Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Toshiko - In the Beginning

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“THAT JAZZ should be written about critically is doubtful. It is an elusive, subjective form, whose delights are immediate and often fleeting. It seizes the emotions and the heart—but rarely the head— and few people need written instructions on how to feel.


Moreover, jazz, unlike many musics, must be listened to and listened to before its secrets, which are many, become plain, and no amount of reading will do this for you. Nonetheless, the music is mercurial, and the curiosity about it is widespread.


As a result, perhaps an attempt should be made to pin down its sights and sounds on paper. I am also pretty well convinced that some sort of running commentary on the music's ceaseless change has value; after all, jazz is the liveliest and possibly most influential music in the world, and tomorrow it may be gone.


To be sure, no such commentary can be wholly accurate or wholly agreeable. Critics are biased, and so are readers. (Indeed, a critic is a bundle of biases held loosely together by a sense of taste.) But intelligent readers soon discover how to allow for the windage of their own and a critic's prejudices.”
- Whitney Balliett, Dinosaurs in the Morning


Pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi was 28 years old when this article by Whitney Balliett was first published in The New Yorker magazine.


She has since become a world renown Jazz pianist, composer and arranger.


For many years, she co-led the Akiyoshi-Tabackin Big Band with her husband Lew Tabackin, a premier tenor saxophonist and flutist.


It’s fun, sometimes, to look back at the way things were … in the beginning.


Toshiko


“NONE of the foreign jazz musicians who occasionally pelt our shores has been more comely, modest, or accomplished than Toshiko Akiyoshi, a twenty-seven-year-old Japanese pianist. Much of the time since her arrival, Toshiko, as she is known, has been in Boston, where, by day, she has been studying musical composition and theory at the Berklee School of Music and, by night, filling a night club named Storyville.


Last week, pried loose from the North, Toshiko opened at the Hickory House with her trio, a handful of appropriate kimonos, and a gorgeous scarlet, gold, and white ceremonial obi (a broad, heavy silk sash worn about the middle). I went to see her at the Park Sheraton on the afternoon of her debut, and she was a vision in black: neat black dress, black patent-leather shoes, wide black eyes, and glistening black hair that fell in a dancing ponytail to her waist. Stocky and quick-moving, Toshiko gave a shy, brilliant smile and lit on the edge of a chair with the air of someone about to be served tea. I asked her how she had become a jazz pianist. "Oh, was by accident," she said, in warm, telegraphic English. "In '46, I decide to go to medical school. My father very much want me to become doctor. Before school begin, I visit cousin in Beppu. She heard of a Japanese dance band there that need piano player. I take piano lessons since seven years old and my cousin say, ‘Do you play jazz?' I say, 'I never hear of jazz.’ At audition, I play a German tango called 'Blue Sky.’ The leader, Mr. Yamada, say, 'Oh, she can play piano.’ So I join the band. One week later, my father find out. He was very mad.


Seventeen-year-old daughter playing piano in a dance palace. Toof! But I told my mother, who is very, very understandable person, that I will quit when school starts. But I didn't. A big fourteen-piece Japanese orchestra want me, then later an Argentine tango band, then another Japanese band. In '49, I went to Tokyo and joined Mr. Ikoma and his orchestra. All this time, I play no solos, just umpcha-umpcha behind band. Then, one time, I wrote out all the notes in solo on Teddy Wilson record of 'Sweet Lorraine' and put his notes beside straight melody to compare. I study difference hard and then write down new figures of my own, learn them by heart, and play them in solo next day with band. Great success.'


For the next few years, Toshiko worked in Tokyo with such indigenous groups as the Blue Coast Orchestra, the Gay Stars Orchestra, the Tokyo Jive Combo, and the Six Lemons. After that, equipped with a style akin to that of Bud Powell, she formed her own group, the Coy Quartet. "One night,' she said, "Oscar Peterson, in Tokyo with Norman Granz and the Jazz at the Philharmonic group, heard me play. Of course, he was idol, and when he came to speak to me, I was shaking all over. He introduce me to Mr. Granz, and Mr. Granz say, 'Would you like to make record?' He gave me Oscar Peterson rhythm section, and two weeks later I make my first record." Three years later, after the proper amount of complicated correspondence, she was offered a four-year scholarship at the Berklee School.


Toshiko was born of Japanese parents in Dairen, a seaport in Manchuria, the youngest of four girls. The family lived in Dairen until 1946, when they were exiled to Japan by the Chinese Nationalists. From 1945 on, Dairen was occupied by the Russians, the Red Chinese, and the Chinese Nationalists. "When Russians come, my father make my sisters and I cut off all our hair to look like boys. All day long, Russian soldiers come into our house and take things. They sell them in the park in front of our house to Manchurian merchants. My sisters and I get up about four-five o'clock every morning to make many rice balls, and hide all day up on veranda and eat them. When Red Chinese come, a Communist officer and his wife—how do you say?—requisition upstairs in our house. Then the Nationalist Chinese come, and a general move in upstairs. He was very funny man. Every night, he bring young officers home to play games like chess with me and my sisters. He say to my father many times, 'Don't sell anything in your house, please. If you need money, I will give you all you want/.’ He want everything in house for himself after we leave.

We could take only what we could carry and three dollars apiece. The general came to the station, and gave us a case of soda, like ginger ale, for going-away present.


What are Toshiko's plans for the future? "If possible, if I good enough," she said, "I would like to finish four years at Berklee early, and play a year for experience. Maybe go to Europe, too. Then I will go home and teach young Japanese jazz musicians. There are two, three with very good potential. I have learned many things from musicians here, but I will finish my life in Japan. Here is too fast. I am more or less enjoying type, slow-motion type. In Tokyo are many tiny coffeehouses, hold eight, ten people. Each have hi-fi sets and enormous collection of American jazz records. You buy one cup coffee only and sit four, five hours listening to records. Is nothing like that here." - Whitney Balliett


During her stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Toshiko married alto saxophonist, Charlie Mariano. Charlie was a native Bostonian and had returned there in 1958 following a few years stay in Los Angeles with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and drummer Shelly Manne and His Men.


Richard Vacca explains it this way in his The Boston Jazz Chronicles, Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937-1962:


Akiyoshi applied to Berklee in 1955, and was granted a full scholarship. In January 1956, she arrived as the schools first Japanese student. But she had to play, too, and by February she was co-leading a quartet at Storyville with Boots Mussulli. They stayed for four months. From the beginning she played with great intensity and a knack for compelling rhythmic changes.


Her trio, with fellow students Gene Cherico and Jake Hanna, was back at Storyville for the fall of 1956. More engagements followed, as did a pair of recordings for the Storyville label, the first a trio date, The Toshiko Trio, and the second Toshiko, Her Trio, Her Quartet, with Mussulli. It is a wonder she found time to study, but she did, with Herb Pomeroy and Madame Chaloff among others. She graduated in 1959.


In 1958 Charlie Mariano returned to Boston after five years on the West Coast, to a teaching position at Berklee. He and Akiyoshi began working together as the Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio with Charlie Mariano. He was not happy at Berklee, though, and left after the spring term in 1959.


For Charlie and Toshiko, the year at Berklee was only a beginning. Mariano divorced in 1959, and he and Akiyoshi married in November. They moved to New York and formed the Toshiko Mariano Quartet with Cherico and Eddie Marshall, a drummer from Springfield, Mass. In December 1960 they recorded an LP for the Candid label, Toshiko Mariano Quartet, which earned a four-star review in Down Beat.24 [John Tynan, Review of Toshiko Mariano Quartet, Candid 8012, June 22, 1961, 9. 34]


Pianist Marian McPartland, writing in Down Beat in October 1961, best described how the Toshiko Mariano Trio was stepping into the sixties:


Her style and conception seem different from the Bud Powellish ideas of a few years back, her playing seems to have outgrown the similarity it once had to Powell, and she plays in a more personal style, clean lines, clearly executed with fire and intensity.


Nor can Charlie still be identified, as he once was by some, as another Charlie Parker imitator. Fresh jets of sound, emotional, yet with a dry-ice quality, spurt from his horn. His ideas are fresh, the feeling lyrical yet full of virility. Charlie and Toshiko seem to inspire one another to play excitingly.


When Toshiko plays, she puts her whole being into the effort. It is interesting to see this small, slim woman perform with such furious power and concentration. She is uncompromising on stage. No designing crowd-pleaser, she bends over the keyboard, lost in what she is doing. She does not look up or smile until the end of a number.25 [Marian McPartland, Focus On Toshiko and Charlie Mariano, October 26, 1961, p. 18]


In January 1963, the quartet played one of its last, if not the last, gig at Connollys on Tremont Street before disbanding. Toshiko and Charlie moved to Tokyo later that month.”


The following video is set to Toshiko’s original composition Long Yellow Road from her Candid recording [8012] with Charlie. Gene Cherico is on bass and Eddie Marshall is the drummer.



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