Toshiko Akiyoshi was born in 1929 in what is today know as Dalian, (formerly known as Darien or Port Arthur) Manchuria, at the time ruled by the Japanese after the victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
Born from upper class parents, her father was a textile and steel mill owner, she and her sisters was brought up studying traditional Japanese dance, classic piano and ballet. Toshiko was addicted to the piano and soon focused of that.
As you can easily imagine the family luck changes dramatically in 1946 after the war. They were relocated to Beppu on the island of Kyushu in southern japan, with little money and only the belongings they could carry. Resulting in the fact that Toshiko Akiyoshi now 7 years old no longer had a piano.
From “The Subject is Jazz” 1958
Japan was full of American soldiers after the war, and entertainment establishments opened offering dance music. Toshiko Akiyoshi got a job playing in a dance band getting access to a piano and could practise classic piano outside working hours. One day a Japanese record collector heard her play and introduced her to Jazz playing a recording of Afro-American jazz pianist Teddy Wilson.
From “Her Trio, Her Quartet” – “Thou Swell” 1956
This was a revolution to the young Toshiko Akiyoshi, she started listening to and practice Jazz, in 1950 she moved to Tokyo to start up her own band. In 1952 pianist Oscar Peterson saw Akiyoshi playing in a club and soon Toshiko was recording her first album “Toshiko’s Piano” with members of Oscar Peterson’s band in Radio Tokyo Studio. The first two albums was dominate by covers of American Jazz, but on the third “The Toshiko Trio” (1956) it was mainly her own compositions. Recorded in New York City after she moved to US to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston
From “The Toshiko Trio” – “Kyoshu” 1956
In the 1960’s she was living in both Tokyo and New York, when not turing.
In 1964 her daughter Michiru Mariano was born, but she was divorced in 1967 from the father, two years later she married saxophonist Lew Tabackin.
Inspired by an interview with Duke Ellington expressing how proud he was of his race, Toshiko Akiyoshi gained interest in how to incorporate Japanese culture and music in her writing.
This was first attempted on Toshiko Akiyoshi – Lew Tabackin Big Band’s album “Kogun” (1974), and came to its full on their album “Insights” (1976), on the brilliant sidelong Jazz suite “Minamata”.
Nowhere near Japanese traditional music, but complex Jazz with a slight Japanese twist.
From “Insights” – “Minamata” 1976
To be continued
For additional reading on the subject I can recommend this great article by Susan Fleet, generally a rich source of information on pioneering women in music.