Performance Wednesday, April 6, 2011 | 9:30 PM

Toshiko Akiyoshi

Solo, Trio, and Quartet

Zankel Hall
This legendary pianist-composer leads a tour through the history of jazz piano, and performs trios and quartets with her husband, tenor saxophone virtuoso Lew Tabackin.

This concert is part of Late Nights at Zankel Hall.


  • Lew Tabackin, Tenor Saxophone
  • Mark Taylor, Drums
  • Paul Gill, Bass
  • Toshiko Akiyoshi, Piano


  • Toshiko Akiyoshi

    Over the course of a more than six-decade career, pianist-bandleader-composer-arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi has made a unique and vital contribution to the art of big-band jazz. Born in Manchuria, where she began playing the piano at age 6, Akiyoshi moved back to Japan with her parents at the end of World War II. Her family, enduring the hardships of the period, could not provide her with an instrument, and so, just to touch a piano, she took her first job as a musician, playing in a dance-hall band.

    Akiyoshi was not exposed to real jazz until a Japanese record collector introduced her to the work of Teddy Wilson, whose music immediately impressed her. In 1952, pianist Oscar Peterson discovered Akiyoshi while he was on a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of Japan and recommended that producer Norman Granz record her. Thanks to this opportunity, she came to the US in 1956 to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She moved to New York in 1959, playing at Birdland, Village Gate, Five Spot, and Half Note; but despite a brief attempt in the 1960s to showcase her talents as a composer and arranger for large ensembles, she did not have the opportunity to form a big band until she moved to Los Angeles in 1972 with her husband, saxophonist-flutist Lew Tabackin. The following year, the couple formed the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra. In 1976, the band placed first in the DownBeat Critics Poll, and Akiyoshi's album Long Yellow Road was named Best Jazz Album of the Year by Stereo Review. In the 1970s, Akiyoshi began exploring Japanese themes in her compositions and arrangements, mixing them with a strong jazz base.

    In 1982, the couple returned to New York, where Akiyoshi re-formed her band with New York musicians. They enjoyed a critically successful debut at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1983 Kool Jazz Festival. Her recording Four Seasons of Morita Village was awarded the 1996 Swing Journal Silver Award, and her big-band albums have received 14 Grammy nominations. Akiyoshi is the first woman ever to place first in the Best Arranger and Composer category in the DownBeat Readers' Poll.

    In 1995, the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra was invited to play in China, and in 1996 Akiyoshi completed her autobiography Life With Jazz, which is now in its fifth printing in Japanese. Among the many honors she has received are the Shijahosho (1999, from the Emperor of Japan); the Japan Foundation Award, Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosetta (2004, from the Emperor of Japan); the Asahi Award (2005, from the Asahi Shimbun newspaper); and a NEA Jazz Master award (2007, by the National Endowment for the Arts in the US).
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JapanNYC Lead Sponsors are Epson Corporation; Mizuho Securities USA Inc.; Nomura Holding America Inc. and Nomura America Foundation; Kotaro ONO, The Chairman of The ONO Group; ROHM Co., Ltd. and Rohm Music Foundation; Sony Corporation; and Yoko Nagae Ceschina.

Supporting Sponsors are Deloitte LLP; Mitsubishi International Corporation; Suntory Holdings Limited and Suntory Hall; Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited; Toshiba Corporation; and Toyota.

With additional funding from Aladdin Capital Holdings LLC; Asian Cultural Council; The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, Ltd.; GWFF USA Inc.; ITOCHU International Inc.; J.C.C. Fund of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of New York; Kawasaki Good Times Foundation; The NY Mets Foundation; Nihon Unisys, Ltd.; Nippon Express Foundation, Inc.; Nippon Life Insurance Company; Hiroko Onoyama and Ken Sugawara; Seiko Instruments Inc.; Subaru of America, Inc.; and Sumitomo Corporation of America Foundation.

With special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan; the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan; Japan Tourism Agency; Japan National Tourism Organization; the Japan Foundation; and the Consulate-General of Japan in New York.


"Swinging Till the Girls Come Home"
Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio
Music Taste

Jeff Tamarkin on Toshiko Akiyoshi

Toshiko Akiyoshi once wrote a song whose title played off an old joke: “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?” The traditional answer to that oft-asked question is “Practice.” But for Akiyoshi, the 81-year-old pianist-composer-arranger, a better answer might be “Pioneering.”

When Akiyoshi first recorded for a Western audience, more than a half-century ago, female instrumentalists were still a tiny minority on the jazz scene, and Asian women playing jazz were virtually non-existent. But Akiyoshi could think of no reason not to follow her dream and, in fact, it wasn’t until she came to America—10 years after playing professionally in Japan—that she encountered skeptics who viewed her as a novelty, not a serious artist.

“We have a saying in Japan,” Akiyoshi says, “that a nail that sticks out will be beaten. After I came to this country and people started noticing my work, there were some diehard music critics who questioned my authenticity. I had a stigma attached to me, but there was nothing I could do about it. Lew [Tabackin, her husband and musical collaborator for more than four decades] always says that I’ve been challenged by my heritage.”

Inspired initially by such greats as Bud Powell and Duke Ellington, Akiyoshi—the first Japanese student to enroll at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston—eventually overcame those early biases and has since become recognized as a major figure in jazz. Among her many honors, Akiyoshi was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2007, has won DownBeat magazine’s critics’ poll numerous times in several categories, and has been nominated for more than a dozen Grammys.

For most of her career, Akiyoshi has worked with large ensembles, but several years ago she decided to trim down the scope of her groups in order to refocus on her piano playing. At her Zankel Hall concert, Akiyoshi performs solo and in trio and quartet formats, accompanied by Tabackin on tenor saxophone and flute, Paul Gill on bass, and Mark Taylor on drums.

“Playing the piano was always my first love, and it still is,” Akiyoshi says as she looks forward to returning to Carnegie Hall, where she and Tabackin recorded a Grammy-nominated live album with their Jazz Orchestra nearly two decades ago. “To be able to play there means a lot to me,” she says. “It’s a very special place.”

Program Notes
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Sponsored in part by Mitsubishi International Corporation
Presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with Absolutely Live Entertainment LLC.
This performance is part of The Shape of Jazz.

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