In 1929 two future jazz piano greats were born thousands of miles but just days apart. Toshiko Akiyoshi eventually emerged as one of the first prominent Japanese jazz musicians to make a name for herself in America, while Barry Harris joined a number of other Detroit musicians who staked out national and global reputations after leaving that city’s vibrant 1950s jazz scene. Both pianists had one thing in common: they developed their art under the influence of bebop great Bud Powell.
A Living Extension Of The Powell Sound On Piano
On December 12, 1929, Toshiko Akiyoshi was born to a family of Japanese emigrants in Liaoyang, Manchuria. Three days later, far across the world in Detroit, Michigan, Barry Harris was born. Both of these artists would come of musical age in the great jazz era of the 1950s, and they would both be heavily influenced by a pianist just a few years older–Bud Powell, who had been a jazz-piano pioneer of bebop. Akiyoshi became one of the first Japanese jazz musicians to establish a career in America, while Harris emerged as a significant teacher and a carrier of the bebop torch. We’ll hear recordings by both of these artists on this edition of Night Lights, starting off with early-period works from Harris, who was one of many extraordinarily talented jazz artists to come out of mid-20th-century Detroit, along with Thad Jones, Yusef Lateef, fellow pianists Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, drummer Elvin Jones, and others.
A modest, self-effacing artist in his youth, Harris did not follow his Motor City colleagues to New York City until the end of the 1950s, around the time he turned 30. One of his first prominent gigs was with Cannonball Adderley’s group, and he made notable recording dates with musicians such as Dexter Gordon and Lee Morgan, playing on the trumpeter’s hit “Sidewinder”:
Harris’ musical approach reflected that of his inspiration Bud Powell, but taken at a slightly slower and more deliberate pace. We’ll hear something now from Harris’ very first recording date, made in 1958, along with a small-group interpretation of a Powell composition done in the late 1960s:
After moving to New York City at the end of the 1950s, Harris recorded frequently for the Riverside and Prestige labels throughout the 1960s, tending the bebop flame as other musical styles caught fire in the jazz world. He often worked with fellow Detroiter Yusef Lateef, and he also did some significant gigging with veteran saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, whose tune “Bean and the Boys” provided the musical vehicle for one of Harris’ most notable recordings from this period. Harris endured beyond the 1960s as an influential teacher and a living tributary to both Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, the two jazz-piano giants of the bebop era:
From Japan And Bebop To Big Band
Toshiko Akiyoshi was born on December 12, 1929 in Liaoyang, Manchuria. Her Japanese family eventually returned to their homeland following the end of World War II, and Akiyoshi, who had started playing piano as a little girl, ended up working with a local dance band. She first learned to play jazz by listening repeatedly to a Teddy Wilson recording of “Sweet Lorraine,” and went on to emulate the revolutionary bebop style of Bud Powell, whose records made a significant impact in the growing culture of postwar Japan.
Akiyoshi’s break came when pianist Oscar Peterson heard her playing in a nightclub while he was visiting Japan as part of a Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic tour in the early 1950s. Peterson introduced her to Granz, who set her up for her first recording date, done with Peterson’s rhythm section. Several years later she moved to America and became a student at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where she often played at the Storyville nightclub and also met saxophonist Charlie Mariano. The two eventually married and became musical collaborators as well; here they are in 1960 performing an Akiyoshi composition, “Long Yellow Road”:
Akiyoshi and Charlie Mariano split up in the 1960s and she led a number of trio and quartet dates. At the end of the decade she formed a significant musical and personal partnership with saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin, one that would lead to the formation of a big band that served as a vehicle for Akiyoshi’s composing for the next 30 years. The band’s very first recording featured Akiyoshi on the piano; as time went on, her writing would increase and elevate her profile higher than her own playing.
As Akiyoshi began to write more and more for the new orchestra, the influence of her Japanese cultural upbringing began to show in some of her compositions and arrangements. The musician who had started out as an acolyte of bebop piano master Bud Powell created a distinctive, modern big-band sound with Ellingtonian overtones and stylistic tinges of Akiyoshi’s background. Jazz scholar and musician Bill Kirchner has noted that
Akiyoshi’s pieces tend to be either rooted in traditional big-band jazz concepts or, in some cases, strongly influenced by Japanese music. The composition “Sumie” is of the latter stripe, a series of variations on a 12-bar melody (not a blues) with emphasis on Tabackin’s skills on flute and piccolo. Toward the end of the piece the trumpets are voiced in close harmony and bend the notes upward and downward; this is known in Japanese music as a gagaku sound. The title of the piece refers to a disciplined form of Japanese improvisational painting done with ink and water.
Previously On Night Lights
- Burning With Bud: Bud Powell Live 1944-1953
- Time Flies: The Life And Music Of Bud Powell, Part 1
- Charles McPherson’s Post-Bird Bop
Listen to Toshiko Akiyoshi play Bud Powell’s “Cleopatra’s Dream”: