By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
SEATTLE — Jazz pianist Deems Tsutakawa died on Feb. 25, according to an obituary. He was 69 years old and battled cancer.
His brother Gerard told the Northwest Asian Weekly, “Deems was always bigger than life. He was fearless in the face of adversity right up to the end.”
Born and raised in Seattle, and a graduate of Franklin High School, Deems 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. His father, George Tsutakawa, was a world-renowned sculptor and painter. His mother, Ayame Tsutakawa, played koto—a Japanese instrument that resembles a harp.
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.
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.
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.
Brother Marcus told the Northwest Asian Weekly “Deems always was a great showman, putting everything he had into each tune he played, and enjoyed talking with audiences. He loved sports, both playing and watching, and though he started later in life, he became quite a competitive golfer. He and his wife were the most generous and warm hosts, always entertaining at home and at restaurants. And Deems could carry a conversation with anyone, discussing anything from astrophysics to NBA.”
Tsutakawa performed at Benaroya Hall, Highway 99 Blues Club, Factoria Mall, and numerous bars and restaurants. He also found a following in Hawaii and released “Deems and Friends Live in Hawaii” in 2018, which was nominated for Jazz Album of the Year by the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts.
The Northwest Asian Weekly honored Deems in 2009 for being a pioneer in music.
“His spirit shows through his music and his love of life,” said Gerard.
Tsutakawa is survived by his wife, Jean, three siblings, and his nieces and nephew.