Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Overlooked Films (and/or Other A/V): Jazz Is My Native Language (1983/84)
Jazz is My Native Language: A Portrait of Toshiko Akiyoshi (1984) is an hourlong documentary about Toshiko Akiyoshi, the jazz pianist and bandleader and composer/arranger, and her family (her husband, featured soloist Lew Tabackin, and her daughter, Michiru Mariano, from her first marriage to another saxophonist, Charles Mariano), as they cope with a move from Los Angeles, where Akiyoshi is abandoning her beloved Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tababckin Big Band, to New York City, where Tabackin feels he's more likely to be stimulated, and Akiyoshi will soon establish her Toshiko Akiyoshi Orchestra.
As I wrote it up some years ago for IMDb:
This documentary, often seen on US public television stations in the mid-1980s [initially as part of the brief, loose series of Asian-American-experience documentaries, Silk Screen], documents both the last days of the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band (largely made up of jazz musicians making their rent money in the likes of The Tonight Show orchestra and movie session work, and working part-time on Akiyoshi's challenging and groundbreaking innovations in orchestral jazz), and the married couple's move from LA to NYC (where the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra has done impressive work, but not quite to the level the first Big Band was able to achieve). Akiyoshi comes off well, if unsurprisingly harried at the prospect of moving; Tabackin, who refuses to drive a car (in LA) and otherwise must be catered to, comes off rather badly (it is apparently he who wants to move to New York much more than his wife) when not demonstrating his brilliance as a woodwinds player (on saxophone and flute). Akiyoshi's daughter, Michiru Mariano (later to professionally dub herself Michiru Akiyoshi, and the product of her mother's previous marriage to saxophonist Charles Mariano), also has some input. Some excellent music, and a lovely introduction to Akiyoshi's work and life.
from the Newport Jazz Festival, 1956...NHK coverage, with some work by Akiyoshi's band featured in a spliced film/radio segment (or, at least, the sound folks kept recording even when the camera folks didn't):
from a French television performance in 1965:
From concert recordings:
And a 2000 performance by the later ensemble (definitely not in the film):
Akiyoshi seems willing to put up with Tabackin's intransigence without much complaint, but it is telling how morose she seems about the prospect of moving; this present-day (1981, I think) footage is interspersed with accounts of Akiyoshi's birth and childhood in Manchuria, in the Manchukuo days of the Imperial Japanese occupation, her early passion for jazz which leads her in her early adulthood to emigrate to the US, where she meets and marries Mariano and appears on What's My Line? (wearing a kimono and signing in on the chalkboard in kanji, she stumped the panel); even after their 1965 divorce, Akiyoshi and Charlie Mariano would occasionally play together, as Akiyoshi established herself as an engaging soloist and composer for small groups, and eventually in the early '70s with her new husband at the head of probably the most innovative of 1970s jazz orchestras. (Mariano died in 2009.) Michiru Mariano is a little frustrated, as a young woman on the verge of adulthood, with the family dynamic, but also can be seen playing a flute duet with her stepfather, as brilliant a flautist as he is a saxophonist. Michiru went on to her own musical and acting career, and is known professionally as Monday Michiru; a year older than I am, she inspired a bit of crush on my first viewing of the film. But, then again, Akiyoshi inspired a bit of a crush from my purchase of the first album I heard from the Big Band, Insights, wherein Michiru makes her singing debut.
I'm not sure if director Renee Cho, who seems to have no other a/v credits I can find, is the currently active environmental journalist by that name, but shall attempt to find out. The 58-minute film was offered on VHS, but has since appparently vanished, at least as a personal-use video (one can get institutional copies via the Center for Asian-American Media website, or *Update* they will sell copies for personal use for $24.95...but you have to email or call them, they don't offer that purchasing option on the website).
Monday Michiru in her adult career: