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Jazz: Satomi Yarimizo

How a Japanese software engineer turned herself into the soul of the new jazz movement in Honolulu.


There’s hope for lapsed piano players yet; Satomi Yarimizo got back into playing in her 30s.

Photo: Courtesy Satomi Yarimizo

How do you make it as a professional jazz pianist in a town like Honolulu, where jazz is at best a niche market?

Three suggestions: 1) know marketing; 2) have a drummer husband who will work for free; 3) practice, practice, practice.

Satomi Yarimizo came to Hawaii in 2000 as an application support engineer for a Japanese software company. It’s a job that’s part techie (you have to understand software) and part marketing (customer relations, training and event coordination). When the job ended, Yarimizo, tired of the Tokyo rat race, stayed and turned back to her first love—music.

She’d studied organ and piano in school, but hadn’t really played in 15 years. “I wanted to become a professional jazz pianist, but I was in my 30s, I thought, too old.”

She wasn’t too old to practice all day, every day. She overcame her shyness and sat in here and there around town, gaining the attention of jazz trumpeter Tiger Okoshi, who teaches at Berklee College of Music. With his encouragement, she flew to Boston for a Berklee summer session.

Even after Berklee, she knew she had to keep improving. “The only way to do that is play with good musicians,” she says. She began sitting in at Chuck’s Cellar in Waikiki, with the Black Sand Trio. “I played for free, but that was cheaper than going to school.”

In 2006, she finally landed her own gig, at the then new club called Dragon Upstairs. “It was just me and a bass player and four or five people in the audience,” she recalls.

“I was going to fire her,” says Dragon Upstairs owner Hank Taufaasau. “I’m glad I didn’t. I loved her playing, and she’s the reason Dragon is still here. She became the soul of the new jazz movement in Hawaii.”

The Bop Tribal CD is available on boptribal.com, amazon.com, iTunes and in local music stores.

“I didn’t want to get fired,” says Yarimizo. She drew on her marketing background, created a brochure, a website and an e-mail list, which grew to 900 people, a fair sampling of the town’s jazz buffs.

She began adding other musicians to her gigs. To afford them, she’d sometimes recruit her software engineer husband, Shinya, to play drums. “I didn’t have to pay Shinya,” she says. “He had a day job.”

“Satomi just sort of exploded onto the scene like a little fireball,” says trumpeter DeShannon Higa, who’s the young lion of Honolulu horn players. “If there was a gig, she was at the center.”

Soon Yarimizo was fronting quartets and quintets. One of her quintets (Yarimizo, leader, piano; Higa, trumpeter; Reggie Padillo, sax; Shawn Conley, bass; and Abe Lagrimas Jr., drums) coalesced into a group called Bop Tribal. Bop Tribal eventually went into the studio, and their fiercely improvisational CD received a four-star review from Downbeat and won for best jazz album in the 2008 Hawaii Music Awards.

Yarimizo now gets paid, not much, sometimes still ending up paying out of pocket for the other players. “She’s been an undying advocate of jazz and other musicians,” says Taufaasau. “I say, God bless her. There wouldn’t be much of a jazz scene here without her.”

For updated information, see satomijazz.com. The Bop Tribal CD is available on boptribal.com, amazon.com, iTunes and in local music stores.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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