Pianist and big-band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi and her husband, tenor saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin, boast more than 4,000 bottles of wine in the basement of their three-story Manhattan brownstone. The home is a collector’s cove, a jazz fan’s paradise and a cigar connoisseur’s treasure trove.
“Don’t advertise too much,” laughs Tabackin in a hush-hush voice as he taps a lighted Cuban cigar against a handmade ashtray in the couple’s exposed-brick living room. “This is a Hoya de Monterrey Double Corona.”
Tabackin, 63, began lighting up stages as a student flutist at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1962, before he joined the U.S. Army. He moved to New York City in 1965, where he met and eventually married Akiyoshi in 1970. “Toshiko got me into wine,” Tabackin says. “Frank Prial, the wine editor of the New York Times, has been here. It’s fun drinking and sharing reactions. It’s like music: Music is meant to be shared. It doesn’t mean anything unless someone hears it.”
“Wine tastes best when you share it,” agrees Akiyoshi. “Same with jazz.”
The 73-year-old pianist developed her chops in China and then Japan, where she moved to in 1946. While on tour there, pianist Oscar Peterson heard Akiyoshi and recommended her to producer Norman Granz, who recorded her. Akiyoshi was eventually awarded a full scholarship to Berklee in 1956, and soon began leading her own bands, but she still credits Peterson for his guidance and influence.
The Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, which she formed when she and Tabackin moved to Los Angeles, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with performances at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and NYC’s Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and she’s preparing for it by going to her hideaway. “I have a house 43 miles outside Manhattan,” she says. “I went there to finish my commission for Lincoln Center. I’ll bring a cell phone, and only Lew knows the number, so no one else can call me. I have no television, radio, nothing. It’s very good.” Respite from the responsibilities of managing a big band comes infrequently for Akiyoshi, but she enjoys the rigors of being a leader.
The Orchestra performs weekly at Birdland in New York City, but the pair stays humble. “I don’t think we’re a celebrity couple,” Tabackin says. “I would like to be a celebrity,” Akiyoshi smiles. “We’d get more jobs.”
Practice makes perfect, and if they aren’t working with the Orchestra, Tabackin is working on his own. “The basement is Lew’s chateau,” Akiyoshi says. “He practices constantly. I can hear it from up here, and when the phone rings-‘Oh, Lew’s not here.’ I just take the plug out.”
The couple also loves to travel. “We didn’t go this year, but we usually travel to Italy in December,” Tabackin says. “The wine has already been harvested and we have friends who are wine producers. The danger point is, when you’re playing in Italy, you have to eat before a performance because places close early. Invariably, concerts start late. To resist the temptation to overdrink is very tough”—as is the temptation to overplay. “With a sound, I’m thinking of balance—the top part of the sound, the middle part and the bottom. Wine is similar. There’s an edge, mellowness, and body. Anyway, it’s easier to talk when you’ve lubricated your tongue.”
The Personal Files
Favorite wines? “Some of my favorites are Barolos,” Tabackin says. “Toshiko is a big fan of 1929 and Château d’Yquem. That’s a ’29 that will never let you down. We’ve got those. The oldest we have is an 1811 Imperatrice Josephine cognac.”
Computers? “I consider myself a no-tech person,” Akiyoshi says, while Tabackin admits he’s “getting into it, little by little. I have an iMac now, and I have a Web site [www.lewtabackin.com].”
Car? “Lew doesn’t drive.” Akiyoshi says. “He’s very smart. I have a Volvo station wagon to carry equipment, mostly.”
Clothing? “Most of my clothes are suits. Lew, he likes Armani,” Akiyoshi says. “I feel comfortable in Armani,” Tabackin says. “As a young person, I wore autumn colors because I had red hair. That was my thing. As I got older, and my red hair ceased to be red, I started wearing black and dark blue. I’m kind of rebelling against my youth.”
Books? Akiyoshi’s latest read is A Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Tabackin goes for Martin Amis.
Food? “I cook French and Italian very well. I cannot cook Japanese food,” Akiyoshi smirks. “That’s too hard.” Tabackin says, “I like Italian and French food, new-American food, Japanese food and most other foods.”
TV/Movies? “I have to admit I watch the HBO stuff,” Tabackin says. “Sopranos and Sex and the City.”Originally Published