Interview with Toshiko Akiyoshi
Akiyoshi Toshiko is a Japanese jazz pianist and composer living in New York. She was named an NEA Jazz Master by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts in 2007. We had an interview with her and her husband Lew Tabackin, who is an international jazz tenor saxophonist and jazz flutist. We asked them about her war-stories, Japanese virtues and the secret of her composition.
– When did you start playing music? When was your first encounter with music?
When I was 7 years old in grammar school, there was a 3rd grade girl playing Mozart’s Turkish March. I thought, “I want to play just like that.” So, that is when I started playing the piano.
My encounter was subliminal I think, because when I was about 4 years old and in preschool, my mother would often go to a theater in Philadelphia. It was a movie theater but also had a band. She would take me, and I still have images of what I saw and remember hearing the band play. They did a certain effect with lighting, where it seemed like the room was rocking and shaking. I think that had an impact that eventually led to my interest in jazz.
–In the 1950s, I believe there were much less Japanese people in the United States. What motivated you to come to the U.S. and study music, especially jazz?
I discovered jazz in 1946. I started playing in Japanese dance halls. A Japanese jazz collector, his name is Mr. Fukui, invited me over his home to play Teddy Wilson’s Sweet Lorraine and I thought I’d like to play just like that. So I was in Japan until 1956. I was getting better at it. I don’t mean to sound very arrogant, but I became the biggest frog in the little pond. I wanted to play with musicians whom I listened to from records. I was trying to learn their languages. You know, jazz is a social art; if you play with better players, you become a better player. I really wanted to be able to play with them.
Finally, in 1953, I had an opportunity to record with producer Norman Granz in Japan with a recommendation from Oscar Peterson. This record attracted Boston’s Berklee School of Music. They thought it would be great for their publicity, you know. In those days, a Japanese person playing jazz was rare. This is something that made Americans say, “Really?!” and when it comes to a girl, that was even more rare. The school gave me a full scholarship, and if you remember those day, you couldn’t easily just come into that. You had to have an invitation from the United States, either from a school or business contract, or something like that. So, they sent me the air ticket and I came to Berklee with a full scholarship. I flew on the America’s number-one plane with 4 propellers.
– Do you have any war stories about yourself after you moved to the states?
Well, I think because of everything from the very beginning, (this is 1956), I was pushing into my own group. I had opportunities to play at various venues, different jazz festivals, and clubs in Boston. I think my struggles started after I finished school. You know, when I went to school I thought that I should come home and show my fellow musicians what I learned. However, when I graduated, I started questioning, “what did I learn?” I didn’t even think I learned anything. So I went to NY and became a struggling jazz musician, barely able to pay the rent. My struggling started then, haha, and lasted for a long time! People say, “oh, you had a hard time.” It was almost 10 years, but I’d like to think that it was a very important time for me.
Because of that, I think a lot about my being a jazz musician and my relationship with jazz world. Being Japanese, being American, all those things. So, it was very good time for me. I think it was good that I struggled.
Also, when I moved to the U.S.A., it was a really good time because the jazz society was not like it is today, which is more like a business. I could play with all the giants. It was such a great experience.
–What is “the good” of Japan?
I think it’s the people. Paris is a beautiful city, but the people do not match it’s beauty. Japan has the beautiful people. Most musicians are impressed with the kindness and gentleness of the Japanese, especially when you go to a small town. People are probably the same way now as they were a hundred years ago. When you get lost, not only do they tell you where to go, but they actually guide you. It is always a positive experience to come to Japan.
Yeah, I think what Lew said was exactly what I was going to say. Like Paris or Madrid, cities are beautiful. Tokyo supposedly has the biggest population in the world, but the city sleeps with people and wake up with people. In Paris, for example, people may go sleep but the city does not. Also, people in Japan are little nicer than New Yorkers. The air changes. I know quite a few American people who say that when they go to japan, it is easier to breath. This doesn’t happen in New York. You have to be really offensive.
– What is best thing about Lew-san as a musician?
I think Lew is a great musician not only because he is a jazz lover, but also because he has such an enormous understanding of other cultures and he is really good at incorporating them in his own music. He also listens to everything respectfully. I think this very important. You know, even Musashi, (legendary Japanese samurai), and Zeami, (old Japanese aesthetician), said the same thing: To respect tradition is very important. But Lew’s greatness is that he always puts something of his own on the top. That makes him a great musician, I think.
–How does Akiyoshi-san’s music inspire you? What is special about her music to you?
Most of Toshiko’s music is narrative. When she wrote Kogun, that was really interesting to me because I couldn’t hear myself playing just a “jazz flute”, which could have soundstupid. That was the beginning of my attempt to incorporate the Japanese influence into my solo playing to express her music. Now, when I play my solo, I can add something to it instead of just playing notes. Her music is something special because of her narrative approach. Any composer can use Japanese or jazz influences, but what she does is maintain the essential character. She adds the extra stuff, but ultimately the root is still there. That is a really important but really difficult thing to do.
–You occasionally use/recycle Japanese traditional music, such as do-yo- sho-ka, and combine it with jazz. Is this a difficult thing to do?
You know the feeling of when you eat something and it gets stuck in your throat? It can’t be like that, it has to be natural. If you choose to use something foreign, in this case foreign culture, it has to be digested. The people must be able to listen to it and hear something different, and are able to swallow it. It must not end up sounding superficial. This is something of which you have to be very careful.
–What is your goal?
My goal is when I perform, I will perform as I wish to perform. I don’t believe I’ve ever had an experience where everything was just as what I wanted to play. Sometimes, I was thinking, “what am I doing? Oh my!” etc. It’s NOT easy. Lew practices a lot. I always say I should practice like him when I am watching television. I can’t blame on anybody but myself. Practice more!
I always consider the process to be the most important thing. You should always try to develop. There was a philosopher on television when I was a kid. He said, “the human condition is:you cann’t always win, but you can try”. However, in our case, we know that we can’t win, because no matter how good we get, we know that there is more we haven’t accomplished. The idea is “to keep on trying and trying to perfect the concept.” I would like to keep developing and solidifying my concept until it is crystalized. Our goal is just to do better.
Toshiko Akiyoshi is a Japanese-born American Jazz pianist, composer, arranger and band-leader. In 1956, she moved to USA and became the first Japanese student at Berklee College of Music with full scholarship. In 1973, she formed Akiyoshi Toshiko=Lew Tabackin Big Band, one year later she composed “Kogun”. her big band win the Best Big Ban 5 year in a row both in Critic’s and Reader’s Poll in Down Beat magazine. She was also the first woman to win the Best Arranger and Composer awards. Her discs have received 14 Grammy nominations. In 1997, she has received Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon from Japanese Government. She disbanded in 2003 to focus more on her solo performance activity. In 2007, she has received NEA Jazz Master from U.S. National Endorsement for the Arts.
A flutist and tenor saxophonist, is an artist with a distinctive style. He studied in the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. After his U.S. Army service, he moved to New York, where he played in numerous big bands and worked with the studio band. In 1968 he met Toshiko Akiyoshi and eventually married and moved in Los Angeles, formed the award-winning Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra. In the 1980s he began to gain recognition as a flutist, winning many DownBeat critics’ and readers’ polls. He has been associated with all-star bands including George Wein’s Newport All-Star Band, the New York Jazz Giants, and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. He has won first place for flute in the Swing Journal Reader’s poll four years in a row, as well as the DownBeat International Critics Poll in 2010.