By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post
Deems Tsutakawa, a widely acclaimed Seattle jazz pianist, passed away of cancer on February 25. He was among the best-known Japanese Americans in the city.
As described on his website, deemsmusic.com, Deems was always playing gigs around town, and occasionally in California and Hawaii, sometimes as a solo artist, at other times with bands comprised of varying groups of his many musician friends.
In the JA community, he and his band played on a stage in the Bon Odori beer garden behind the Seattle Buddhist Temple for many years. He could also be seen at fundraising events such as Densho’s “Sushi and Sake Fest” and at the spaghetti dinner of Blaine Memorial United Memorial Church. Beyond the JA community, he could be found performing in shopping malls, restaurants, hotel lounges, casinos, museums, and private events.
In addition to his routine gigs, now and then Deems had extraordinary ones. A Bellevue Sansei remembers him opening for “Hiroshima,” the Los Angeles-based JA jazz-fusion band that was big in the 1980s and 1990s.
“It was like two headliners in one,” she says.
Deems’ ever-present big smile, showed that he clearly loved performing and was a happy guy, both on and off stage. Unfortunately, his charmed public life came to a close when gatherings ceased with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020.
Beyond his music, Deems wrote the “Tough Tofu” column in this newspaper. It describes his experiences in the music business as well as his thoughts on life in general. According to his website, his first article appeared in January 2012. The one in this issue is number 124 with more to follow.
Of much more that could be said of Deems, four points seem salient. First, he was a genuinely nice guy, down to earth, approachable like a neighbor, and humble. Perhaps these explain his 4948 friends on Facebook.
Second, what does “Tough Tofu” mean? Deems explained the old expression onstage in a YouTube video (Nov. 2007), while introducing his catchy hit single of the same title that played internationally. It is one familiar to Sansei, raised in the 1960s and 1970s, by serious Nisei parents.
“When we were kids… an analogy would be, ‘That’s the way the cookie crumbles…’ That’s what you get… If it didn’t go the way you wanted, it was tough tofu and hard gohan…”
The third point was his determination, early in his career, to make it as a musician. In one of his columns, he describes various jobs he held along the way, mainly in his youth. According to his longtime friend, Ross Yanagawa, one of those jobs was making satsumage, Japanese fish cakes, at Uwajimaya. Deems made such great cakes that Tomio Moriguchi, formerly the CEO of Uwajimaya for many years—as well as Deems’ cousin–offered to set him up in his own shop there. It would be a steady day job that would support Deems’ music as a side business. Deems turned Tomio down.
The fourth point is how talented a pianist Deems was. Ross told me several years ago that Deems is so good, you can chat with him when he is playing a gig, and he’ll carry on with both the song and the conversation, without missing a beat in either.
Deems is survived by his wife, Jean Yamamoto Tsutakawa, whose consistent joy contributed to Deems’ happiness, and siblings Gerard, Mayumi, and Marcus Tsutakawa. Jeanie is Deems’ muse in his soulful “Song of Jean,” which he can be seen performing in a Ten Grands piano concert, at Benaroya Hall, on YouTube.
Deems was predeceased by his artistic parents, George and Ayame Tsutakawa, about whom much has been written.
From Jeanie, on Deems’ departure:
“Deems loved music, having people over, feeding them, and drinking with them… He was funky and loud… He made people feel welcome. He could talk on many subjects. He loved ‘Star Trek,’ black holes…
“Band players liked Deems, because unlike other band leaders, he shared the spotlight,” allowing them to showcase what they brought in their own solos…
“He had a signature maniacal laugh” that reverberated over the golf course…
“Thank you so much. Send Deems’ energy to the Universe, he will like that.”
Donations in memory of Deems may be sent to Seattle Music Partners, which cultivates a diverse and vibrant music-making community by providing youth with low-cost music instruction, and one-on-one mentoring, to eliminate racial and economic barriers to quality music education.
mailing address: 1425 Broadway #508, Seattle, WA 98122
Editor’s note. The NAP has a backlog of 19 additional Deems’ columns on file, which continue his narrative to January 2021, near the end of his life. As these appear monthly, the supply should last to the autumn of 2022.