The Christmas holiday season could be a little rough on Deems Tsutakawa. It was not unusual to see the Seattle-based, always-in-demand smooth jazz pianist with his fingers wrapped together, between the crush of festive gigs he was hired to play.
“Everybody wanted him,” said Mayumi Tsutakawa, the musician’s older sister. “He’d play five, six, seven shows a week that time of year.”
Deems Tsutakawa died Feb. 25, at age 69. The cause was cancer.
Born the third of four children to one of the city’s most esteemed family of artists, Tsutakawa found his voice as a jazz pianist while attending Franklin High School. While still a teenager, said Mayumi, he performed professionally “at hundreds of weddings and events.”
The work was good, and it set him up for his adult career both as a soloist and playing with small ensembles. Over subsequent decades, he became a noted composer, arranger and close collaborator with other musicians, including his younger brother, Marcus Tsutakawa.
Coming of age in the 1960s and early ’70s, Tsutakawa was as taken by funk, blues and R&B as he was by jazz improvisation. A seamless blend of those influences is apparent in his playing, which was light of touch and buoyant, yet enriched by soul and Tsutakawa’s big heart.
“He was just that way in general,” said flutist Bradley Leighton, who frequently played with Tsutakawa since their first meeting in the mid-1980s.
An ubiquitous presence in the Seattle region, Tsutakawa 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 in 2018 released “Deems and Friends Live in Hawaii,” which was nominated for Jazz Album of the Year by the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts.
That album is one of 17 that Tsutakawa leaves behind as a recorded legacy. In 1977, he established his own label, J-Town Records, releasing his first single, “Okashi Na,” a quirky jazz piano tune, that same year.
He followed that up with his first album, 1982’s “Deems,” and his second in 1986, “Living Deems.” The latter included an irresistible single, “Tough Tofu,” always a highlight during his shows.
Deems Akihiko Tsutakawa was born in Seattle on Jan. 21, 1952. His father was the renowned sculptor George Tsutakawa, his mother classical musician Ayame Tsutakawa. His older brother, Gerard, is a sculptor working in wood and metal. Mayumi has worked in many levels of arts administration, and is currently a freelance journalist writing about the arts and people of color. Marcus is a working musician and was a music educator until retiring in 2016.
The Tsutakawa household in the Mount Baker neighborhood was, unsurprisingly, immersed in the arts. Cultural luminaries were among frequent visitors.
“Mark Tobey, Paul Horiuchi, national-treasure artists from Japan, theater artists, musicians all came around,” said Mayumi. The Tsutakawa family remained close, and the siblings continue to live near each other.
Piano education was a given for the four children but Deems was the only one who stuck with it. After a period of studying ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, he eagerly hit the stage and never looked back, establishing a persona of cheerfulness that won over colleagues and crowds.
“I never saw him in a down moment,” said Leighton. “He took everything in stride. You never heard a cross word from him on the bandstand. He made no claims to greatness. He just wanted to play.”
Tsutakawa’s intellect ran deep, said Mayumi, musing that he could have been a scientist.
“Physics, space, black holes,” she said. “He could talk about all that 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, Tsutakawa is survived by his wife of 38 years, Jean Tsutakawa, as well as his nieces and nephews.
A memorial is in the planning stages. At this time, the family has not decided where donations can be sent in his name.