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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Jazz piano struck the right chord for composer Toshiko Akiyoshi

Toshiko Akiyoshi gestures toward her band members after performance Wednesday July 3, 1980 at the New York Carnegiie Hall. Their performance was part of the Newport Jazz Festival going on all week in New York, (AP Photo/GPB )
Toshiko Akiyoshi gestures toward her band members after performance Wednesday July 3, 1980 at the New York Carnegiie Hall. Their performance was part of the Newport Jazz Festival going on all week in New York, (AP Photo/GPB )

Virtuoso pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi was born in 1929, in Manchuria, a region of northeast China that was, at the time, controlled by Japan.

Akiyoshi was treated to a Japanese education where at age seven, she heard a classmate playing the third movement from Mozart’s "Moonlight" Sonata — "The Turkish March."

“I’d like to play just like that. So I asked my parents if I could take a lesson, because we had a piano and that started. And I really loved the instrument...When I play it – I feel very happy,” Akiyoshi said in a late 1990s television interview with Monk Rowe for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive.

And this is her classical and jazz-fusion mash up of the piece which she calls “Turkisher March – Toshiko’s March."

Her family’s life changed after World War II, returning to Japan and reintegrating into a destroyed and occupied nation-state would not prove easy. It also meant less financial stability – and no piano at the house.

But there was an upside.

Occupied Japan meant many clubs with both Japanese and Americans, who craved dance hall music.

Akiyoshi got her first job playing in the clubs in small combos. And it was at the clubs where she met a record collector who turned her on to jazz.

By 1951, then 22-year-old Akiyoshi was playing piano professionally and leading her own jazz group. In 1959, she moved to New York City and established a reputation as a fine pianist in the bebop style.

Even though she faced discrimination in the jazz world because she was a woman and Asian, she pressed on — becoming a composer-arranger for big bands and working with Charles Mingus in 1962.

By 1973, Akiyoshi had moved to Los Angeles with her second husband, saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin. The same year, Akiyoshi formed her first jazz orchestra.

The Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra went on to have great success, winning the DownBeat Critic’s Poll and receiving a Grammy nomination for Long Yellow Road in 1976.

Even with these accolades, she was the target of doubt and misinformation regarding her work — which both stung and stayed with her.

Akiyoshi also began to branch out musically. Since all of the sax players could also play flute, Akiyoshi wrote a woodwind section using Japanese themes and instruments. All became trademarks which you can hear in her piece "Tales of a Courtesan."

She also said she prefers to be considered a composer over an arranger or a pianist.

"Since I start writing people seems to pay attention.  They seem to hear something new.  Something that wasn’t there before and so on.  And so I have to say my value lies as a writer as a musician," Akiyoshi said in the Monk Rowe interview.

Back in New York City, Akiyoshi toured with smaller bands to raise money for her big band.

In December 2003, Toshiko and her band ended their more than seven year, Monday night run at Birdland in New York City.

Although Akiyoshi used Japanese themes, harmonies, and instruments, her music remained planted firmly in jazz, reflecting influences from Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Bud Powell. Her big band albums put her in the company of those influences. She's been compared to composer-arrangers Duke Ellington, Eddie Sauter and Gil Evans.

Akiyoshi has received 14 Grammy award nominations and was the first woman to win best arranger and composer awards in DownBeat magazine's annual readers' poll.

In 1984, she was the subject of the documentaryJazz Is My Native Language. In 1996, she published her autobiography, Life with Jazz.

In 2007, she was named an NEA Jazz Master by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.

Toshiko Akiyoshi knows what it's like to have a homeland devastated by destruction, and not have an instrument to practice your passion and express your creativity. When she traveled to Seattle in 2012, to perform a benefit concert at Benaroya Hall to raise money to replace school children's musical instruments lost in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, — she once again led by example.

Paige Hansen has been heard on radio station 88.5 KNKX-FM for over 20 years where she’s hosted news & jazz. You can currently hear her hosting jazz weekdays & Sundays. She is also an active musician, writer and singer.