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Sumi Tonooka

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Biography

Born on October 3, 1956 in Philadelphia, PA, modern mainstream jazz pianist Sumi Tonooka began her musical studies at age seven at the hometown Settlement Music School with Ester Cinberg and Gary Goldschneider. Growing up in a multi-cultural household, her African-American father and Japanese-American mother exposed her to different strains of culture, but there were plenty of modern jazz LPs around she house. She was introduced to live jazz hearing a transforming performance of Thelonious Monk when she was 13. Duke Ellington was also a big influence, and she became close to local legend Kenny Barron. Tonooka left home briefly at age 15 heading for Boston, but was quickly disenfranchised with formal education. She continued her classical lessons there in private sessions with Madame Margaret Chaloff — mother of legendary baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff — as well as jazz and composition with Charlie Banacos. She then left for Detroit, collaborating with Marcus Belgrave and exploring the rich but troubled jazz scene there in the mid-'70s. A roller coaster ride continued as she returned to Philadelphia, earning her B.A, in music from the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, working under French master pianist Bernard Peiffer. She landed a professional gig with Le Grand Prix, the working combo led by Philly Joe Jones including Odean Pope, and led her own bands featuring Robin Eubanks and Willie Williams. Finally off to rough-and-tumble New York City, she took lessons in jazz with Mary Lou Williams, Dennis Sandole, and Stanley Cowell. Tonooka worked occasionally over the years with Kenny Burrell, Little Jimmy Scott, Sonny Fortune, Craig Handy, and David "Fathead" Newman. At this time she established a fruitful and long-term musical relationship with bassist Rufus Reid, and a similar bandstand partnership with violinist John Blake, both still ongoing for over two decades. She has added to her résumé the scoring of music for over a dozen films, some aired on PBS, such as the Academy Award — nominated Family Gathering by Lise Yasui, and Daring to Resist by Martha Lubell. Tonooka's career has been chronicled in jazz books Living he Jazz Life by Royal Stokes, ln the Moment by Francis Davis, and Madame Jazz by Leslie Gourse, all published by Oxford University Press. She has been teaching piano at Bard College and the Dutchess Community College in the Hudson Valley of New York, and has been a substitute teacher for Kenny Barron at Rutgers University. ~ Michael G. Nastos, Rovi

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