How Toshiko Akiyoshi finds time for all that jazz
New York — FIFTEEN men unpack their instruments, arrange the music on their stands, take their places, and turn to face their leader, a diminutive Japanese woman who raises her hand and counts off ``One . . . two . . . one, two, three, four!'' And they're off, playing some of the most exciting music in jazz today, all composed and arranged by a little giant -- Toshiko Akiyoshi. Long recognized in the jazz field for her arranging and composing, Ms. Akiyoshi has also garnered nine Grammy nominations. In addition, she operates her own recording and publishing companies and takes care of all of the band's business. Oh, and she's a busy housewife, too. How does she do it?
``I think if you could put it in one word, it's love. If you love something enough, you'll put up with anything.''
Such is the practical philosophy of Akiyoshi, who, with the help of her husband, saxophonist Lew Tabackin, formed her award-winning band in 1978 in Los Angeles. Originally intended as a workshop, the band started to draw attention and before long went professional.
But Akiyoshi's jazz career predated the birth of her band. She arrived in the United States in 1956 to become a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston after being discovered by Oscar Peterson playing piano with her group in Japan in 1953. The American pianist was touring with Norman Granz's ``Jazz at the Philharmonic.'' He immediately recommended her to Mr. Granz as ``the greatest female jazz pianist'' he'd ever heard. Granz wasted no time recording Akiyoshi with Peterson's rhythm section. She ap plied to Berklee and was accepted.
For a Manchurian-born Japanese girl, this move to America was, to say the least, highly unusual. But Akiyoshi was obviously meant for a life quite different from the one her background had outlined for her. Already, at home, she had been playing in dance halls and clubs, much to the chagrin of her family, who believed that her piano playing was all right for a hobby, but certainly not for a career.
Akiyoshi's 31/2 years at Berklee put her in touch with many musicians, and it wasn't long before she was in the public eye. At that time she was considered a novelty (``A Japanese jazz pianist? What -- a female Japanese jazz pianist?''), but she sought the respect of her fellow musicians on the basis of the musicianship alone. Nevertheless, the going wasn't easy. She married, had a daughter, Michiru (who is now grown up and living in Los Angeles), and later divorced.
Eventually she moved to New York. It was hard to keep going as a jazz musician, she says. ``Most musicians, including myself, barely survived as jazz players, and the people that I thought were in a position to help me careerwise or jobwise did not help me at all. I was ready to give up music.''
By this time, however, she was married to Mr. Tabackin, and the couple moved to Los Angeles. ``When we went to L.A.,'' Akiyoshi recalls, ``I had some offers to play in clubs because people knew me, but I turned them all down. . . . But Lew encouraged me. He is the one who convinced me to keep the music.''
Tabackin says work in Los Angeles was a little slow, so he thought ``it might be fun to call some people and play some of Toshiko's arrangements.'' That's how the band got started, and after several years' work with it, developing the music and sticking to her artistic ideals, Akiyoshi's band was firmly established.
In 1982, Akiyoshi and her husband moved back to New York, where she had to re-form the group. Nevertheless, the move has turned out well for both of them. The new band debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1983 as part of the Kool Jazz Festival, and Tabackin has been getting a toehold in the New York club scene. They both tour, singly and with the band.
This season the Public Broadcasting Service is airing a documentary about Akiyoshi as part of the series ``Silk Screen'' -- films about Asians and Asian-Americans. The segment on Akiyoshi, ``Jazz Is My Native Language,'' is the creation of filmmaker Renee Cho. (Here in New York, the show airs at 11 p.m. Sunday; check local listings.) It depicts the couple's move from L.A. and shows Akiyoshi's many-faceted life, from rehearsing the band, to washing dishes, to recording in the studio.
``At one point,'' Ms. Cho says, ``I was thinking of this project as a feminist film, because here is Toshiko, suppressed. She hardly has time to compose, because she has to be a housewife. But she doesn't see things that way. Music is important to her, but those [other] things are important, too. She brings everything up to another level, just by her outlook.''
Says Akiyoshi: ``I wish I didn't have to do the other work. I wish I could get up in the morning and then disappear to my own little studio and I wouldn't have to come out unless I got hungry or something like that. That's basically what Lew does . . . . But the kind of economic situation we are in, we can't do that. If I complain, then it's not going to get done. If I used other things as a reason for not being able to write music for the band, then the music wouldn't get done.
``. . . I am not doing this to make a living out of it, even though it's very fortunate that I am making a living. I'm not doing it for recognition, although it's nice to get recognition. The bottom line is that I am doing this because I want to do it. So I do it when I can.
``Unfortunately I'm not great,'' she continues. ``I'm quite satisfied the way it is. I mean, I'm not satisfied!'' she says with a laugh. On the other hand she sees Tabackin as an exceptional player ``and an exceptional person. He [devotes] almost all his time to playing, and I can understand that. So I feel that if someone has to [devote] all his time, it might as well be him.
``To me the most important thing is our life together.'' ``I'm not saying everybody should feel that way,'' she adds, but ``I'm convinced that relationships are the most important thing.''