On the evening of September 11 last year I had the good fortune to be in a Chicago nightclub called Jazz Showcase. It’s a legendary spot run by a legendary man, Joe Segal. He’s been a jazz impresario in Chicago for almost sixty years. When he takes your ticket at the door, he sizes you up, welcomes you, and then when the place is filled up, he introduces the acts. It’s a listening club, he tells you, which means you shut up and listen.
Frankly, I was a little intimidated by that, and not a little squirmy while listening to the evening’s featured performer, Toshiko Akiyoshi. At seventy-six years old, Akiyoshi is a tour de force. She attacks the keyboard of a grand piano with respectful disregard and when the sweat flies, she swipes the keys and her brow in rapid brushstrokes with a large, white hanky. Then she jumps right back into the fray. Her work is largely inspired by the music she heard as a young woman in Japan after the war. She plays a bebop repertoire fused with Japanese traditional themes and music. And it’s amazing music—bright, quick, rhythmic, discordant, driving, wandering. But as good as it was, I was resisting getting into it completely. I was unsettled. I wanted to hang out with friends in a club setting, not just attend a recital. And then something happened.
After a particularly vigorous number, Akiyoshi rose from her stool and took the mike to introduce the next piece. “It’s September 11,” she noted, and the expected and expectant hush came over the already quiet crowd. She told the story of how on August 5, 2001, she was in Hiroshoma to perform a special composition, “Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss,” to honor the dead and acknowledge the tragedy of that place. The performance of the suite, interposed with short readings from survivors’ recollections, had proven intensely moving for both the performers and the audience. Shortly thereafter, Akiyoshi returned to her home in New York. Not long after that, the planes struck the towers.
She told us she wanted to play something from the Hiroshima suite for us to commemorate September 11. “There’s so much conflict in the world today,” she said. And then she raised her hands and shrugged her shoulders—as if a Jewish pickle man from the Lower East Side had inhabited this delicate Japanese woman—and said, “Conflict is conflict. That’s OK. But this was vicious conflict!” The way she showed simple respect and appreciation for conflict as an everyday event (conflict schmonflict, the pickle man might have said), and contrasted it with cruel conflict, sputtering out the word “vicious” with a harsh, hyper-sibilant hiss, put me back in my seat. I sat still and listened. Her coda had driven a vital point home, deftly and succinctly: we don’t all need to get along, but we don’t need to vanquish each other when we don’t.
“Why can’t we all get along?” For some reason that naive refrain has gnawed at me ever since September 11, 2001. I hear a chorus of voices that seems to say so many things that boil down to that simple expression of hope. And I hear another chorus of voices that speaks of the enemy, and enemies, and the war against them—straightforward expressions of fear. It seems like nothing more than two Greek choruses fighting for their chance to dominate the stage: Hope sings out. Fear sings louder. Hope sings louder yet, and Fear tops that. On and on and on we go.
Akiyoshi’s life has undoubtedly taught her to appreciate the yin and yang of conflict, the play of dissonance and assonance. She was born in China in 1929 to Japanese parents, an uncomfortable circumstance from the get-go. She came of age in the war-torn Japan of the late forties. She took up jazz and took up with jazz musicians, married them, and made her home in America. She crosses cultural divides just getting up and walking to the corner. Someone like Akiyoshi probably knows why we can’t all get along. It’s a condition not even to be wished for. When the bass player and the drummer in her trio play, they play off each other; there’s a sense of open conflict at the heart of improvisation, and yet it’s OK. It’s intense but it’s not vicious.
Her few choice words and her music stuck with me for days. So much of the beauty of her work emerged from the clashing of opposites: a delicate woman banging on a huge piano, yet daintily; pin-drop silences abruptly broken by a surge of sound; the subterranean hum of a stand-up bass conversing with bird-like high-notes from the keyboard; old people making something fresh and new right on the spot. Straining for harmony is a fool’s errand, a contradiction in terms. There’s a jazz ensemble quality to life. As well as working together, we work apart. We are our differences. We contend. We compete. We debate. We conflict. It’s OK as long as it’s not vicious. That’s all the harmony we can ask for and it’s all the harmony we need.