Toshiko Akiyoshi, 84, is best known today as the longtime leader of a big band. During the latter half of her career, that band had been co-led by Lew Tabackin, whom she married in 1969. She also formed several bands with her previous husband—alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, whom she married in 1959 and divorced in 1967. Akiyoshi grew up in Japan after World War II when her parents moved back to the country from Manchuria. She began playing piano at age 7, entertained U.S. troops in Japan and fell in love with jazz after hearing a Teddy Wilson recording of Sweet Lorraine. [Pictured above,Toshiko Akiyoshi in 1958]
Akiyoshi was discovered by pianist Oscar Peterson on a 1952 tour. In 1953, Peterson convinced Norman Granz to record her in Tokyo, and offered up his rhythm section: guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer J. C. Heard on drums. The album was called Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi.
By leading a big band for so long without the re-issue of earlier albums, Akiyoshi has unfortunately erased most jazz fans' memories of her deft piano work. In re-listening to a range of her piano works from the 1950s, one is thunderstruck by her bebop intensity, fearlessness and relish for improvisational risk-taking.
When you listen to her first album, you clearly hear that Bud Powell was a strong influence. Her hands are constantly in motion, filling spaces with high-end tinkles here and there and flourishes, while her chords are dense, majestic and meaty. What's more, she had lightning-fast hands and was remarkably fluent in bop. Her trio albums through 1957 demonstrate strong chops. If you want to pull one over on a friend, use this one as a blindfold test. Hard to imagine anyone guessing it's Akiyoshi.
A special thanks to Jimi Mentis in Athens for the reminder and clips.
JazzWax tracks: For some reason, Toshiko Akiyoshi's first album, Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi, is available only as a CD in Japan here. Or as Toshiko's Piano here (ignore the Charles McPherson mention, which is an error) and here.
Or here's the entire album on Youtube...
JazzWax clips: Here are two clips featuring Akiyoshi at the piano:
Here's Akiyoshi on TV's The Subject Is Jazz in 1958...
Here's a French clip from the 1950s...