Like speed metal and banda music, jazz is one of those musical genres where the presence and contributions of female artists never quite mitigates the overall sense that it's a dude's world. For Toshiko Akiyoshi, crashing the sausage party as an Asian woman was extra challenging. Nevertheless, the award-winning jazz pianist and big-band leader was the first woman in the form's long history to compose and arrange an entire library of music.
Akiyoshi was born in Manchuria, China, in 1929, and studied piano as a child. Her parents moved the family back to their native Japan when she was a teenager, settling in the city of Beppu. In 1945, just after World War II ended, the city was crawling with U.S. soldiers, and local clubs playing jazz were in need of band members. Though she was planning to attend medical school, the 16-year-old Akiyoshi put her piano training to use in the clubs, meeting a number of touring musicians—like pianist Oscar Peterson—and jazz enthusiasts who furthered her burgeoning love of the sound. Her first recording, Toshiko's Piano, was recorded in 1953, with Peterson's band.
Akiyoshi moved to the United States in 1956 and became the first Japanese student at Boston's Berklee College of Music, studying composition and becoming more enamored with big-band music. With her second husband, saxophonist Lew Tabackin, she formed a 16-piece big band whose daring, conceptual album Kogun—which tells the tale of a Japanese soldier who, after being lost in the jungle for 30 years, emerges believing that World War II never ended—was a critical success in the U.S., and a commercial one in Japan. Subsequent compositions—including Tales of a Courtesan and the three-part suite Hiroshima: Rising From the Abyss—similarly fused Japanese themes and instruments with American bebop influences for a wholly original sound.
Though an undeniable success as a musician, composer, and arranger—with Grammy nominations, an NEA Jazz Master fellowship, and an array of mash notes from critics at Down Beat and other jazz publications—Akiyoshi was inevitably frustrated by the lukewarm commercial prospects of big-band music in the United States. She retired the band with a 2003 farewell concert at New York City's Birdland, but continues to perform and record as a solo pianist. And wouldn't you know, she raised a jazzy daughter: vocalist, flautist, singer, and songwriter Monday Michiru, who sang on her mother's records when she was 13 and later joined her as an instrumentalist on recordings like the awesomely titled 1980 release Tuttie Flutie.
Have you heard enough? Then get listening!