"Jazz Is My Native Language" (WETA-Channel 26, 10 p.m.) is a sensitive portrait of jazz pianist, composer and band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi. It is part of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association's ongoing "Silk Screen" series, which sets out to explore the boundaries of American and Asian culture.
Akiyoshi's story is certainly intriguing. First developing her skills as a jazz pianist in post-World War II Tokyo, she eventually gravitated to the two major jazz schools in America: Boston's Berklee and New York's 52nd Street. The barriers that Akiyoshi had to overcome -- as a woman and as a foreigner -- provided her with great inner strength until, in the early '70s, she found her niche as a composer, arranger and band leader. Not even Duke Ellington filled all three roles so totally.
When she founded the Akiyoshi-Tabackin Big Band more than 10 years ago, the pianist brought new life to a genre whose heydays had been two and three decades before. Drawing on her Japanese heritage, Akiyoshi developed an original sound, alternately hard-driving and a rich mosaic of tone coloration. The band has gone on to garner several Grammys and a cartload of national and international jazz awards.
Some of the most telling moments in this hour-long program illuminate Akiyoshi's symbiotic relationship with her 16 musicians, who, like Ellington's and Basie's, stayed with her through some very hard times. "I cannot write for phantom orchestra," she explains of her intimate voicings. "Like a female Buddha has a thousand hands so that they help others . . . it's the same thing . . . I feel each instrument is an extension of my hand."
She's blunt about musicians getting used to her as both a woman and an Asian, and about the subtleties of racial and sexual prejudice. There's a wonderful clip of Akiyoshi appearing as a guest on "What's My Line?" in the late '50s, singing in Japanese and identified as JAZZ PIANIST. But Akiyoshi is, above all, a messenger of perseverance. Until she met and married Lew Tabackin in 1968, she was developing her career concurrently with her responsibilities as a single parent, and she deals forthrightly with the confusions and conflicts that situation entailed.
Producer/director Renee Cho has caught Akiyoshi in varied settings: rehearsing with the band, performing in concert and then having to disband the group; relaxing at home and packing for her return to New York after a 10-year stay in California; writing charts, doing the laundry, chauffeuring her family (no one else has a license).
You can't help but come away impressed with Toshiko Akiyoshi's inner strength, as well as with an appreciation for her music. As she says at one point: "In order for an artist to survive, one must love enough. If you love something enough, you can put up with anything."