Toshiko Akiyoshi

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Toshiko Akiyoshi
Toshiko Akiyoshi in 1978
Toshiko Akiyoshi in 1978
Background information
Birth nameToshiko Akiyoshi (穐吉 敏子, Akiyoshi Toshiko)
Also known as"Toshiko", Toshiko Mariano, 秋吉 敏子
Born (1929-12-12) 12 December 1929 (age 94)
Liaoyang, Manchuria, China
  • Musician
  • composer
  • arranger
Years active1946–present
LabelsNorgran, Columbia, Victor, RCA Victor, Discomate, Inner City, Nippon Crown
EducationBerklee College of Music

Toshiko Akiyoshi (秋吉敏子 or 穐吉敏子, Akiyoshi Toshiko, born 12 December 1929)[1] is an American jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader.[2]

Akiyoshi received fourteen Grammy Award nominations and was the first woman to win Best Arranger and Composer awards in Down Beat magazine's annual Readers' Poll. In 1984, she was the subject of the documentary Jazz Is My Native Language. In 1996, she published her autobiography, Life with Jazz, and in 2007 she was named an NEA Jazz Master by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.[3][4]


Akiyoshi was born in Liaoyang, Manchuria, to Japanese colonists, the youngest of four sisters. In 1945, after World War II, Akiyoshi's family lost their home and returned to Japan, settling in Beppu. A local record collector introduced her to jazz by playing a record of Teddy Wilson playing "Sweet Lorraine." She immediately loved the sound and began to study jazz. In 1953, during a tour of Japan, pianist Oscar Peterson discovered her playing in a club on the Ginza. Peterson was impressed and convinced record producer Norman Granz to record her.[4] In 1953, under Granz's direction, she recorded her first album with Peterson's rhythm section: Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on double bass, and J. C. Heard on drums. The album was released with the title Toshiko's Piano in the U.S. and Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi in Japan.[5]

Akiyoshi studied jazz at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.[4] In 1955, she wrote a letter to Lawrence Berk, asking him to give her a chance to study at his school. After a year of wrangling with the State Department and Japanese officials, Berk was given permission for Akiyoshi to enroll. He offered her a full scholarship, and he mailed her a plane ticket to Boston. In January 1956, she became the first Japanese student at Berklee.[6] Soon after, she appeared as a contestant on the 18 March 1956 broadcast of the CBS television panel show What's My Line?[7] In 1998, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee, by then known as the Berklee College of Music.[8]

Akiyoshi did experience some difficulties as a result of her Japanese heritage after coming to America. Some of her audience saw her as an oddity more than a talented musician, a Japanese girl playing jazz in America. According to Akiyoshi, some of her success was attributed to her being an oddity, saying in an interview with the LA Times, “In those days, a Japanese woman playing like Bud Powell was something very new. So all the press, the attention, wasn’t because I was authentic...It was because I was strange”.[9]

Akiyoshi married saxophonist Charlie Mariano in 1959. The couple had a daughter, Michiru. She and Mariano divorced in 1967 after forming several bands together. During the same year, she met saxophonist Lew Tabackin, whom she married in 1969. Akiyoshi, Tabackin, and Michiru moved to Los Angeles in 1972. In March 1973, Akiyoshi and Tabackin formed a 16-piece big band composed of studio musicians.[4] Akiyoshi composed and arranged music for the band, and Tabackin served as the band's featured soloist on tenor saxophone and flute. The band recorded its first album, Kogun, in 1974. The title, which translates to "one-man army", was inspired by the tale of a Japanese soldier lost for 30 years in the jungle who believed that World War II was still being fought and thus remained loyal to the Emperor.[10] Kogun was commercially successful in Japan, and the band began to receive critical acclaim.[4]

The couple moved to New York City in 1982 and assembled the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin.[4] Akiyoshi toured with smaller bands to raise money for her big band. Years later, BMG continued to release her big band's recordings in Japan but remained skeptical about releasing the music in the United States[11] Although Akiyoshi was able to release several albums in the U.S. featuring her piano in solo and small combo settings, many of her later big band albums were released only in Japan.

On Monday, 29 December 2003, her band played its final concert at Birdland in New York City, where it had enjoyed a regular Monday night gig for more than seven years.[11] Akiyoshi explained that she disbanded the ensemble because she was frustrated by her inability to obtain American recording contracts for the big band. She also said that she wanted to concentrate on her piano playing from which she had been distracted by years of composing and arranging. She has said that although she has rarely recorded as a solo pianist, that is her preferred format. On 24 March 2004, Warner Japan released the final recording of Akiyoshi's big band. Titled Last Live in Blue Note Tokyo, the album was recorded 28–29 November 2003.


Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band

Akiyoshi’s Japanese heritage is distinctly present in her music and sets her compositions apart from other jazz musicians. When Duke Ellington died in 1974, Nat Hentoff wrote in The Village Voice that Ellington's music reflected his African heritage. Akiyoshi was inspired to investigate her Japanese musical heritage.[12][verification needed] She composed using Japanese themes, harmonies, and instruments (kotsuzumi, kakko, utai, tsugaru shamisen). But her music remained planted firmly in jazz, reflecting influences from Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Bud Powell.

One reviewer of the live album Road Time said the music on Akiyoshi's big band albums demonstrated "a level of compositional and orchestral ingenuity that made her one of perhaps two or three composer-arrangers in jazz whose name could seriously be mentioned in the company of Duke Ellington, Eddie Sauter, and Gil Evans."[13]

In 1999, Akiyoshi was approached by Kyudo Nakagawa, a Buddhist priest, who asked her to write a piece for his hometown of Hiroshima. He sent her some photos of the aftermath of the nuclear bombing. Her initial reaction was horror. She could not see how she could compose anything to address the event. Finally, she found a picture of a young woman emerging from an underground shelter with a faint smile on her face. Akiyoshi said that after seeing this picture, she understood the message: hope. With that message in mind, she composed the three-part suite Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss. The piece was premiered in Hiroshima on 6 August 2001, the 56th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. The Hiroshima suite appeared on the 2002 album Hiroshima – Rising from the Abyss.[14]

Awards and honors[edit]



  1. ^ Robinson, J. Bradford; Kernfeld, Barry (2002). "Akiyoshi, Toshiko". In Barry Kernfeld (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Vol. 1 (2 ed.). New York: Grove's Dictionaries. p. 22. ISBN 1561592846.
  2. ^ Cook, Richard (2005). Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia. London: Penguin Books. p. 5. ISBN 0-141-00646-3.
  3. ^ "In Conversation with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin". 5 December 2008. Archived from the original on 1 February 2016. Retrieved 13 January 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "NEA Jazz Masters – Toshiko Akiyoshi". [US] National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). 2015. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  5. ^ Dryden, Ken. "Toshiko's Piano". AllMusic. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  6. ^ "Toshiko Akiyoshi's Jazz Orchestra Brought The Club to Concert Halls". Retrieved 1 April 2021.
  7. ^ "Toshiko Akiyoshi on What's My Line". YouTube. 1956. Retrieved 2 September 2016.
  8. ^ Mergner, Lee (26 August 2009). "Dave Brubeck to Receive Honorary Doctorate From Berklee During MJF". JazzTimes. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  9. ^ Stewart, Zan (14 November 1993). "A Non-Traditional Arrangement : After making headlines as a musical oddity in the '50s, then nearly giving it all up in the '60s, pianist and big-band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi has found her place with a distinctive blend of Eastern and Western idioms". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 20 April 2023.
  10. ^ "'Kogun' and More Japanese Stragglers". 2015. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  11. ^ a b "Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians – Toshiko Akiyoshi". 2015. Archived from the original on 15 January 2015. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  12. ^ "Toshiko Akiyoshi :: Jazz Archive Interviews". Retrieved 31 August 2020.
  13. ^ Harrison, Max; Fox, Charles; Thacker, Eric; Nicholson, Stuart (2000). The Essential Jazz Records Volume 2: Modernism to Postsmodernism. Continuum. p. 226. ISBN 978-0720118223.
  14. ^ Nat Hentoff (21 August 2003). "A Japanese Jazz Musician Tackles The Daunting Subject of Hiroshima". Retrieved 30 August 2013.
  15. ^ Down Beat magazine's Readers' Poll winners database; accessed 5 April 2012
  16. ^ Down Beat magazine's Critics' Poll winners database; accessed 5 April 2012.
  17. ^ LA Times, Grammy Nominees Database; accessed 3 June 2007
  18. ^ "Toshiko Akiyoshi". National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
  19. ^ Reich, Howard (13 November 1994). "Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra: Desert Lady-Fantasy (Columbia).One..." Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  20. ^ "Toshiko Akiyoshi". AllMusic. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  21. ^ "Toshiko Akiyoshi Catalog - album index". Retrieved 13 November 2018.


  • "100 Jazz Profiles: Toshiko Akiyoshi" (link) BBC Radio 3; accessed 18 May 2007
  • "Jazz Import" (link) Time, 26 August 1957
  • "Toshiko's Boston Breakout" (archived link) Berklee College of Music,, c. 1998; accessed 26 May 2007
  • Hazell, Ed. "Playing Shape" (archived link) Berklee College of Music,, 2 June 2004; accessed 26 May 2007
  • Helland, Dave. "Bio: Toshiko Akiyoshi" (archived link) Down; accessed 18 May 2007
  • Jung, Fred. "A Fireside Chat With Toshiko Akiyoshi" (link) All About Jazz, 20 April 2003; accessed 18 May 2007
  • Weiers, Matt. "An Interview with Toshiko Akiyoshi" (link) Allegro, 2004 March (Volume CIV, No. 3).
  • Yanow, Scott. "Biography: Toshiko Akiyoshi" (link),; accessed 18 May 2007.
  • Ogawa, Takao. "Jazz in Japan through Testimonials · 証言で綴る日本のジャズ" (Komakusa Publishing) 2015, Language: Japanese ISBN 978-4-905447-71-9, p. 90-110.

External links[edit]