Music That Heals You
This episode is supported by JapanCulture•NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
Susan sits down with jazz composer and big band conductor Migiwa “Miggy” Miyajima in the lower-level green room at the iconic Birdland Jazz Club in Midtown Manhattan. Born and raised in Ibaraki Prefecture, Miggy was creative and exceptionally talented as a classical pianist. However, throughout her childhood, she was curious about other facets of life beyond music, so she refused to commit her life to become a professional musician. Instead of majoring in music, she studied education at Sophia University in Tokyo, where she experienced a physical ailment that was cured only after joining the university jazz big band. After graduation, she entered the corporate world, becoming Editor-in-Chief of the popular travel publication Jalan, and continued jazz as a weekend hobby. Miggy composed original pieces and received positive reinforcement from her audiences, and unsatisfied with her day job, she eventually pursued music professionally at age 30. She moved to New York in 2012, the year after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and that event made a lasting impact on her career, inspiring a forthcoming piece that features the narratives of the survivors. Big band represents the combination of individuality and teamwork, and Miggy shares her method of telling stories without lyrics. Miggy has been nominated for two Grammy Awards for her work with Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and leads the 17-piece big band jazz group Miggy Augmented Orchestra.
This episode features three tracks from the album Colorful (2018) by Miggy Augmented Orchestra. The title track celebrates how everyone is unique and features Quinsin Nachoff on tenor saxophone as well as a sequence of two-bar solos by every member of the band. Inspired by the events of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, “Hope for Hope” evokes how one person’s good deeds can ripple to affect many others and features David Smith on trumpet and Alejandro Aviles on soprano saxophone. The episode closes with the album’s introductory track and roller coaster of frequency and rhythm “Ready?” featuring Carl Maraghi on baritone saxophone and Jeb Patton on piano.
This episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige and transcribed by Susan McCormac. Thanks to Kira Goidel for allowing us to record our interview at Birdland Jazz Club. Music courtesy of © Miggy Migiwa Music.
Susan McCormac: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
Toshiki Nakashige: Hello! You’re a podcast listener. We want your feedback. Fill out The Big Root Listener Survey at thebigrootpodcast.com/survey. Thank you!
SM: Welcome to The Big Root.
TN: A podcast about everywhere Japaneseness. My name is Toshiki Nakashige.
SM: I’m Susan McCormac.
“Colorful” by Miggy Augmented Orchestra
SM: We’re starting this episode with a composition titled “Colorful,” which features the tenor saxophone soloist Quinsin Nachoff. “Colorful” is the title track of a big band jazz album that celebrates diversity and how everyone is unique. I had the privilege of speaking with the composer of the piece.
SM: Will you introduce yourself to our podcast listeners, please?
Miggy Miyajima: Okay, my name is Migiwa Miyajima. I am a New York-based jazz composer, pianist, and also producer. And I am from Japan.
TN: From our Listener Survey, we got some feedback about featuring artists and musicians and discussing nontraditional career paths, so I’m happy that we’re featuring a jazz composer on The Big Root already.
SM: Migiwa Miyajima or Miggy certainly has a nontraditional career path. She was nominated for two Grammy Awards as associate producer of albums by Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in 2011 and 2014, and she now composes for and conducts her own big band, Miggy Augmented Orchestra. But as you’ll hear, her path to her successful music career was meandering.
Miggy and I recorded our interview at Birdland Jazz Club, an iconic New York City venue in Midtown Manhattan near Times Square, and although it’s shifted locations, it’s been around for 70 years. The name was inspired by the famous alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. We met in front of the venue under construction scaffolding, and the Birdland office manager Kira Goidel walked us to the green room in the basement. I’ve only been to a show in the space on the ground floor, but it was fun to explore behind the scenes. The green room was narrow with a comfy leather couch and a big mirror with those little round lights that you see on TV. It gave off big star vibes. On the wall were posters and photographs of jazz performers and musical icons, including Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Liza Minelli. The furnishings were modern, but I felt the history of the jazz club in that room. We started off the conversation about Miggy’s upbringing, and as she remembers, her parents fostered her creativity in a way that she found was rare in Japan.
MM: Well, I was a really cheerful kid, and I was very, very creative. So I was doing whole different, weird things when I was a kid. I mean, I was creative, but that like, something like I got the like sticky tapes, like Scotch tape kind of stuff, and one night my parents were out, I just started playing with those tapes, and I just put like everything from here to there, there to there, so furniture to furniture, or sofa to the wall. So my parents came back, my house, big house, was like…
SM: It was like a spider web of Scotch tape!
MM: Yes, that’s what I made! I was proud of myself, so I was so proud. My parents came back, and they were like, “What?” Then I was so proud of myself. And this was THE spider web! And then usually like Japanese moms are so strict, and they are like, “What the?” They are so angry, but my mom was totally opposite, so she was proud of me.
SM: Oh, that’s cool.
MM: She screamed, “Okay, you’re a genius!”
SM: Born and raised in Ibaraki Prefecture, Miggy was always creative, as well as a little quirky and unusual, so she wanted to continue nurturing that side of her personality.
MM: I liked playing the piano, but also playing with the piano, too. So I just enjoyed the rhythm, not making any music. Just da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da or just made the melody, whole different melodies and then just enjoyed it. So it was my toy, too.
SM: Her perspective of playing “with” the piano highlights her relationship with music. She had two classical piano teachers from age five to 18 who taught her technique, but she discovered that music was a way for her to be playful and creative. However, music wasn’t the only interest she had. Miggy’s parents could tell early on that she had talent, and they asked her if she wanted to pursue music as a profession. But Miggy was interested in things other than music. If you want to become a professional musician in Japan, it was common to devote yourself completely to that one talent starting at age five. Miggy thought it was unusual to focus on only one thing at such an early age and sacrifice all of the other aspects of growing up, so whenever she was asked, she had told her parents that she didn’t want to become a professional musician.
At age 18, Miggy moved to Tokyo to attend Sophia University, and because she was unable to double major, she gave up music to study education.
Nonetheless, it seemed like fate that she would still continue music as a hobby. She was playful with music, and her attitude is marked by her willingness to venture from her classical background into jazz during university.
MM: Jazz came into my life when I was 20. It’s kind of an interesting story. I, my body became really weak. I began—how you call it? I don’t know if you have any real name for it—but I became really, really weak when I was 18 or 17, when I decided not to go to the music school. And I stopped playing the piano because I needed to focus on studying stuff for the test, exams. So and then my body started to changing little by little and became really weak. Then that first year of the university, I was still dealing with that really weird situation with my body so my, the best friend I met in the university actually found that’s probably because I was not doing music. So and she was from American school. She was living in London for many years, and then she—in London, but she was at the, in the American school, so she knew what jazz is. So one day when we were—in April, the beginning of the second year of the university in Japan—so we were just eating lunch, then my best friend, Junko, all of a sudden told me, “Hey, I know why you’re sick! You’re sick because you’re not doing music anymore. You have to go back to music!”
SM: But had you been to the doctor about like, “What’s wrong with me?” Yeah. And they couldn’t tell?
MM: They couldn’t tell. I took whole different kinds of, every, every, every different kinds of exams, tests at the hospital, big hospital. But they couldn’t tell. They couldn’t tell. I had little fever, and then I got a lot of just, you know, weird cold kind of stuff. So I needed to stay in bed a lot. So that was the first year of my university. So then my at the second year, my friend just said to me like that: “Hey, I know why you’re sick. Because you’re not doing music anymore. You know, you gave up classical music, so you have to do jazz!” And I knew nothing about jazz at the moment. And she all of a sudden grabbed my arm literally like this. Krrr! And she pulled me out.
SM: April is the beginning of the academic year in Japan, and the different student organizations and clubs were lined up with booths.
MM: We literally went up to the street, main street in the university, and she just, she was like, “Ah ah ah, jazz, jazz, jazz, where is jazz, where is jazz,” and she found a jazz band, school jazz band, big band. And she just pulled me there. And she had me sit down in the table, at the table. I didn’t explain anything to them, to the members. She explained everything. “Hey, this girl is interested in music, and she wants to learn jazz.” I didn’t say anything. “And she’s a great pianist, she’s a great pianist, and she won a prize when she was 15, and she won a nationwide composition contest, so that means I think she can do improvised solo.” So that’s her explained everything, so that’s how I got into the jazz band, and that changed my, my life. So then and I loved the big band sound so much. And I loved the concept that the jazz has all the improvisations, and it’s combined into the ensemble. So it’s a good, good combination of individuality and also teamwork, so I loved the concept. So, I was like, I got this huge shock that this is my thing. Then all my weird, all the weird symptoms started going right away after I joined the club.
SM: So music healed you, jazz healed you!
MM: Yeah, jazz heals me! Yeah.
TN: When you came up with the idea to interview a musician named Miggy, I didn’t picture a woman from Japan, and when I learned more about her, I wondered if she adopted the name Miggy to better market herself in the US. But to my understanding, that’s not the origin story of Miggy.
SM: Her given name is Migiwa, but her friend Junko—the same friend who signed her up for the big band club at Sophia University—thought that Migiwa would be too hard for Westerners to pronounce. So she gave her the nickname “Miggy,” and it stuck. Miggy and Junko are still close friends to this day, and Miggy credits her for essentially saving her life.
Miggy decided to major in education. She had thought about going into politics, but since her goal was to make everyone in society happy, she thought that education could be the means by which she could make the biggest societal impact. Moving from Ibaraki Prefecture to Tokyo expanded her definition of “society,” and she was constantly challenged to find ways to help other people.
After graduating, she worked at Recruit, a human resources and lifestyle company that has many ventures, including a travel website and publication.
MM: When I became the Editor in Chief of a very famous magazine called Jalan…
MM: Do you know that?
SM: I know Jalan. I know the ad campaign with the kitty cat.
MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, with the cat! Yes, I know! So cute, right? Yeah, so I thought this is the chance for me to do something good. I thought I may be able to do something big through the work.
SM: As Editor-in-Chief of Jalan, she realized she had a lot of power to help people make decisions, but working in a corporate environment, she often felt that her personal dreams weren’t in line with the big business’s goals of making money. I think she’s wasn’t unhappy with her job, but she felt like there was more to life. She recalls publishing an issue of the travel magazine featuring a small village in Nagano Prefecture.
MM: I tried one interesting—one day I found a really attractive town, I mean village, smaller than town, village. And I wanted to feature the village. So I wrote about that, I sent the team to there, and they took a lot of beautiful pictures, and they have great food and great view and everything. But the village was not known yet, but I featured them anyway. Then that issue? Just went down; people didn’t buy the issue.
SM: Because they didn’t know…
MM: Because they didn’t know the village. So I realized so…
SM: But the whole point was for you to introduce the village.
MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, so, so that’s the difference. When you, when you want to sell something, the easiest way is using the, keep just using the famous one, most popular one. So it’s not changing the world. It’s not changing, just using the past experience.
SM: It’s just going status quo.
MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and it’s just using—the mindset is like, how can I make the same amount of money as last time?
SM: While Miggy was working at Recruit, she continued her hobby of big band jazz. She was composing original music and on weekends would perform in front of audiences.
MM: Compared to that, so what I was doing as a musician, weekend musician, that was so different. So I only, I could only see around 100 people once a year, but then I was already playing my original pieces, so it was all related to my life. Then I met so many people through my weekend gigs that they came to me, they were all crying, and they were like, ‘Today was the life-changing day for me, so you changed my life.”
SM: Unlike her day job, Miggy was receiving instant gratification for her work as a musician. At age 30, she left behind the corporate world and pursued music professionally.
She was first introduced to the genre through big band. As she pursued her career, she started to learn that jazz was multifaceted—like the popularity of more intimate groups like trios and quartets—but the big band setting was a way for her to foster individuality and teamwork.
MM: I found big band first, then after that, oh! Jazz is not only about big band! So I started knowing that there were small bands. But then I, the reason I why I am still working with big band is that thing I just said, the combination of teamwork and also individuality. So, and like I said, I was actually different since when I was a kid. I knew. I felt little lonely because I was different, I knew I was different from other kids. So I couldn’t really share the common things with them. You know, when I finally met jazz, jazz culture, the culture around jazz, or the people around jazz culture in Japan, those are the people actually first said to me being different is great. And also when I’m featuring someone as a soloist, when I have someone play improvisational solos, that’s when I’m featuring their, how different he is or she is from others. And I try to learn, know that person as a friend and also as a musician and how they want to play or what kind of life they like to do. So yeah, so that’s the whole—If you don’t like human, you can’t really be the big band leader.
SM: So why is it that you chose the path of composing and conducting rather than…
MM: Just playing?
SM: Yeah, just focusing on being a jazz pianist?
MM: It’s interesting, but I already liked composing when I was five or six. So I remember in kindergarten, I was I think five or so, and teacher asked everyone, “What will you do when you grow up?” And everyone was saying like princess, or Spider-Man, or something like that! Then I stood up and said composer, musical composer. I don’t know why, I was already liking that. But then, right now the reason why I’m liking that is again, I like, I like people. I like people and especially if you’re doing jazz. So if you were in my band, so I can write something for you, so then I think about you and my favorite point about you. So I can put those into my piece. Then we, when we play it on the stage, then the audience actually know why I like Susan. Right? That’s what I like. I love it when I do that. So my friends are shining in the spotlight, and all the audience will usually just fall in love with that person. I like that point. The same piece would sound so different if you change the soloist. So like trumpet section? We have four people in the trumpet section. They are using the same exact instrument, so I can choose any of them to play the trumpet solo in my piece, but they of course, they are different people. So I think about their character—how they live, how they play—and pick one for the piece. It's more interesting when you write things like that. There are some composers, “Okay, this is my piece. This is my piece. You have to follow my rule!” And they kind of force everyone to follow her or him his rule to play the music. But mine is different; I just keep the space. Keep it yourself; I wrote this for you. So this is how, how I do it, and I think my, my members are enjoying it. They know it, they know how I write. They know that I appreciate that they are there. They know that I know how different they are from other people.
SM: Miggy said that she is starting to perform in smaller groups, but when I think of Miggy, I think of her 17-piece Miggy Augmented Orchestra.
TN: In New York, there are Japanese jazz venues like Tomi Jazz, Jazz at Kitano, and B Flat, and I actually go to Tomi Jazz quite often. But you’re right, they’re smaller places so they only really feature the trios or quartets. Birdland Jazz Club isn’t a Japanese jazz club like Tomi, but I’m happy to see that a Japanese composer is making a splash at one of the larger venues in New York.
SM: When did you move to New York to perform jazz? And were you, when you came here, did you think, “Okay, I’m going to be, this is my spot now, I’m putting down roots down in Japan—in New York to be a musician”?
MM: Yeah. So when I, I became, I became a musician when I, it was 2004. I remember I keep coming—I kept coming to New York just to see what’s going on here. So and then 2008 I met the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which changed my life. And then after that I started thinking I have to actually, probably move to New York. So I started searching for scholarships and any opportunities that are there, and then I found the one scholarship that I could get. It’s from the Japanese government. So I applied, and I got that, and finally moved in two thousand, 2012. One year after the earthquake. So it was really big. While that, I was, while I was watching a lot of arguments about how we should use the whole tax income, I got the portion of the tax and came to New York for my study. So that was a really huge responsibility for me, it was heavy for me that I came here next year the earthquake. So I clearly remember the year, it was two, 2012.
SM: Oh, wow. But you had, so it had been about eight years of you coming here and kind of researching to help your strategy. So you were performing in Japan and coming here periodically…
MM: Yeah, yeah, just, just to study. So first, just two, three weeks, then I came here for one month, two months, and the longest was two months and a half, I think. Then I realized, okay, yeah, probably I have to move
SM: And make it a permanent spot. But 2012, like you said, one year after the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster, so you took that as kind of your inspiration?
MM: Well, I have to say I was really confused, so by the event. So my mind was not that clear. So right now I can say that everything I had inspired me and shaped my life, so I can say that right now. But I couldn’t word at the moment; I couldn’t really explain anything. It was just way too heavy for me I’m getting the money—I was getting the money from them while, and it’s the Japanese government paid the living expense for me for one year.
SM: The 3/11 disasters influenced her personal life and musical career in multiple ways. She felt even more responsibility to make the most out of her one-year sponsorship from the Japanese government in 2012, and the events continue to serve as creative inspiration. We’ll talk about a piece she’s working on as a tribute to the survivors of 3/11 later.
SM: As Miggy describes, New York was a logical place to move, but as someone who isn’t in the music world, I was curious whether Miggy had considered moving to the birthplace of jazz to pursue her international music career.
SM: New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. So in my, in my head, I’m, I wonder like why don’t people go to…
MM: I get that question a lot.
SM: Yeah? Do you really? I feel like, shouldn’t jazz musicians go to New Orleans? Is it just because everyone comes to New York to make it big? Like, whether you’re in fashion, or art, or you’re an actor.
MM: Yeah, yeah, both. Both. I think I can, I can, I can tell you two reasons. One is New Orleans, it’s more like traditional. I went to New Orleans, of course. And I realized that the town, that town itself and the culture there are more—they want to keep the tradition of jazz. So, like I said jazz has 100 years history, so they are more focusing on when jazz happened around New Orleans. So they do similar stuff every day. So in New York, people come to this cold place, and everything is expensive, and life is hard in this town, but everyone come here because we have different kinds of jazz here. Some people do traditional stuff, some people do more like eccentric stuff, some people do avant garde, some people do “…” . So different stuff here. And from all over the world, they come here and they learn. Since we have good schools here, Juilliard, Manhattan Music of School, and have like some schools in New Jersey, and close one here. Temple University has a great jazz course, too. NYU has it. So people come here to learn, and these students sometimes stay here. So then this place is more like a challenging place. We come here to challenge ourselves. Actually, to me, so because of the reason, we have many just genius—not just good players, genius players, genius composers in this town, small town. You can’t really be lazy here. You get inspiration, but also you can lose your, your self-respect, or you can just easily feel like I’m not a good composer, I have to go to, go back to Japan. You can easily feel like that because other people are too great.
SM: Have you felt like that?
MM: Yeah! A lot!
SM: But you stayed, though. You’re sticking it out.
MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Because I, I, I felt that going back to Japan as a loser is wrong. When I come here and I felt like I am not better than any other composers, there’s no reason I have to be in New York, I felt like that many times. But then if I go back there, because of that particular reason, I feel like I’m a loser, and I don’t, I didn’t like that. So okay, I just admit that okay, I feel like that. I feel like I’m a loser right now, but if I go back, I will be the real loser, so I don’t do that. So I will just stay here, and we’ll see, we’ll see how I felt. And then, then, I felt that I found that I was just comparing myself to a lot of people for the first three years. I still remember it took three years or so for me to feel fine that I am in New York. After three years, I finally felt okay, I just want to do it! I don’t know if I’m good or I’m bad, but I like doing this. So I like doing this, and since I have only one chance—this is only one life I have—so I would just do it, and I don’t care how, how other people would feel.
SM: Hearing Miggy talk about being a loser reminds me of Japanese professional baseball players who make it to Major League Baseball in North America. No matter what level of success those players achieve in MLB, they don’t want to return to Japan to play because if they do, they’ll somehow have to admit being a failure. Miggy stuck it out, and regardless of how she may feel, I certainly don’t think she’s a loser at all.
We’re going to take an ad break, but stay tuned to hear more of Miggy’s music and the rest of our interview.
SM: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
Like Miggy’s music, film is an effective way to tell stories. For film lovers, there’s a great festival for you! The nonprofit Greenwich Village theater Film Forum is hosting Shitamachi, a three-week film festival that puts the spotlight on films set in Tokyo’s gritty downtown region. The 38 films in the festival revolve around themes of class struggle; brash characters; low-brow landscapes dotted with pachinko parlors, black markets, and dive bars; traditional forms of theater, rakugo and kabuki; and street food such as ramen and yakitori. Shitamachi begins on October 18 and runs through November 7.
This isn’t specific to New York, but for food lovers, here’s a great way to enjoy eating onigiri and to make a difference to those in need around the world. Table for Two is running a campaign called Onigiri Action, which began on October 7 and ends on November 20. Simply take photos of your favorite Japanese rice balls and post them to social media with the hashtag #OnigiriAction. For each post, Table for Two’s partner organizations will donate five school meals to children in need. It’s an easy way to get into the giving spirit leading up to the holiday season. Daikon isn’t a traditional onigiri filling, but Toshiki and I will make a big root riceball in honor of Onigiri Action.
Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
“Hope for Hope” by Miggy Augmented Orchestra
SM: Our guest today is Migiwa “Miggy” Miyajima, jazz composer and conductor of Miggy Augmented Orchestra. She composed the piece you’re listening to called “Hope for Hope” from her album Colorful, which was released in September 2018. “Hope for Hope” features David Smith on trumpet and Alejandro Aviles on soprano saxophone. Inspired by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Miggy wrote a piece that evokes the rippling effect that doing good deeds creates.
I met Miggy at a mutual friend’s holiday party several years ago. But a couple of years passed before I saw her again. She invited me to her concert at Birdland Jazz Club in 2017. To commemorate my personal connection with Miggy, we conducted our interview at Birdland in the lower level green room.
The Japanese American community in New York has inspired me to get more involved in nonprofit organizations, and I’m always curious to hear about how community has influenced the experiences of Japanese people who move to the US.
SM: Was your creative, creativity fostered by the Japanese community?
MM: I have to say if we, we, we think about if Japanese community did that, I may say no because the most powerful pressure or power I feel when I go back to Japan is opposite. They want me to be the regular woman, regular Japanese woman in forties. They have the pattern, Japanese women in forties have to be like this. You have to wear this, you have to speak like this…
SM: Right, right. Why aren’t you married?
MM: Yeah, yeah. You have to, you have to, you have to be married when, while you are, you know, in twenties, or they have all the like the things that you have to do.
SM: Miggy felt that Japanese culture placed constraints on creativity and self-expression, but on the other hand, she’s grateful that her experience in Japanese society forced her to think about how to help others.
MM: But on that point that helping others? That’s, yeah. That’s just from Japanese community and from my parents. This is in my DNA. I am here not only for my life, I’m here for everyone’s sake.
SM: But do you, have you connected with other Japanese jazz musicians? Do you collaborate?
MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I like working with them. And when I go back there, I have so many good friends in Japanese jazz industry, so I love working with them every time I go back. So and also here, so there is some stuff that moved from Japan—some, some friends. So and I, yeah, I keep working with them. So I had a chance to do a concert with other Japanese women composers.
SM: I’ve been writing about Japanese cultural activities in New York for nine years, but producing The Big Root has challenged me to think about how to tell stories. As someone who enjoys writing blog articles and putting together audio programs, telling stories with words comes more naturally for me, but for Miggy, her stories don’t use words.
SM: There are no words, there are no lyrics to your songs, so how do you, how do you deal with being a storyteller with just through music.
MM: Yes, I was going to tell you about that, yes! Yeah, I was going to tell you that that—you know, the interesting thing is that my, New Year’s resolution of mine is talking about my life, so I started talking about how I compose like for the non-musicians. For the like the kids or for non-musician regular, like I don’t know, like corporate workers and everyone. So the best thing and interesting to know about the composer is like when we are composing music, we, I am actually dealing with frequency. So frequency means like all like the do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti, all of those are just different frequency. So you can buy those like little, little tools like you put it there then it has like a frequency that the mosquitos don't like, or mice don’t like, or it then we don’t hear it, right? So just like that, we have the, the frequency that people, I mean, human being, we, as human being would like or would hate. So we are using the frequency, so this is like a likable frequency, this is not, so I combine it. So if you, if you keep the bad, uncomfortable frequency for a while, you start feeling like, really like the uncomfortable feeling it’s yours now when we repeat it. Then when I switch from the uncomfortable one to the comfortable one, you feel relieved, and you feel like you reached a goal, or you feel like you achieved something, so that’s the when your feeling is switched from uncomfortable to comfortable. So I’m controlling those frequencies and combining all the frequencies, and also rhythm can make you like the fast rhythm can make you feel excited, and the slower one can make you feel like you want to sleep. So those, I’m controlling all of those materials and just making the like frequency and magic from the notation and the rhythms. So that’s how, how we do when we compose music. It’s interesting because Bach or those like all the people, really famous, legendary classical composers they already knew about those stuff. They were using those tools, and we are using the same stuff, too.
SM: But it’s not just classical composers from whom Miggy draws storytelling inspiration.
MM: I always have some, some little notebook, and I take notes like when I listen to, “Oh, this sound, I like this sound. I can use it when I want to describe about the struggle.” Or, “I like this sound when, I would use this sound when write about the relief.” Or I just collect those sound effects every time I go to—it doesn’t matter the genre; genre doesn’t matter. So I would, I go to rock concert and then there steal, you know, steal some ideas, and from classical music concert, everything, like pop music, everything like when I hear something, I steal the idea and then combine it.
TN: How to tell effective stories is something we think a lot about as podcasters, and it’s nice to hear a musician’s perspective on how to evoke certain emotions from an audience.
SM: Well, in the last couple of years you’ve, you’ve worked on and released your album, Color—Colorful. So it came out in September 2018. So I know that your inspiration for it was that you wanted to focus on diversity. So how has your process changed since the, the album has come out and working on your new projects and stuff?
MM: The album helped me to, to strengthened the idea. So I kept talking about my album and my, you know, music in the album, so then since I keep talking, and talking, and talking, so I get that, now I have the better idea about why I wanted to write that. So like again, so there is no reason if you think about it seriously, like no reason for Japanese girl to stay in New York with a lot of competitors from this country. It’s an American music; jazz is American music, so I, so staying here means I chose my life being a minority, right? And I that feeling that, that while I was writing this piece “Colorful.” So “Colorful,” so little bit of explanation of this, this piece, it’s “Colorful” means that I love this country because everyone is different. Like I said, in Japan I feel more like I have to be like that. In this country, everyone is being, just being you, you, you, you, you, different people. So in this piece, there is a part that everyone in my band stand up and play the little solo, two-bar solo. So 17 people different lines and everything. So every time I play it at the concert, so I don’t usually tell the audience that we will have these different solos, but the audience get the idea.
The 17 solos from “Colorful” by Miggy Augmented Orchestra
MM: Again, going back to my life, so I already knew when I was writing this, this piece how important this is for me, but then after that I know more about that being a minority in this country means a lot to me because now I know the pain, so how hard it is—and it’s so hard!—and you doubt yourself so many times, how come I chose this harder, harder life? But then you see so many people come to you, “You changed my life” again and again, even in New York. So I met some high school kids after the Dizzy’s gig in September—three, four high school kids, of course American kids—came to me and said, “Hey, your pieces just knocked me out. And I, this was the first time that I ever I listened to jazz, but I didn’t know that I—I thought of jazz as just a style—but I didn’t know that jazz can change our feeling like this much.” They said, “You are beautiful; your life is beautiful.” And I thought that that’s, being a minority and doing something different that other people don’t do on the stage, in the spotlight, and then, you know, the kids of that country actually come up to you and say, “Hey, your life is beautiful” that means a lot, and I can share this story to other people. My life has been really blessed, and even when I had some difficulties, I usually solved those things quickly, But for the first day, or your know, first two days or three days, I feel like, okay, I have no ways to solve this, but then something happened and then it solved right away. So I call it, like when you’re doing something really right, higher power or a god or I can’t really name it would help you and solve it and just tell you you have to do this. So every time I think about, “Do I have to just focus on Japanese stuff and give up my life in New York?” Something happens and then like, like, okay, I have to be in New York and do this stuff, keep doing this.
SM: Miggy wanted to make an impact in society, and music helped her do that. She wrote the piece “Unspoken Invisible” in 2018, and it was inspired by the constraints of Japanese society that Miggy experienced as a woman. As exemplified in compositions like Colorful and “Unspoken Invisible” she’s not afraid to confront political and social issues.
MM: When I came here, I knew that I was traveling for freedom, and now I feel, yes, I feel it so deeply that when I’m here that I, I can do anything I want to do. And I get the questions like from Japanese people did you need to, to deal with any racism or anything, so I get that kind of questions a lot.
SM: You mean, did you deal with racism here?
MM: Here, here. As a Japanese musician. So their question means like if those, these venues or booking people would, you know, do something not good for me because I’m because, only because I’m Japanese, not American guy? You know, Japanese girl. Being American guy versus Japanese girl. So I get that question from Japanese people a lot, but my answer is always, always no. It’s great that people in jazz don’t, don’t do this, this type of stuff. They just listen to music, and when music is good, you’re good. So…
SM: Oh, that’s awesome. That’s good to hear.
MM: Yeah, yeah, that’s great. I’ve never had anything like that. If someone does any, anything weird to me, since almost everyone in jazz industry are different, they, they protect me. So I, I have no problem. I mean, I had just a little bit of bad stuff, but usually no problem. Other people around me would protect me from those racism, so.
SM: So it sounds like you have a good community.
MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. They, they, they listen to your music, and your music is good, you’re supported.
SM: Miggy told me that she’s given interviews and talks extensively throughout Japan, and her New Year’s resolution was to tell her story more in English to American audiences. I’m glad we had the opportunity to share her story on The Big Root. The Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, happened the year before she moved to the US, and it’s clear that that event has remained important to her. In the album Colorful, the track “Hope for Hope” was inspired by the aftermath of 3/11. She’s currently working on a suite commemorating the survivors of the event.
MM: I’m planning to do the next big project, big project is all about the 3/11 that event. So it’s a suite, so and I’m going to record it next year and perform it in the tenth anniversary year, 2021. So yeah, this has been really big for me, yeah.
SM: So you never really left it.
MM: No, it think it’s going to stay in my, yeah, whole life. So the main, main focus of the next project, is since I myself experienced it in Tokyo, and my family are in Ibaraki, still in Ibaraki. Ibaraki is next to Fukushima. It’s way too close. So my parents’ house, and my sister’s house—three of my family’s houses are, got affected, and we needed to do a lot of stuff to overcome to, I mean, to go back to the regular life, and that’s the huge thing for me. And through that, since we actually experienced that, we wanted to, we are happy to talk to the other victims or the survivors, so I had a chance to talk to other people. Then I realized that the, the most important thing for us to know at the tenth anniversary that there are people who decided to live life fully. And that’s big! So, and I thought I have to, I am—I have to say I am sensitive, so I don’t like, I don’t like going to, going, you know, online and just finding how bad it was. You see the numbers, you can’t believe. I just found that in August, this August, the number of the people who are still in evacuation camp is 50 thousand. So I was shocked. This is too huge for me, so it’s hard for me to write a suite. But I, I, again, I keep missing the main point, but main point is that they are people who decided to live fully, and they needed to be in the darkness for a while, but they came back. And it’s the power that we all have, actually, and you know, we are seeing a lot of things. Like in this country we had 9/11, but also like we had earthquake and fire and everything. A lot of stuff are happening right now. So I thought that it’s my mission to because I experienced it, I met those people, actually. It is not in the move; this is my life. That happened in my life, so I have to tell people okay, this is the real life, this is not the movie. And even if you feel like you will be in the darkness forever, there is something actually set in your DNA, and that little seed is going to grow later. So you may have to keep watering it little by little, but what you have to do is just water and wait, water, wait. Then some day the seed will grow, and it’s going to, you will see the flower later. And that’s what I learned for ten years. It’s been eight years now, so I know that I will learn more from that. This will be, I think it will be the main thing in my life.
TN: The survivors of 3/11 want to live life fully, and I can see that Miggy’s doing that as well.
SM: By the end of my interview with Miggy, I was tearing up while listening to her describe her experiences. By the time this episode is released, she’ll be in Japan collecting audio footage of interviews with 3/11 survivors.
MM: I go back to Japan in October to interview this person. He’s a pastor of the church. His church is the closest one from the nuclear plant in Fukushima that melted down.
SM: Oh, wow.
MM: So of course, in Fukushima they have many churches, but his one is the closest. So of course, the community of that church needed to, you know, just break down. They needed to evacuate to and then they basically they were so divided, separated into many different camps, but the pastor thought that they, that all of the family in the church needed one symbol, so they actually moved the church to somewhere else. So they picked the same name, but they have the same name, the church, but in a different place. So all of those people living in the different evacuation camp goes back to, go back to the church sometimes.
SM: Oh, that’s nice.
MM: So I will go there and interview him and record his voice, and I will put his voice into my piece and also combine my inner feeling to that and make a piece. So I will keep doing that kind of that interview someone, record the voice and include the voice into the suite.
SM: Oh, I can’t wait to hear the suite once you finish it!
SM: Awesome. You’re going to make me cry again.
MM: Yeah, again I know it will be really encouraging, but at the same time I have to say every time I go back to the numbers and everything when they have to research, make some research, I just get depressed so much.
SM: It is heartbreaking, but at the same time, like you said, there’s resiliency as well, and that’s, that’s what we need to focus on, too. Thank you, Miggy!
MM: Thank you so much! Thank you!
SM: I appreciate the time. I love your stories.
MM: Thank you so much.
SM: Miggy is modest about her accomplishments, and she credits the performing rights organization BMI for opening the doors to the music industry in New York. We had our interview at Birdland, and her next performance there is on March 1st, 2020. My interview with her was more like a conversation with an old friend, and on our way back upstairs, we talked about how she likes to unwind. Her favorite way to relax is to jog along the Hudson River during sunset.
TN: Thanks to Miggy Miyajima for sharing her story on the podcast. I’m excited to go to her next show, and I can’t wait to listen to the 3/11 suite in 2021!
SM: I know I’m going to cry listening to it.
TN: Also, thanks to Kira Goidel from Birdland Jazz Club for allowing us to record the interview there.
SM: Hey listener! We have a Listener Survey! Please go to thebigrootpodcast.com/survey. We are in the second half of our first season of The Big Root, and to make our shows better, we would like your feedback so please answer a few questions. That’s thebigrootpodcast.com/survey.
TN: You can also subscribe to our mailing list at thebigrootpodcast.com/subscribe. We had a live podcast recording event in collaboration with the New York region of U.S.-Japan Council on October 17. The Big Root strives to tell stories about everywhere Japaneseness, so we had leaders in the Japanese American community give presentations on how storytelling strengthens US-Japan relations. You’ll get information about future live podcast events on our mailing list!
SM: Our next episode in two weeks will be the live podcast event with USJC, so stay tuned!
TN: If you enjoy listening to the stories that we tell on The Big Root, please support the podcast through my Patreon page, patreon.com/toshnaka. You can find more about what you get in return for supporting this podcast and my other creative projects on that website.
SM: We didn’t get the chance to record a live performance by Miggy Augmented Orchestra for the podcast, but we’ll end this episode with another studio recording from her album Colorful. And if you want to listen to Miggy Miyajima’s music, please go to miggymigiwa.net. Thats M-I-G-G-Y-M-I-G-I-W-A DOT NET.
The next track features Carl Maraghi on baritone saxophone and Jeb Patton on piano, and Miggy describes it as a musical rollercoaster and an introduction to her album about diversity and acceptance. This is our guest Miggy Miyajima conducting her big band, Miggy Augmented Orchestra. “Ready?”
“Ready?” by Miggy Augmented Orchestra
SM: The Big Root is an independently produced podcast.
TGN: The theme song was performed by Kento Iwasaki, and this episode was edited by me and transcribed by Susan McCormac.
SM: For more information about the podcast, please visit thebigrootpodcast.com.
TGN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige.
SM: I’m Susan McCormac. Until next time.