How Asia-Born, U.S.-Based Women Are Ushering In a New Big Band Era

Migiwa Miyajima
Masa Tsujimura

Migiwa Miyajima

Traditionally in the jazz world, the big band configuration has been the almost-exclusive bastion of male bandleaders (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Wynton Marsalis) with few exceptions such as Carla Bley. But the scene is shifting as a group of Asia-born, U.S.-based women are ushering in a new era by helming large outfits. They're composing and arranging significant work while also enlisting scores of talented support artists, mostly in New York and Boston. They're sprinting ahead regardless of gender and nationality boundaries.

"I was born in Tokyo and learned to play classical music on piano and electric organ," recalls 32-year-old Harlem-based Miho Hazama. "Then I learned about orchestration by reorganizing symphonic classical music for the electric organ. By the time I was 10, I had a dream to be a composer." She is now living that dream along with other women including Migiwa Miyajima, Meg Okura and Jihye Lee.

Hiroyuki Seo
Miho Hazama

"There are so many composers and arrangers today who are getting the chance to express themselves with a large group," says Hazama, who won the 16th annual Charlie Parker Jazz Composer Award in 2015 and recently released Dancer in Nowhere with her third 13-piece m_unit ensemble; it's a jazz-chamber hybrid teeming with unexpected twists and jolting turns as well as pockets of frenzy that lead into wonder.

Hazama earned her Bachelor in Classical Composition from Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo in 2009, then moved to New York to work on her Master in Composition from the Manhattan School of Music in 2012, studying with the influential composer/arranger Jim McNeely while at the same time working with avant-jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita. "My career as an orchestrator started when Yosuke asked me to orchestrate one of his piano concerto pieces [2008's "Piano Concerto No. 3 Explorer"]," she says.

She cites other Asian, female big band leaders as forerunners in New York, including Junko Moriya (she won the prestigious 2005 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition) who moved back to Japan to lead her orchestra, and Asuka Kakitani, who formed a big band in New York in 2009 and has since moved to Minnesota. "They were the pioneers, the explorers," Hazama says. "It took a long time for the big band movement they started to really get going, but now it's here in New York."

As far as the influx of women from Japan to the U.S. with leadership skills, she attributes that to the plethora of student big band competitions in Japan that have spawned adventurous composing and arranging. "These competitions are bigger than in any other country," Hazama says. "That's where the cutting-edge music comes from." She offers as an example the Yamano Big Band Jazz Contest that was founded in 1970 and today invites 45 college bands to Tokyo from all over Japan to participate, with the best bands getting the opportunity from Yamano Instruments to record albums. It celebrates its 50-year anniversary Aug. 11-12 with an audience estimated to be more than 8,000 people. The competition is fierce and fresh.

The leader and conductor of the Miggy Augmented Jazz Orchestra, Japan-born, New York-based Miyajima also points to the competitions as a breeding ground where women can take the lead. She cites the Stellar Jam competition, celebrating its 11th year this Sept. 5-7 at the foot of Mt. Fuji.

Miyajima didn't swing into the jazz world until she was 30 after writing and editing travel magazines in Japan. "I was a hobbyist musician, and I didn't go to music school," she says. When she came to New York, she took private lessons and studied with McNeely which led to her working with the BMI Composers Workshop. She got a side gig working with jazz trombonist Slide Hampton and began her association with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, first as a tour coordinator in Japan and later as the pianist in the band.

"There are more than 500 non-pro big bands just in Tokyo, which is one of the 47 prefectures," she says. "There were bands of kids and bands by people in their seventies and eighties. When the orchestra went to a town in the northernmost prefecture, people there were so proud and bragged, 'We're small, but we have five non-pro big bands here.' We were amazed."

As for her desire to lead a big band, she says, "I like to do things in big groups. There are more people, so it goes deeper. But it is more difficult when the group is big. It takes more time and you face more complicated issues with players, but when you accomplish the goal with them, that's always profound."

The Harlem-based violinist Meg Okura, who leads her 10-piece Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, says that when growing up in Japan, she experienced egalitarian support where her creativity was celebrated. "We were encouraged to embrace anything we'd choose," she says. "We were free to explore jazz as an art form deeply rooted in Americanism. We're all immigrants, which allows us to pursue something within our own tradition. As female composers, we haven't been discouraged here in the U.S. It's an exciting time."

To Okura, the integral ingredient to the rise of women composers is the community sensibility. "We don't feel like a minority," she says. "We occupy the composer world. We know each other, we show up at different functions. I don't have to be someone else, like I have to swing. I can do anything and be inspired by my contemporaries. I don't belong anywhere. I was born in Japan, became a classical violinist and have become a Jew by choice. So I'm an outsider, but this music changed my life. It is my survival. I can compose all night because this is who I am. I used to be a concert master, so this is my second life. My new identity is jazz composer."

Ohkyeong Kwon
Jihye Lee

Lee, who was born in South Korea and is based in New York, didn't have the advantage of the Japanese big band environment. The first time she heard a big band live was when she attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston with aspirations of being a singer-songwriter. "I never had any exposure to big bands, so when I heard the energy and lushness," she says, "I fell in love with it." She decided to take composition classes and began winning awards with her imaginative arrangements and getting recognition as an important big band leader when it "was still a man-dominated world," she says. "The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra invited four new composers to present their work, and I was the only woman. But I sensed how eagerly the world was waiting to see women emerge. We're liberated from our own heritage and present music that's new and fresh. Women are being encouraged to grow as big band leaders. There is a little movement going on, and I'm following the flow."

Putting large bands together, ranging from 10 to 18 members, hasn't been as difficult as it might seem. Lee, who won the BMI Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize last year, looked for players in her community of friends to accompany her on her journey to bring alive her first orchestral work, the kaleidoscopic April, in 2017, about the tragic Korean ferry disaster in 2014. It was co-produced by her Berklee composition professor Greg Hopkins and included other Berklee teachers and students. In turn, Miyajima went to a lot of shows to choose the best people as well as friends to tell her orchestral stories. She says she's a multitasker who's comfortable leading. "I'm happy taking care of the 17 guys," she says. "I think it comes from the sensitivity of Asian people who appreciate art, who have a history of taking care of the art. I see my band as a family and I'm proud of them. We are so brave to be doing what we're doing."

As for why there are not many big bands led by Asian men in this generation, Hazama, who is the curator of the Jazz Gallery Composers Showcase and the associate director of the New York Jazzharmonic, surmises that the risks women are taking are not always possible for men to undertake. "I have less responsibilities," she says. "I'm single while many men have to make a living to support their wives and children. As such, we women can be more adventurous. But even then it's hard because of my out-of-pocket expenses that I try to budget with commissions and arranging jobs here and in Europe. So that makes it a little easier for me than for a man." She pauses and then adds, "I'm married to my music."

This new generation of female big band leaders is not unique in the New York jazz world. Satoko Fujii formed an orchestra in Tokyo and in New York to record her prolific recordings beginning in 1996 and continues to be prolific in her output. Then there's pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, who achieved what was seemingly impossible for her time: a Japanese woman playing jazz, leading a big band in New York from 1973 to 2003 with her husband Lew Tabackin and ultimately being awarded an NEA Jazz Master in 2007. But these women today are more informed by Maria Schneider's commitment to jazz orchestral works. She has won multiple Grammys and this year will be inducted as an NEA Jazz Master. Miyajima calls her "the Polaris, the best guide we have."

Schneider has been a mentor to Hazama. "I heard Maria's music for the first time when I played in a big band in Tokyo," she says. "I met her at the Manhattan School of Music where she taught a master class, then later I interviewed her for a Japanese jazz magazine. I gave her my first CD [2013's Journey to Journey] and she loved it. Since then, she has supported and encouraged me."

"The big band tradition is huge in Japan," Schneider says. "These composers have come out of that, writing large jazz ensemble music. It's an inspiration to me." She notes that a turning point for her came via Akiyoshi performing with her big band in Minnesota when she was attending college as a classical composition major.

"It blew me away," she says. "It wasn't that a woman was doing this, but that she was playing concert music with jazz. I thought, I can do this. That gave me the strength that what I can do as a composer is not a part of a world I didn't belong to. That's what these women are getting from me, I think—to express themselves. It's not a focus on gender. That's a detraction that can take away the energy. They're enthusiastic and respected and have the kind of savvy that will influence the world of music—and not just because they are women."