By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
As a jazz pianist for more than 40 years, Deems Tsutakawa has created an original, distinctive sound known by many jazz fans.
Tsutakawa may have been destined to become a musician. His parents named him after Deems Taylor, a famous classical music composer and host of a popular radio program Tsutakawa’s parents listened to.
Tsutakawa’s musical training began when he was 5 years old. Like his namesake, he first learned to play classical music on the piano. When he was a teenager, he branched out to other forms of popular music including jazz, R&B, and soul.
Music became his passion. He learned to play popular songs by ear — the ability to play music by listening rather than by reading sheet music.
This ability was adopted from his artistic parents. His father, George Tsutakawa, was a world-renowned sculptor and painter. His mother, Ayame Tsutakawa, played koto — a Japanese instrument that resembles a harp.
After playing in various clubs in Seattle as a teen and meeting fellow musicians, Tsutakawa began playing professionally at the age of 18.
His cousin knew the owners of the old Mikado Restaurant on Jackson Street and persuaded them to let Tsutakawa play there regularly on Saturday nights.
Born and raised in Seattle, Tsutakawa draws upon his life experiences as inspiration for his music. Although Tsutakawa’s grandparents are from Japan, he describes his life as “an American experience.”
According to Tsutakawa, his music is contemporary soul jazz — smooth R&B blended with jazz. Tsutakawa enjoys how jazz allows room for improvisation and spontaneity. “Jazz gives a certain freedom and identity. Jazz gives a freedom of expression as an ‘in the moment’ type [of] music,” said Tsutakawa.
In order to make a living out of his passion, he immersed himself into the business side of the music industry. He found it easy to network with other musicians and owners of clubs and bars that wanted live music.
In 1976, he put out his first record in order to gain exposure for himself. He thought of it as a “promotional piece of material.”
When major record labels overlooked Tsutakawa’s music, he decided to create his own company, J-Town Records, as a means to produce and distribute his music.
Since then, he has produced more than 45 EP records, nine albums, and a DVD through his record label. Named after the former Japantown neighborhood in pre-World War II Seattle, J-Town Records has produced records for Asian and non-Asian American artists alike.
When Tsutakawa first began his career, his parents wished he had a stable job. However, Tsutakawa knew what he wanted to do. “I think my parents accepted my career choice as they got on in their years,” he said.
It took Tsutakawa “a good 10 to 15 years” before he made a steady living as a musician. Prior to that, he worked in the food manufacturing department for Uwajimaya making fishcakes and mochi. He also painted houses, sold pianos, and helped build some of his father’s sculpted fountains.
Tsutakawa plays gigs around Seattle at least five times a week. This year, Tsutakawa has played more than 250 engagements. This does not include annual Asian American events such as Bon Odori, the International District Summer Festival, and fundraisers for the Seattle Nisei Veterans.
In the midst of a busy schedule, Tsutakawa tries to balance his time so that he can continue to write and develop original music. In addition to performing, Tsutakawa also does a lot of booking, event planning, and band management.
A Franklin High School graduate, Tsutakawa remains tied to his Mount Baker neighborhood. His fall album, “On Irving,” is named after the street he grew up on. ♦
For more information on Deems Tsutakawa and his music, visit www.deemsmusic.com. Meet Tsutakawa at NWAWF’s Pioneer in Music Awards Gala and Banquet on Oct. 16. For more information, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
Jason Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.