Each April, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History has recognized and celebrated the extraordinary heritage and history of jazz. Since 2001, the institution has encouraged us as a nation to partake in month-long mindful participation to appreciate the music we call jazz. Enjoying recordings, studying the music, and attending concert have all been part of Jazz Appreciation Month for the past 19 years.
This year, it will certainly be different in terms of concerts and tributes. Curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. However, we are all provided an opportunity to take more time to appreciate the music’s history through recordings, books, and videos.
In 2020, JAM (Jazz Appreciation Month) celebrates the dynamic impact of the often-overlooked contributions that women have made to jazz, both on and off the stage. As performers and conductors, educators, and producers and directors of jazz festivals, women have made their mark but have continued to struggle for recognition on par with their male counterparts.
The national museum efforts encourage us to appreciate the contributions of such women as Mary Lou Williams, the Sweethearts of Rhythm, Leigh Pilzer, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others. Locally, we have many women who have made substantial contributions to the jazz scene. The Ladies First Jazz Big Band serves as an example in our community. We are fortunate to have one of the longest-running all-women big bands in the nation right here in Buffalo.
Every April, a featured artist is selected to celebrate and appreciate. Being the year celebrating Women in Jazz, the featured artist is pianist, bandleader, and composer Toshiko Akiyoshi. For those who may not know of Akiyoshi, here is the museum’s description:
Born in Manchuria, Akiyoshi first moved to Japan with her parents at the end of World War II, and then to the United States in 1956 to study at Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Following a series of performances in top New York venues, in 1973, she and her husband, saxophonist/flutist Lew Tabackin, formed the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra. Known for her uniquely textural big band compositions and Japanese influence, Akiyoshi has received fourteen Grammy Award nominations, was the first woman to win Best Arranger and Composer awards in Downbeat magazine’s annual Readers’ Poll, and received the title of NEA Jazz Master in 2007.
In addition to the NEA Jazz Master recognition, Akiyoshi has received many accolades. Here is a video prepared for her being awarded the BNY Mellon Jazz 2018 Living Legacy Award. It spotlights her career and contributions:
Each year, Jazz Appreciation Month produces a poster for celebratory use. The artist for the 2020 JAM poster is Wynter Jackson, a senior visual arts student at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Washington, D.C.
Take time in this month of April to celebrate and appreciate the true American art form of jazz. And, a good time to support and appreciate many of our local jazz musicians who have been severely affected by the COVID-19 public health crisis.