Pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi was the first Japanese musician to become popular with jazz fans in the U.S. Oscar Peterson demanded that his label record her; Charles Mingus hired her for his band. Then she went on to form her own acclaimed Jazz Orchestra. On Tuesday afternoon, Akiyoshi reassembled that group for a rare performance at the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall.
Back at the grand piano in her Upper West Side brownstone, 86-year-old Toshiko Akiyoshi says the occasion for her orchestra's reunion is to celebrate two milestones — when she started her professional career, and when she moved to the U.S.
"It's very easy to remember, because I started in '46, so it will be the 70th anniversary," Akiyoshi says. "I came to this country in '56, so it will be the 60th anniversary in this country."
Akiyoshi put together her first Jazz Orchestra in Los Angeles in 1973 with her husband, saxophonist Lew Tabackin — he was playing with the Tonight Show band, and helped fill her 16-piece orchestra with some of the best studio musicians in town. Akiyoshi says all of the sax players could also play flute and clarinet; that led to her signature style.
"The saxophone players — if you wanted to be studio player, you had to double everything. So I thought, 'Maybe I can write a woodwind section.' And it became one of my trademarks."
Along with the texture of woodwinds, the Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band is distinctive in its use of Japanese instruments and themes.
A few years after the band was formed, the musicians performed in Minneapolis, where a University of Minnesota student named Maria Schneider heard them play.
"That concert was so powerful for me," Schneider says. "The music was so beautiful, and there was something about it being displayed in that concert hall — and her conducting and her playing — just the whole took me, and it made me all of a sudden ask the question, 'Wow, could I do that?'"
Schneider is composing for and leading her own jazz orchestra. She says Akiyoshi helped pave the way.
"It wasn't that she was a woman," Schneider says, "but it was that somebody was doing jazz that was infused with classical — it was concert music."
Akiyoshi studied classical piano in Manchuria, China, where she was born in 1929. At the end of WWII, her family was forced to return to occupied Japan.
"We came back and my parents lost everything," Akiyoshi says. "I could not hope to get the piano. And it was during occupation time. And [there were] many clubs: There was the officer's club, NCO club, the Sergeant's Club, and they all need musicians. On top of that, the Japanese wanted to dance, too, and there wasn't that many musicians. So I was hired immediately."
Akiyoshi was a teenager. She studied jazz and began to perform in small combos. In 1952, pianist Oscar Peterson heard her in a Tokyo nightclub, and he persuaded the head of Verve Records to record her.
Akiyoshi came to the U.S. to study at what was then called the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She was the first Japanese musician at the school. She moved to New York and developed a reputation as a fierce bebop player, but she says she wasn't completely accepted in the jazz world as a woman and an Asian.
"In those days, 'Japanese play jazz, really?' And when it come to girl — 'Really, really?' kind of thing."
Her husband, Lew Tabackin, says she continued to face discrimination, but he says they have no regrets.
"I think we did pretty well, considering we had a band for 30 years," Tabackin says. "We did some really great things. You know, we made a contribution. How many people can actually feel that they've made a contribution?"
Toshiko Akiyoshi disbanded her orchestra in 2003 to focus on her first love — and, at 74, to try to get better.
"I started missing piano," Akiyoshi says. "Because I started as a pianist, and all my writing come from my experience as a player. So 30 years I say maybe I stop, disband it. Maybe I try to concentrate on playing piano. Maybe I'll be able to play just as good as before. I can at least try."
Akiyoshi says she hopes she's given something back to jazz, which she says has been very kind to her.