April 14, 2021

Toshiko Akiyoshi: Another Fine Japanese Pianist

 Among the many people who have contributed to the musical scene in the United States are the Japanese. Tomoko is a wonderful example: she was the first Asian and only the second woman to be hired as a faculty member at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She has taught there for over fifty years, which is another great achievement.

Here is another notable Japanese pianist who has achieved greatness.

Toshiko Akiyoshi, born in 1926, is a Japanese jazz pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger. Similarly to Tomoko, she began piano lessons early in life, focusing on Western classical music. After World War II, she played the piano for U.S. service members stationed in Japan, and then performed with visiting American jazz artists. With the Peterson jazz trio she recorded her first album Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi, which had U.S. success. By 1955, Toshiko was considered Japan’s leading jazz pianist.

Also like Tomoko, Toshiko came to the United States to study music, and has remained in the States ever since, although she toured in Japan. Her jazz compositions incorporated Japanese instruments, themes and harmonies. A Buddhist priest asked her to compose a piece in remembrance of the Hiroshima bombing; her three-part suite Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss premiered just weeks before the September 11, 2001 attack on the U.S.

Over the years Toshiko has been nominated for 14 Grammy awards, and was the first woman to win DownBeat magazine’s reader poll award as best composer and arranger. The U.S. National Endowment of the Arts also named her as an NEA jazz master. The 1984 documentary Jazz Is My Native Language featured this fine musician.

Both Japanese women demonstrate commitment to music, courage to pursue their dreams, high quality professional performance, and sustained long-term careers. And both have been honored by their peers. The United States is fortunate to benefit from their contributions.


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