Akiyoshi, Toshiko (1929—)

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Akiyoshi, Toshiko (1929—)

Japanese-American jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader. Born in Darien, Manchuria (a province of China then controlled by the Japanese), on December 12, 1929; daughter of a Japanese owner of a textile company and steel mill; married Stan Kenton (the bandleader and saxophonist; divorced in the mid-1960s); married Lew Tabackin (a sax player), in 1969.

Toshiko Akiyoshi's career established the international nature of jazz. Born in Manchuria of Japanese parents in 1929, she fled the area with her family when the Chinese reclaimed the region in 1945. Her father, who had owned steel and textile mills, was financially destroyed; thus, at age 16, Akiyoshi had to find work playing for a dance band for four dollars an hour. Though she had had training in classical music, her knowledge of jazz improvisation was mainly empirical. Akiyoshi recounts the day a friend played her a Teddy Wilson record: "A whole new world opened up for me. I said, 'Oh, jazz can be beautiful!' I had really dumb luck as a pioneer in the jazz field: if you were just a little bit better than the next guy, you got the job. I became the highest paid studio musician in Japan."

Akiyoshi played piano with three symphony orchestras and ten Tokyo jazz groups before she decided to form her own jazz combo in 1952. Oscar Peterson heard her play in a club and arranged for her to be recorded. When that recording was played in America, Akiyoshi was offered a scholarship at Berklee, Boston's jazz college. Despite great luck as a musician, establishing a career wasn't easy: "In the early years in America, I dealt with both racial and sexual prejudice," said Akiyoshi. "I played clubs and TV wearing a kimono, because people were amazed to see an Oriental woman playing jazz." As a composer, Akiyoshi was a genius at weaving rich, complex tone colors. She composed a fascinating update of the classic swing-band tradition of brass and saxes. Her style was unique, however, because of its cross-pollination of cultures. Lew Tabackin said of her work, "Toshiko is not one of those foreign musicians who try to be ultra American. Through her attitude, she achieves a very special kind of oneness." For example, in Kogun she combined pretaped percussion sounds with vocal cries from Japanese Noh drama as well as a brass section pitted against a Noh actor's piercing tones. Children in the Temple Ground begins with long, vocal wails in Japanese blended with a flute and orchestra accompanied by piano.

Akiyoshi's music often reflects social themes. In Tales of a Courtesan, she drew on the lives of women who employed sexual favors in order to survive and prosper. "The European concept of the courtesan is too happy," she explained. "For three centuries under the shoguns, poorer families had to sell their daughters into slavery. Though some courtesans were highly educated, they had no freedom; attempted escape meant punishment by death. My music expresses the contrast between the superficially luxurious life of some of these women and the tragic denial of human rights they suffered." Another example is Minamata, a work that some regard as Akiyoshi's crowning achievement. This piece was named for the small Japanese fishing village poisoned by industrialization, pollution, and the dumping of mercury that killed the fish and, ultimately, many people. The suite begins with Akiyoshi's teenage daughter Michiru intoning an introduction that is repeated by a Noh action at the end. Two tsuzumi drummers commence, followed by the band, and a wild climax is reached through the effects of a bizarre, writhing sax section. Such creative use of jazz is typical of Toshiko Akiyoshi's work.

In America, Akiyoshi married Stan Kenton, the bandleader, but the union dissolved in the mid-1960s. She began to divide her time between New York, where she played with Charlie Mingus, and Tokyo, where she played with her own trio. In 1967, while she was organizing a Town Hall concert with her own big band, she met Lew Tabackin who played the tenor sax. "I had reservations about the relationship," she said. "Lew is

the only son in a very tight Jewish family. But finally I decided that Buddha knew we were meant for each other." They were married in 1969 and moved to California in 1972 where she organized an orchestra and Lew became a sideman in Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show band.

Akiyoshi's reputation continued to grow in jazz circles. She won the 1977 Readers' Poll in Japan's Swing Journal. In 1976 and 1977, her albums were nominated for Grammy awards, and her band appeared at the Monterey and Newport jazz festivals. In 1978, her band played at the First Annual Women's Jazz Festival in Kansas City and went on to play at the Village Gate in New York. Appearances in Europe and Japan followed. A pioneer in the field of jazz as both an Asian and a woman, Akiyoshi received rave reviews for her unique style as well as her compositions and won great acclaim as an extraordinary musician.


Feather, Leonard. "Music: Toshiko Akiyoshi—The Leader of the Band," in Ms. Vol. 7, no. 5. November 1978, pp. 34–35, 40.

——. "The Passion for Jazz. Interview with Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin," in Ms. Vol. 7, no. 5. November 1978, pp. 109–119.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia