub district.

Toshiko was discovered by Oscar Peterson when he toured Japan, and he convinced his producer Norman Granz to record her, making her the first Japanese musician to be recorded by an American label.  The album Toshiko’s Piano was released in 1954.

That album and Oscar Peterson’s support led to an offer of a full scholarship at Berklee School of Music.  Toshiko moved to Boston in 1956, and became the first Japanese student at Berklee.  The school shamelessly used her as a promotional tool, but she took it gracefully.  She was glad not only for the education, but also for the abundance of press coverage that they gave her. 

“I got a lot of press. You know why? Because I was an oddity ,” Akiyoshi said in a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “In those days, a Japanese woman playing like Bud Powell was something very new.  So all the press, the attention, wasn’t because I was authentic. It was because I was strange.”   She laughs about it, because all the publicity boosted her career. She began sitting in with the masters of the New York jazz scene, and worked with bassist Charles Mingus for a time.  Bop legend Bud Powell was her greatest influence, and after he met her, he called Toshiko “the best female pianist in jazz.”

Toshiko started her Jazz Orchestra in 1973.  She needed a larger band that could add more color and texture to her original compositions.  Her big band albums have received 14 Grammy Award nominations. Toshiko is the first woman ever to take the number one position in the Best Arranger and Composer category of the prestigious DownBeat Magazine Readers' Poll. 

Like her idol Duke Ellington, she used the entire orchestra as her instrument.  When the Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band performed in Minneapolis, a University of Minnesota student named Maria Schneider heard them play, and grew inspired.

"That concert was so powerful for me," Schneider told NPR’s Tom Vitale. "The music was so beautiful, and her conducting and her playing —it made me all of a sudden ask the question, 'Wow, could I do that?'"   Maria Schneider has since become an influential composer and arranger with her own jazz orchestra.

After 30 years of the Big Band, Toshiko turned back to solo performances and small group recordings, reconnecting with the love of the piano that had started her adventure.

When Toshiko was notified that she would be named NEA Jazz Master in 2007, she wrote:  “I am so gratified to be recognized for my endeavors especially my infusing of Japanese culture into the jazz world, making it ever more universal."  And yes, she is the first Japanese musician to receive the NEA Jazz Master Award.

Toshiko Akiyoshi is Jazz Appreciation Month’s featured artist this year.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.