Toshiko Akiyoshi: Founder of Big Band’s Rebirth

Toshiko Akiyoshi: Founder of Big Band’s Rebirth

Written by Anne E. Johnson

When one thinks of women in the big band era, it’s normal to picture a female singer backed up by an all-male band. That’s one reason Toshiko Akiyoshi is so unusual: she is a pianist and composer-arranger, not a singer, but she had a career in big band jazz. Add to that her Asian heritage, and she’s quite a rare bird.

She was born in 1929 in Manchuria, China, to Japanese parents who brought her back to their homeland after World War II. She’d started playing piano when she was six, but her family couldn’t afford to own an instrument after the War, so she took a job playing her own made-up version of “jazz” at a dance hall when she was a teen. Then a family friend introduced her to Teddy Wilson’s records, and her whole musical world changed.

On a tour to Japan, pianist Oscar Peterson heard her play; he convinced Verve Records founder Norman Granz to record her, and she used that recording to get a scholarship at Berklee College of Music. After years of gigging in New York with whatever colleagues needed her (and meeting her husband, saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin), the couple moved to Los Angeles and realized their musical dream, the formation of a big band. The Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin made its debut in 1972, lasting until 2003, when Akiyoshi disbanded it to work on her solo and small-group playing.

It was past the big band era’s heyday, but the orchestra found an eager audience. Akiyoshi helped to bring the “old-fashioned” big band genre into a new period, partly by using Japanese musical ideas in her compositions, giving her orchestra and solo work a distinctive sound. She has won many critics’ and readers’ polls, including nearly 30 from Downbeat magazine alone, in the categories of big band music, arranging, and composition. In 2004 Japan honored her with the Order of the Rising Sun, and in 2007 the National Endowment for the Arts named her an NEA Jazz Master.

Akiyoshi has made over 75 albums. At age 92, she is still playing and recording. Enjoy these eight great tracks by Toshiko Akiyoshi.

  1. Track: “No Moon at All”
    Album: Toshiko, Her Trio, Her Quartet
    Label: Storyville
    Year: 1956

From very early in Akiyoshi’s career, this album finds her in a trio with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Roy Haynes on some tracks, while on others she forms a quartet with alto saxophonist Boots Mussulli, bassist Wyatt Reuther, and drummer Edmund Thigpen. These were experienced pros – Reuther had played with Dave Brubeck, Mussulli with Stan Kenton, and Haynes with Charlie Parker, just to name a few – yet the young Akiyoshi holds her own, guiding the sounds of both ensembles.

The track list ranges wildly, from J. J. Johnson’s “Kelo” to Rodgers and Hart’s “Thou Swell.” Somewhere in the stylistic middle ground is “No Moon at All” (played with the trio). It doesn’t take long for Akiyoshi’s confident, percussive technique to spin out into flourishes of virtuosity.


  1. Track: “Lover Come Back to Me”
    Album: Miwaku No Jazz
    Label: Victor Japan
    Year: 1963

The album’s title means “fascinating jazz” in Japanese. At this point, Akiyoshi was still sticking with the standards, played with top-notch colleagues in small groups. During the 1960s she was married to alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano (in fact, this album uses her married name), who plays on several of her records in this period. Otherwise, the septet is all Japanese musicians.

Trumpeter Akira Fukuhara is a particular standout on “Lover Come Back to Me,” with Akiyoshi defining the overall sound, as usual. Her chordal melodizing and syncopated, dissonant accompaniment inspire the hard-bop explorations of Fukuhara and Mariano.


  1. Track: “It’s No Secret What God Can Do”
    Album: The Country and Western Sound of Jazz Pianos
    Label: Dauntless
    Year: 1963

At first glance, it looks like a shallow gimmick, but the melding of country standards into the language of jazz is an operation taken very seriously, and executed successfully, on this duo album by Akiyoshi and fellow jazz pianist Steve Kuhn. Supported by an outstanding rhythm trio, the two ease one genre seamlessly into the other. It’s only by recognizing the famous melodies that you remember that they originate in Nashville, not New York or New Orleans.

“It’s No Secret What God Can Do” was first recorded by Jim Reeves in 1950, resurfacing in later versions by Elvis Presley and Mahalia Jackson. Under Kuhn and Akiyoshi’s fingers, one could believe it was written with jazz in mind.


  1. Track: “Tales of a Courtesan (Oirantan)”
    Album: Tales of a Courtesan (Oirantan)
    Label: Victor
    Year: 1976

Tales of a Courtesan is the third album made by Akiyoshi’s big band run with her second husband, Lew Tabackin. This period of her career marked a major change: she was now composing most of the music she played.

Among this band’s many strong elements are Akiyoshi’s complex sense of orchestration, taking advantage of a tutti sound, featuring many outstanding soloists at times, and setting long passages for chamber groups within the larger band. “Tales of a Courtesan” is a fine example, particularly for its interplay between Tabackin’s flute and Akiyoshi’s piano.


  1. Track: “After Mr. Teng”
    Album: Farewell
    Label: Victor/Ascent
    Year: 1980

By 1980, the Akiyoshi/Tabackin big band had a worldwide reputation for its innovation in the genre. While a contributing factor was Akiyoshi’s increasing use of Asian melodic and rhythmic concepts in her original works, she was equally comfortable with the vocabulary of all the big band greats who had come before her, giving the ensemble unheard-of range. Farewell received a Grammy nomination.

Akiyoshi’s composition “After Mr. Teng” finds her in classic bebop mode, channeling Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, and (in her band arrangement) Charles Mingus.


  1. Track: “Autumn Sea”
    Album: Four Seasons
    Label: Nippon Crown
    Year: 1990

Over the decades, Akiyoshi has made nine albums with a group called the Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio, but the personnel is different each time. In this case, she’s joined by George Mraz on bass and Lewis Nash on drums.

All of the tunes fit the title’s theme, relating to one season or another. It’s an esoteric mix of songs, from standards like “Spring Is Here” and “Summertime” to the Christmas favorite “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and (most surprisingly) Mel Brooks’ big number from The Producers, “Springtime for Hitler”! Only one of the tracks, “Autumn Sea,” is by the pianist.


  1. Track: “Five Spot After Dark”
    Album: New York Sketchbook
    Label: Ninety-One
    Year: 2004

Kenny Washington (drums) and Peter Washington (bass) form Akiyoshi’s trio this time for an album of tunes inspired by or evoking the Big Apple. The playing is spare, urbane, off-hand and angular in a way that brings to mind the shuffle of a lone wolf through the dark streets of a crowded city.

There are works by Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, even Billy Joel. “Five Spot After Dark,” by hard-bop tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, opens the album, which you can hear in its entirety here:


  1. Track: “Sophisticated Lady”
    Album: Vintage
    Label: T-toc
    Year: 2008

When Akiyoshi and Tabackin started their life together, their goal was to form a big band, which they did with long-lasting success. But in recent years, with Akiyoshi focused on solo work, their collaboration has been appropriately small-scale. Vintage is a tribute album to the music of Duke Ellington (Akiyoshi credits Ellington’s use of African sounds for the courage to use Japanese ideas in her own works).

This lovely and intricate duo arrangement of “Sophisticated Lady,” for piano and tenor saxophone without rhythm section, lets Akiyoshi demonstrate her gift for creating many-voiced polyphony – or the illusion of it – in her improvisations.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Brian McMillen.

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