#13 Toshiko Akiyoshi

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?