Deems Tsutakawa, Seattle Jazz Pianist Passes at 69

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The Seattle Music Commission and the Office of Film and Music honor the life and musical works of local jazz pianist Deems Akihiko Tsutakawa, who passed away February 25, 2021, at his home in Lakeridge after surviving cancer for several years. 

Deems was born on January 21, 1952. Named after Deems Taylor, a famous classical music composer, he was perhaps destined to be the admired, “fun loving, soulful” jazz musician. Deems hailed from a prominent Seattle creative family. Both of Deems parents were Kibei, Japanese Americans who were born in the United States and educated in Japan. Father, George, was a painter and sculptor best known for his avant-garde bronze fountain designs are located throughout the U.S., Canada and Japan. Mother, Ayame Iwasa, was an accomplished koto player and Japanese traditional dance performer. George and Ayame met in Tule Lake during World War II when 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated. In 1947, they married in Seattle and started a family in the Central District and later settled in Mt. Baker.  

By the age of five, Deems began playing piano. At nine, Deems won the annual Washington Music Teachers Association Award. He attended Merce Middle School and graduated Franklin High School, where Deems built his foundation as a jazz pianist. At the age of 18, Deems began playing music professionally and studied ethnomusicology at the University of Washington.  

During his youth, Deems would frequent the jazz clubs that line Jackson St – bridging Chinatown and the Central District. In 1976, Deems put out his first record and later start his own record label J-Town Records, named for the former Japantown neighborhood in pre-WWII Seattle. J-Town Records produced not only his own music but also other artists. He released 17 albums and was in the process of recording Hawaii Friends to compete for a Grammy nomination before he passed.   

Deems performed throughout the Pacific Northwest and internationally. Local Seattleites would be able to catch him at Benaroya Hall, Broadway Performance Center, Hotel Sorrento and local events. Deems would donate performances to local non-profit galas and community events.  

Deems was the third of four children. Older brother Gerard is an accomplished sculptor whose work include The Mitt at T-Mobile Park and the Fountain of Seseragi at Seattle Center. Older sister Mayumi is a freelance writer and community activist – she has worked at the International Examiner, Seattle Times, Seattle Central Community College, Wing Luke Museum and Washington State Arts Commission. While younger brother Marcus taught music in Seattle from 1979 to 2016, serving for 31 years as Director of the Garfield High Schools Orchestra program. 

In memory of Deems, sister Mayumi said “Deems was not only the bridge between races, neighborhoods and musicians, but his ubiquitous music and drive to perform for all good causes was the river of positivity itself.” 

Seattle Music Commissioner Terry Morgan said, “It hurts my soul to hear of Deems passing. We have been friends for over 45 years from rehearsals in his basement, to the stage at Benaroya all. Deems has been a cultural ambassador to the world, breaking down racial barriers and uniting Seattle and beyond with the spirit and power of his music. His joy and laughter will always be with us.”1 

Deems is survived by his wife of 38 years, Jean, his siblings, and his nieces and nephews.  

Learn more about Deems and his work at deemsmusic.com. To make a donation in memory of Deems Tsutakawa, please visit seattlemusicpartners.org

Video courtesy of Seattle Channel

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