November 9, 2006

Grooving With Toshiko

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The biography of any jazz master like Manchurian-born Toshiko Akiyoshi is bound to be interesting — always involving a remarkable set of pivotal moments (Toshiko’s was hearing jazz played to her by producer Norman Granz, back when she was first gigging in Beppu, Japan, for American war veterans and their Japanese girlfriends, or when she learned that Duke Ellington drew heavily on his African roots, an inspiration that has led to the successful use of traditional Japanese percussion and Buddhist chanting), years of paying dues to the old masters (Toshiko got her start in New York’s big bands, under leaders you might have heard of like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus), and finally, realizing one’s artistic vision and place in the times they live through (lately, Toshiko has been receiving commissions for such monumental historical moments like the anniversary of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima). Among a jazz community where the stories seem to keep getting better and better, Toshiko’s decades-long career still stands out.
This week, Toshiko finds herself in Ithaca as the welcome guest of Paul Merrill and the Jazz Department, showing her musical talents in in both the classroom and on stage. Last Tuesday, I saw in Toshiko’s rehearsal with Jazz Ensemble I, who she is playing her own compositions with today in Barnes Hall. Toshiko led the big band with a command that seemed almost comedically ironic in contrast with her unimposing frame. Interrupting her critiques of the musicians with jokes and pieces of advice or self-revelatory wisdom, she moved about the room adressing the rhythm, trumpets, and othe rhorn sections individually. Her conducting was surprisingly relaxed — most of the time, she stood at the front of the group, on her tippy-toes, keeping her eyes closed and head tipped softly over her right shoulders, keeping the rhythm by clapping and flipping her wrists and changing dynamics by waving her arms. Once, overcome with the joy of playing jazz, Toshiko ran from her conducting spot to the piano, nearly pushed the pianist playing off his bench, fell squarely on the bench and kicked her legs dramatically back, and started playing through the turns in soloists.
After rehearsal, Toshiko and I briefly spoke before she sat in for a session with Cornell music faculty, also at Barnes. I asked her if she had ever met these players before, much less rehearsed with them — she hadn’t. It didn’t matter — the set was seamlesly passionate. When I asked her about what it was like to be a part of the Harlem jazz scene — which was notoriously competitive, Toshiko replied, “Ah! Early be-bop! I was so lucky to be in this country at that time. It was sometimes a big battle, in the clubs all over the city, but it was very exciting. I was only 26 when I first came, and it was intimidating because all the guys I was playing with were the people I listened to all the time back in Japan, but the competition was good because we were helping each other out.” There, she gained an ear for arranging. “To be a jazz writer, you have to be a jazz player, and I can always tell when one is there without the other.” In reference to her spurts in both small ensembles and big bands, I learned Toshiko really prefers to play solo. “It’s been 30 years since I did that, but I’m looking forward to playing by myself again. I lost all the muscle and the reflex, and I’m older now, and sometimes in the big band my mind starts to wander, but I’m learning to concentrate again.”
For Toshiko, jazz can be a vehicle for making the world a more meaningful place to be alive, and she left me with some inspiring advice. “Just because you’re a musician doesn’t mean you don’t have political influence — you have to express yourslf. It doesn’t matter it no one is listening, or if you don’t make any money. We live in a world that demands us being involved — I’m trying to be as much of a part of it as I can.”