Born on December 12, 1929, and raised in Manchuria, Toshiko Akiyoshi started piano lessons at age six. Ten years later her family moved to Japan, where she first heard and began playing jazz. Soon she opted not to attend medical school as her parents wished. Instead she moved to Tokyo, where her mastery of Bud Powell's bebop style earned her steady work with the city's best bands.

In 1952, Toshiko formed her own group. A year later during a tour of Japan, pianist Oscar Peterson heard her play and recommended her to Norman Granz, who gave her the chance to make her first recordings with such jazz greats as Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. Not long after, Toshiko accepted a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Soon she was playing regularly at George Wein's Storyville Club and recording for his label with Roy Haynes, Ed Thigpen, Paul Chambers and Oscar Pettiford. In 1956 Wein presented her at his Newport Jazz Festival. She had, as they say, arrived.

In the years since, Toshiko's big band featuring husband/soloist Lew Tabackin has been a driving force in the jazz world, touring and recording to great critical acclaim. Fueled by her inspired writing, playing and conducting, the band is as vital and exciting today as ever. At the 1999 Monterey Jazz Festival, for example, they stole the show by playing a three-movement suite written by Toshiko to celebrate Duke Ellington's 100th birthday.

In July 1986, Toshiko was the first Japanese New Yorker ever to receive the Mayor's Liberty Award in recognition of her contributions to the quality of life in NYC. Other recipients that year included scientist Isaac Asimov, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, actress Liv Ullmann, and film director Franco Zeffirelli.