The Christmas holiday season could be a bit rough for Deems Tsutakawa. It wasn’t uncommon to see the Seattle-based, always-in-demand smooth jazz pianist with his fingers coiled between the festive performances he was hired to perform.
“Everyone wanted him,” said Mayumi Tsutakawa, the musician’s older sister. “At that time of year he was playing five, six, seven shows a week.”
Deems Tsutakawa died on February 25 at the age of 69. The cause was cancer.
Tsutakawa was born the third of four children to one of the city’s most respected artist families and found his voice as a jazz pianist while attending Franklin High School. As a teenager, Mayumi said he performed professionally “at hundreds of weddings and events.”
The work was good and prepared him for his career as a soloist and playing with small ensembles. In the decades that followed, he became a well-known composer, arranger and close collaborator with other musicians, including his younger brother, Marcus Tsutakawa.
Growing up in the 1960s and early 70s, Tsutakawa loved funk, blues, and R&B as well as jazz improvisation. A seamless blend of these influences can be seen in his play, which was easy to touch and lively, but was nonetheless enriched by the soul and Tsutakawa’s big heart.
“He was just like that in general,” said flautist Bradley Leighton, who has played frequently with Tsutakawa since they first met in the mid-1980s.
Tsutakawa is ubiquitous in the Seattle area and has performed everywhere from Benaroya Hall to the King Cat Theater, 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.
This album is one of 17 that Tsutakawa leaves as a recorded legacy. In 1977 he founded his own label, J-Town Records, and in the same year released his first single, “Okashi Na”, a quirky jazz piano tune.
He followed with his first album, “Deems” from 1982, and his second, in 1986, “Living Deems”. The latter included an irresistible single, “Tough Tofu”, which was always a highlight during his shows.
Deems Akihiko Tsutakawa was born in Seattle on January 21, 1952. His father was the well-known sculptor George Tsutakawa, his mother, the classical musician Ayame Tsutakawa. His older brother Gerard is a sculptor and works in wood and metal. Mayumi has worked on many levels of art administration and is currently a freelance journalist writing about art and people of color. Marcus is a working musician and was a music educator until he retired in 2016.
Unsurprisingly, the Tsutakawa household in the Mount Baker neighborhood was immersed in art. Cultural lights were among the frequent visitors.
“Mark Tobey, Paul Horiuchi, national treasure artists from Japan, theater performers and musicians all stopped by,” Mayumi said. The Tsutakawa family stayed close and the siblings continue to live close together.
Piano lessons were a given for the four children, but Deems was the only one who stuck to it. After studying ethnomusicology at the University of Washington for a period, he eagerly took the stage and never looked back to establish a person of cheerfulness who won over colleagues and crowds.
“I never saw him in a moment,” said Leighton. “He took everything. You have never heard a crossword from him in the bandstand. He made no claim to size. He just wanted to play. “
Tsutakawa’s intellect was deep, Mayumi said, speculating that he might have been a scientist.
“Physics, space, black holes,” she said. “He could talk about all of this and lose you in the conversation. He named his dog Captain Sisko for the character in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. “
In addition to his siblings, his 38-year-old wife Jean Tsutakawa and his nieces and nephew Tsutakawa survive.
A memorial is being planned. At this point the family has not yet decided where donations can be sent on his behalf.
Tom Keogh: [email protected] This report is supported in part by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.