Jazz and Bossa Artist of the Week (January 16 - 22)- Toshiko Akiyoshi
Toshiko Akiyoshi’s unique contributions to the jazz world have evolved like falling dominoes through a series of events that started with a piano-loving little Japanese girl in China and brought her to prominence as an unparalleled pianist, composer and leader of the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra. Toshiko’s recordings have received a total of 14 Grammy Award nominations.
Manchurian-born Akiyoshi’s interest in the piano started at age six, by the time her family had moved back to Japan at the end of World War II. Toshiko had developed a real love for music. She soon began playing piano professionally, which eventually led to being discovered by pianist Oscar Peterson in 1952 during a Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of Japan. On Peterson recommendation, Toshiko recorded for Granz, and not long after, she went to the U.S. to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Her years in Boston, and later on in New York, developed her into a first class pianist. Her interest in composing and arranging came to fruition when she moved to Los Angeles in 1972 with her husband, saxophonist/flutist Lew Tabackin. The following year they formed the world-renowned big band that is now known as the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin. The band, which began as a vehicle for Toshiko’s own compositions, grew in stature during its 10 years on the West Coast and gained a reputation as one of the most excellent and innovative big bands in jazz. The late Leonard Feather, eminent jazz critic and author, summed up the brilliance of Toshiko Akiyoshi big band in his review of that album, “... greatness is greatness, whether on the East Coast, the West Coast in Tokyo or anywhere else in the world, I think you will find it in this magnificently variegated, consistently exciting example of one of the outstanding orchestras of our time.”
In 1986 Toshiko was the only Japanese New Yorker ever to receive New York City’s Liberty Award. In 1992, her work was performed by the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, and the following year by the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. In 1996 Maestro James De Priest conducted the Portland Symphony in a program of Akiyoshi’s works. In 1993 a live concert of the big band, “Strive for Jive,” was released in video. Toshiko realized a long time dream in 1996 when she completed her autobiography. “Life With Jazz.” The book is now in its fifth printing in Japanese and will soon be translated into Korean. Among the many honors she has received are the Shijahosho (1999, from the Emperor of Japan); the Japan Foundation Award, Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosetta (2004, from the Emperor of Japan); and the Asahi Award (2005, from the Asahi Shimbun newspaper). NEA Jazz master (2007)
In 2002 Toshiko retired her big band projects and returned to the piano, touring as a trio and sometimes a quartet with her husband, Lew Tabackin. Summing up her own career, Toshiko, with characteristic modesty commented in an interview with the San Bemardino Sun, “I would hope that my work might have more substance and more quality rather than quantity of notes. And I hope the notes I produce today are more selective than 20 years ago.”