Over the course of a six-decade career, pianist, bandleader, and composer-arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi has made a unique and vital contribution to the art of big band jazz. Born in Manchuria, where she began playing the piano at age six, Akiyoshi moved back to Japan with her parents at the end of World War II. Her family, enduring the hardships of the period, could not provide her with an instrument, and so, just to touch a piano, she took her first job as a musician, playing in a dance-hall band.
She was not exposed to real jazz until a Japanese record collector introduced her to the work of Teddy Wilson, whose music immediately impressed her. In 1952, pianist Oscar Peterson discovered Akiyoshi while he was on a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of Japan and recommended that producer Norman Granz record her. Thanks to this opportunity, she came to the United States in 1956 to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She moved to New York in 1959, playing at Birdland, the Village Gate, the Five Spot, and the Half Note; but despite a brief attempt in the 1960s to showcase her talents as a composer and arranger for large ensembles, she did not have the opportunity to form a big band until she moved to Los Angeles in 1972 with her husband, saxophonist/flutist Lew Tabackin. The following year, the couple formed the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin. In 1976, the band placed first in the DownBeatCritics' Poll, and Akiyoshi's album Long Yellow Road was named best jazz album of the year by Stereo Review. In the 1970s, Akiyoshi began exploring Japanese themes in her compositions and arrangements, mixing them with the strong jazz base in her music.
In 1982, the couple returned to New York, where Akiyoshi re-formed her band with New York musicians. The band enjoyed a critically successful debut at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1983 Kool Jazz Festival. Akiyoshi has recorded 22 albums to date with the orchestra. Her recording Four Seasons of Morita Village was awarded the 1996 Swing Journal Silver Award, and her big band albums have received 14 Grammy Award nominations. Akiyoshi is the first woman ever to place first in the Best Arranger and Composer category in the DownBeat Readers' Poll.
In 1995, the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra was invited to play in China, and in 1996 Akiyoshi completed her autobiography Life With Jazz, which is now in its fifth printing in Japanese. Among the many honors she has received are the Shijahosho (1999, from the Emperor of Japan); the Japan Foundation Award, Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosetta (2004, from the Emperor of Japan); and the Asahi Award (2005, from the Asahi Shimbun newspaper).