Akiyoshi was born in Liaoyang, Manchuria to Japanese emigrants. She was the youngest of four sisters. In 1945, after World War II, Akiyoshi's family lost its home and returned to Japan, settling in Beppu.
Akiyoshi began to study piano at age seven. When she was 16, she took a job playing with a band in a local club. Beppu was crowded with US soldiers, and musicians were in high demand to provide entertainment. Akiyoshi had planned to attend medical school, but she loved playing piano; and since she was earning good money, her family did not object to her pursuing music.
A local record collector introduced Akiyoshi to jazz by playing a record of Teddy Wilson playing "Sweet Lorraine". Akiyoshi immediately loved the sound, and began to study jazz. In 1952, during a tour of Japan, pianist Oscar Peterson discovered Akiyoshi playing in a club on the Ginza. Peterson was impressed, and convinced producer Norman Granz to record Akiyoshi. In 1953, under Granz's direction, Akiyoshi recorded her first album with Peterson's rhythm section: Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and J. C. Heard on drums. The album was titled Toshiko's Piano, and has been reissued on CD in Japan.
In 1955, Akiyoshi wrote a letter to Lawrence Berk asking him to give her a chance to study at his school, Berklee College of Music. After a year of wrangling with the State Department and Japanese officials, Berk secured permission for Akiyoshi to study in Boston. He offered her a full scholarship, and he mailed her a plane ticket to Boston. In January 1956, Akiyoshi enrolled to become the first Japanese student at Berklee. (As of 2000, roughly 10% of Berklee's student body comprised Japanese students.) While in Boston, Akiyoshi studied with the music teachers Herb Pomeroy, Madame Chaloff, and Richard Bobbitt. The latter taught her about Joseph Schillinger's System of Musical Composition, which influenced her approach to composition. On March 18, 1956, she became known to the entire country as a mystery guest on the popular television game show, What's My Line?.
Akiyoshi married saxophonist Charlie Mariano in 1959. The couple had a daughter, Michiru, now a musician who performs as Monday Michiru, in 1963, but divorced in 1967 after forming several bands together. That 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. 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. Kogun was commercially successful in Japan, and the band began to receive critical acclaim. By 1980, the Toshiko Akiyoshi – Lew Tabackin Big Band was considered one of the most important big bands in jazz.
The couple moved to New York City in 1982, where they promptly assembled a new big band (now called the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin). Akiyoshi toured with smaller bands to raise money for her big band. BMG continued to release her big band's recordings in Japan, but remained skeptical about releasing the music in the United States — since the 1950s, big band music has rarely achieved commercial success in the US. While Akiyoshi was able to release several albums in the US featuring her piano in solo and small combo settings, many of her later big band albums were released only in Japan and were available elsewhere only as imports. On Monday, December 29, 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. Akiyoshi explained that she disbanded the ensemble because she was frustrated by her inability to obtain US 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 March 24, 2004, Warner Japan released the final recording of Akiyoshi's big band. Titled Last Live in Blue Note Tokyo, the CD was recorded on November 28 and 29, 2003 but she continues to perform and record as a pianist and occasional guest bandleader.
Akiyoshi lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side with her husband. Besides being musicians, they are both avid wine and cigar collectors.
Read more about this topic: Toshiko Akiyoshi
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