About Maki Asakawa

Maki Asakawa was an enigmatic jazz and blues singer, composer, and actress who possessed a dark, smoky, throaty contralto. Her physical appearance was as iconic as her singing: she was always clad in black, often in sunglasses and smoking. She recorded over 30 albums between 1970 and the early 2000s.

Asakawa was born in Ishikawa Prefecture during the Second World War. Trained on piano and guitar, she was enamored with American singers such as Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, and Victoria Spivey. It was Holiday's sparse phrasing and compressed range that influenced her most.

After graduating from high school, Asakawa worked for a short time as a civil servant before moving to Tokyo. There she immersed herself in the '60s underground arts and culture scenes, and made her living singing in bars, cabarets, and military officer's clubs. She made her debut single "Tokyo Banka/Amen Jiro" for Victor in 1967. She met and struck up a collaborative friendship with poet, playwright, director, and enfant terrible Shûji Terayama in 1968, and appeared for three successive nights at his Sasoriza underground venue. This proved to be her break. Based on press attention, Toshiba signed her to a recording contract that same year. She released singles in 1969 and 1970. Her debut album, Asakawa Maki no Sekai, was also issued in 1970 and gathered immediate notice for its grainy, mysterious black-and-white photograph of the artist on the cover. (A look that would become her trademark.) Radio DJs picked up on her economic yet expressive delivery. She covered one traditional song, the American folk standard "(Sometimes) I Feel Like a Motherless Child," among originals co-written with Terayama.

She acted in several of Terayama's plays and in his 1971 film, Sho o suteyo machi e deyou (Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets).

Perhaps her most memorable recording was 1972's Blue Spirit Blues, which featured a combination of originals as well as classic blues and jazz covers. She also issued a live album that year that was exceptionally well received. Asakawa's popularity was growing and she was contracted to play herself in the Japanese horror television series Kyôfu gekijô umbalance in 1973.

This would be her last formal appearance as an actress. From 1973 on, she focused exclusively on recording, writing, and performing. She issued albums consistently throughout the '90s and performed until her death. Some of her best-known works include Maki II (1971), Flow Pass (1977), Lonely Day-to-Day (1978), My Man and Cat Nap (1982), Day for Night (1986), Night of Carnival and Stranger's Touch (1989), and Black Space (1994).

Asakawa also collaborated with many composers and musicians including Toshiyuki Honda, Ryuichi Sakamoto, George Harrison, Akira Sakata, and Bobby Watson.

She was participating in a documentary film about her life in 2010 when she collapsed after a concert performance and died of heart failure.

Since her passing, her music has been reissued in many compilations, a box set, and in 2015, a self-titled English-language collection by Honest Jon's. ~ Thom Jurek

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