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In 1953, during the Japan tour of producer and promoter Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic group, pianist Oscar Peterson had the opportunity to witness the performance of 23-year-old pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi at a Ginza club. Peterson was deeply impressed by her talent and successfully convinced Granz to record her. As a result, Toshiko recorded her debut album in Tokyo, accompanied by Peterson’s esteemed rhythm section of Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on double bass, and J.C. Heard on drums. The album was released as “Toshiko’s Piano” in the United States and “Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi” in Japan. Even at that early stage, it was evident that she held a deep admiration for the modernist Bud Powell, a fact that she has never made any effort to hide.
In January 1956, Akiyoshi was granted a prestigious four-year scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, becoming the first-ever Japanese student to enroll in the school. Her talent and unique background quicklymade her popular among fellow students. Since her arrival in Boston, Toshiko had the valuable opportunity to collaborate with George Wein, the respected owner and manager of the renowned Storyville club and record label. Under his guidance, Toshiko recorded her first two albums in the United States, marking the beginning of her successful musical journey.
In addition, George Wein served as the director and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, where Toshiko had the opportunity to showcase her talents in the 1956 and 1957 editions. Previously, in December 1956, she performed at the London House in Chicago, and in August 1957, she embarked on a highly successful two-month engagement at New York’s Hickory House, which marked her first extended performance outside of Boston.
The release of these early Norgran, Storyville, and Verve albums, alongwith Toshiko’s performance on The Subject Is Jazz TV-show, not only gained recognition from the public but also earned her acclaimfromprominent jazzmusicians. These achievements solidified her position as one of the top pianists in modern jazz.
"Pianist-arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi and altoist Vi Redd both spent important parts of their careers in Southern California, and they both have important releases that were recently put out by the Fresh Sound label.
Toshiko Akiyoshi, the first major Japanese jazz musician, was actually born in China, moving with her family to Japan when she was 15 shortly after World War II. ended. She discovered jazz through the recordings of Teddy Wilson and became very influenced by Bud Powell. Discovered by Oscar Peterson in 1952 who told producer Norman Granz about her, she made her recording debut in 1953 with Peterson’s rhythm section and soon moved to the U.S. Overcoming double prejudice against the Japanese and female jazz instrumentalists, she made several records in the 1950s, developed into one of jazz’s great arranger-composers, and spent the 1972-82 period living in Los Angeles where she and her husband Lew Tabackin had one of the top big bands of the decade. Akiyoshi has since moved to New York and remained active.
Toshiko Akiyoshi’s 1950s recordings for Norgran, Storyville, and Verve have been rare for decades, but now all of them have been reissued on the two-CD set Toshiko’s Blues 1953-1957. Akiyoshi sounds very much like Bud Powell (no mean feat) on her 1953 album which also has guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer J.C. Heard. She had mastered bebop, sounding relaxed at blazing tempos while showing bits of her own musical personality on the ballad “Laura.” However by the time she recorded her second album in 1956, Powell was still an influence but no longer dominated her playing. Her originals reflected the inspiration of her Japanese heritage and on ballads she had developed her own chord voicings while still hinting strongly at Powell on the faster material.
Toshiko’s Blues reissues the very scarce albums Toshiko’s Piano, George Wein Presents Toshiko, and The Many Sides Of Toshiko. In addition, it includes the four songs that she performed at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, two numbers from the 1958 television show The Subject Is Jazz, and her trio features from Toshiko, Her Trio Her Quartet. The numbers with altoist Boots Mussulli from the latter album were recently reissued on a Fresh Sound CD of the altoist’s music.
With Paul Chambers, Oscar Pettiford, Gene Cherico or Ed Safranski on bass, and Ed Thigpen, Roy Haynes or Jake Hanna on drums, musicians of the era certainly thought highly of the young Toshiko Akiyoshi. Now, finally, today’s listeners have the opportunity to hear just how talented she was back in her early days."
—Scott Yanow (September, 2023)
Los Angeles Jazz Scene