Remembering Seattle Jazz Pianist Deems Tsutakawa, Whose Music and Life Touched Many

by Sharon Maeda 

Seattle lost a music icon with the passing of Deems Tsutakawa in late February. Social media has been full of comments and memories of the jazz pianist — stretching across the country from Hawaiʻi to Florida as well as locally. While Deems lived in South Seattle his entire life, his fans often became his friends, and they span the world.  

Deems started piano lessons at age five and four years later he won the Washington State Music Teachers Association’s Annual Award. He never looked back. I remember a conversation when he was a young adult passionate about his music and determined it would be his career. Years later we laughed at how wrong I had been to suggest that he might consider a back-up means of income. 

In my multimedia and video production days, I hired Deems to create original music. “Hire” is a bit of a stretch since I had very limited budgets and he was always generous with his talents. One project was a 24-projector slide show — in the pre-digital age when you had to manually  sync 24 projectors — and the music had to be synced with the slides. Deems came into the studio, screened the slides once, then sat at the keyboard, thought for a few minutes, then improvised in one take. As casual as he acted, he was also very cerebral and instantly understood where the music needed emphasis.  

In some of his performances Deems played grand pianos in concert halls. In liner notes for his album, Deems Plays for Lovers, he wrote: “The grand piano as a featured voice is best applied in an intimate setting. This is when the romantic quality of the instrument and musician is enjoyed to the fullest by the listener.”

Deems also played in clubs, shopping malls, at weddings, and other celebratory events. He generously performed for community benefits ranging from church bazaars to galas for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Freedom Socialists. In addition, he played for all kinds of public events. When my mother was in her late 80s, I ran into her, sitting with her sack lunch alongside office workers listening to Deems at the Downtown Summer Concert series. Whenever he would see her, he always said hello or gave her a nod from the stage, much to her delight. 

I’m not a music critic, but I always disliked “smooth” jazz as a category. I think of that terminology describing something resembling elevator music. And, although I did hear Deems’ signature “Tough Tofu” in a downtown elevator once, Deems’ music transcends categories. A lifelong South End resident from one of Seattle’s renowned arts families, Deems’ music reflects diverse genres: jazz, R&B, funk, blues, soul. His genre-bending style was also influenced by his ethnomusicology studies at UW. He knew how to hit the ivories with all the melodic sounds of a piano virtuoso, the percussive sounds of Latin jazz, or the sounds of contemporary Hawaiʻian music. I like to call his music The Seattle Sound (not grunge) — full of diverse influences, yet unique. 

Most of all, Deems’ music reflected his personality: happy, positive, and with an infectious laugh no matter what. Longtime friends often referred to never hearing him speak a cross word or display anger — ever. Deems always lightened the day for anyone who was around him or heard his music. The last time I talked with him at length, he was already battling cancer. I asked how he was feeling … and his typical response: “It’s all good. It’s cool.”

In the liner notes on Deems Greatest Hits, Cedric James, former host of smooth jazz station KWJZ 98.9 FM (the smooth jazz station is no more) said, “… It’s about the vibe. The artistic expression that makes Deems who he is, is truly unique. Fresh and original, true to his vision of himself as an artist, each track represents a special moment in time in which Deems’ vibe shines through. Perhaps more importantly we glimpse and experience his spirit as well as the good vibrations that seem to radiate from his music.” 

And here are a few social media tributes to Deems:

Larry Rosensweig: “We had the privilege of introducing Deems to Florida back in 1987 as a featured artist in the Morikami Museum’s 10th anniversary tribute to Japanese American artists in many mediums. Deems and his band returned to perform at Hatsume a year or two later and we’ve kept in touch ever since. Deems’s music is infectiously joyful, reflecting his personality.” 

Now I know why Deems made the pop charts in Florida before he did in Seattle!

Shirley Eng Zapata: “Ben [Zapata] and Deems … their friendship began at John Muir Elementary School. Lifelong friends … When they were together I often wondered and imagined what kind of little boys were they? Those bright eyes, big smiles, and gentleness made me think of endless fun, genuine kindness, hearty laughter, and with a sprinkle of mischief!” 

Dara Sanchez Espinosa:  “When you’re a young music artist, with no prior training or guidance … you wonder how you could’ve been so blessed to have met and been taken in by such a great mentor … I was a young artist in my 20s when I met Deems. He heard me, called me his raw talent … While most young artists were performing on tracks with their favorite pop songs, I was singing Jazz with a master and renowned jazz pianist. Deems introduced me to standard Jazz, songs I never even heard of and gave me an opportunity to sing beyond my years. He asked me to share my voice on his Christmas Album, My Music Loves Christmas. And this little girl could never have imagined hearing her voice on radio, perform at prestigious venues and jazz clubs … But most of all, he was a friend. A mentor who took this little voice to a grand place I never thought I could go or achieve. I called him ‘Deemsie with his magic fingers’ because that’s how it was when you saw him perform, Magical.” 

Imani Apostol (one of his lucky students): “Deems was an incredibly caring and spirited jazz piano teacher who illuminated our neighborhood every time he played. Many of the jazz lessons he instilled in me are lessons I’ve learned to apply to my life, too — how to improvise in any situation, how to follow your own style, and how to look at life more freely and with a little more spunk.”

Imani’s mother, Melanie Apostol added: “I won’t forget how you brought your musical gift into my home. You saw the feel for music in [her] and passionately taught her.” 

Deems gave many interviews and performances; many are online. Here are a couple:

Na Hoku Hanohano Awards Performance with Keahi Conjugaciaon (2018) 

Seattle Channel Front Row (2015)

Deems’ parents, George and Ayame Tsutakawa, were well-known in Seattle’s art world. He dedicated his albums to the love of his life, Jean, and also wrote a song about her, “Song of Jean.” He also leaves behind three siblings: Gerard — a sculptor who has carried on George’s legacy as a visual artist; Mayumi — a longtime arts administrator and writer; and Marcus — a musician and retired Garfield High School Orchestra teacher. Deems also influenced a number of nieces and nephews — some of whom are also in the arts as well — and a very large family of friends. 

“My music is a reflection of my life,”  Deems said on his website. ”I think you’ll find my music warm and friendly.”

Rest in peace, everyone’s friend.

Sharon Maeda is the Emerald’s planning director and former interim managing editor. She’s been a Deems fan from his days in the Franklin High Bel Canto Choir. 

Featured Image: Deems Tsutakawa (Photo: Susan Fried)

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