“To Convey Love Through Sound”: A Jazz Musician’s Comeback in the Aftermath of a Hate Crime

“All I could do those days was stay in bed because my head was spinning from the painkillers."

“Make extreme neutral” is the goal of Tokyo-based NEUT Magazine, which in this project with Public Books shines a light on different forms of violence and discrimination against Asian minorities—in Japan and around the world. Today’s essay, ‘To Convey Love Through Sound’: A Jazz Musician’s Comeback in the Aftermath of a Hate Crime,” by Fumika Ogura, was originally published by NEUT in November 2022.

Tadataka Unno is a talented pianist based in New York. Born in 1980 in Tokyo, Unno is considered one of the most gifted Japanese jazz musicians who mesmerizes audiences with his technique, creativity, balanced sensibilities, and beautiful tone. Towards the end of their lives, both the legendary Hank Jones and Japanese jazz pianist Yuzuru Sera mentored Unno, demonstrating the highest confidence in his talents. Unno looked up to them as mentors not just in music, but also in life. When Hank Jones passed away in May 2010 at the age of 91, Unno was by his side. He emerged from this great sadness to take up the baton of Jones’s jazz piano legacy. Unno was the first and only Japanese regular member of the Roy Hargrove Quintet.

Get My Mojo Back is Unno’s miraculous comeback album after his recovery from an attack that shocked the world. In September 2020, he fell victim to an anti-Asian hate crime in the wake of the spread of COVID-19. Unno was assaulted by a group of people in a New York City subway station and suffered serious injuries, including a fractured right shoulder—a fatal wound for a pianist. Doctors declared that he might never be able to play the piano again.

The incident was covered by CBS, among other news programs in the U.S. and Japan. A crowdfunding campaign launched by a musician friend after the incident raised large sums of money.

Since then, Unno has made a spectacular comeback, thanks to intensive physical rehabilitation and the perseverance of his indomitable spirit. His road to recovery was featured in the NHK special 「この素晴らしき世界~分断と闘ったジャズの聖地~(This Wonderful World: The Holy Land of Jazz that Pushes Back Against Division), which was broadcast in November 2021 and received positive feedback from many audiences. The album cover and title are a nod to the work of Akané Ogura, a New York-based painter.

Unno’s new project marks an impressive return to music. Recorded with fellow musicians who supported him during his darkest times, the album is full of vitality and joy and consists of original compositions written during his recovery period.


Music Can Transcend Racial Boundaries

Unno began playing the piano at the age of 4 and took up jazz piano at the age of 9. From the moment he started, playing the piano was as natural as breathing for him. Eventually, he began his career as a professional musician when he was in college.

“I am grateful that my parents introduced jazz to me when I was a child,” Unno says. “My love for jazz led me to understand music differently, and that feeling continues to this day. Piano aside, music has always been my savior.”

Unno moved to New York at the age of 28 to further experience the roots and culture of jazz. He knew next to no one in the city; for the first few months, he barely had access to a piano.

“I was starting life in New York from scratch, but musically speaking, I had ten years of professional experience in Japan, so I wasn’t too worried. I didn’t speak any English, but I felt that the music helped me. Little by little, I connected with like-minded people and was able to play gigs at various live music venues and restaurants. Now, about fifteen years after first moving here, I’m sought by top jazz bands of all backgrounds and have toured all over the world. From these firsthand experiences, I truly feel that music can transcend racial barriers.”

Jazz music is said to have developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with its origins in New Orleans, Louisiana. At the time, New Orleans was fertile ground for new cultures to be born, with various ethnic groups overlapping and influencing one another, including people whose ancestors were forcibly taken from Africa during the era of slavery, as well as those who migrated from European countries like Spain and France. It is said that jazz was born against this backdrop, as various cultures began to mix with blues: a genre of music sung by enslaved Black people to express the anger and sorrow of their harsh lived experiences.

“In the jazz world, I have never been overtly discriminated against because I am Asian, but I have noticed that some people might look at me skeptically at first. Once I start to play the piano, though, they’d get so surprised and ask me where in America I grew up. The musicians I used to play with were all Black musicians who represented the jazz world and whom everyone respected, so thanks to them, I think I was protected from others’ condescension. I was blessed. It can be a difficult world for Asian artists to enter, but there is also a degree of meritocracy to it. However, some people do put their abilities aside and use the fact that they are Asian as an excuse for their unsuccessful careers. And then there are those jazz fans in Japan who say things like, ‘You can’t play jazz unless you are Black.’”


The Sudden Tragedy That Threatened the Career of a Jazz Pianist

Unno was trained by master jazz pianist Hank Jones and has played with drummer Jimmy Cobb, who himself was in bands with trumpeters Miles Davis, the king of jazz, and two-time Grammy Award-winning Roy Hargrove. Everything was smooth sailing for Unno until tragedy struck in September 2020. Unno was suddenly attacked in New York City, where anti-Asian hate crimes had been increasing, as he was exiting the subway. The attack left severe injuries to his right shoulder and arm. Doctors told him he might never play the piano again.

“I was so badly injured that I was meant to be hospitalized for two to three weeks, but because of the pandemic, I was released the same day I had surgery. The needle was still in my arm, and I went home with a large tank of anesthesia on my back.”

Despite the excruciating pain and feelings of hopelessness, Unno kept thinking about music.

“All I could do those days was stay in bed because my head was spinning from the painkillers. But even then, the sounds coming from inside of me gave me hope. It could be that I needed a distraction, but I was thinking about music all the time, even more than usual.”

I believe that ‘being alive’ means ‘being kept alive.’ Even the heart does not beat by itself; something else makes it beat.

The melodies that came to him during his recovery took shape in the album Get My Mojo Back, which was released on March 2, 2022. After undergoing intense rehabilitation following his surgery, Unno was miraculously able to start recording the album just 10 months after sustaining his serious injuries.

“I think back now and feel amazed that I was able to play with my arm hurting so much. I think I was helped by some mysterious force so that I could record. Even though the pain didn’t go away, I thought to myself, Now is the time. I wanted to come back; I didn’t want to give up, I didn’t want to give in to discrimination. So I put the joy of being alive and the gratitude I felt for those around me into my music.”

The phrase “Get My Mojo Back means to recover one’s strength. These words are directed by Unno to himself; but he also hopes that those who come into contact with the songs on his album will also feel the intentions behind the title phrase.

“‘Mojo’ is a word often used in the blues, and it means ‘life force or ‘mysterious power.’ Sadly, I think many people tend to believe that they have control over their fate or that they are living on their own. However, I believe that ‘being alive’ means ‘being kept alive.’ Even the heart does not beat by itself; something else makes it beat. It is hard to explain in words, but we humans have a tendency to elevate our importance in the world, and in the process forget that we are kept alive by an entity greater than ourselves. As a result, we reject or even kill those who disagree with us. And perhaps these tendencies and impulses are what lead us to make war. Such things happen every day—and so I wanted to express my belief that this is not the way things are supposed to be. I believe that if each of us got our mojo back and truly valued ourselves and one another, we would be able to overcome the difficulties of the world.”


The Things That Lie Beyond Pain and Sorrow

Unno released an album infused with so much introspection and emotion after an incident that nearly ended his life as a pianist. In the early days following the incident, he learned there were people reacting to his case from all sorts of perspectives.

“At the time, the U.S. was a divided country because of the pandemic, the impending presidential election, and rancorous cultural debates over Black Lives Matter. So there were various articles written about my incident. For example, those who wanted to say bad things about Chinese people would say, ‘The Chinese spread the coronavirus, which in turn caused anti-Asian hate and led to a Japanese person also being attacked.’ Those who want to blame Black people said, ‘Black people attacked us. They are to blame for social ills.’ Those who didn’t like the fact that Naomi Osaka was actively supporting BLM at the time, or those who had had negative feelings toward her from the start, would say, ‘Why do you speak out only during BLM and say nothing when Japanese people are attacked?’ Those who wanted to hold up Japan as a wonderful country said, ‘I was born in a safe and beautiful country, so people who go to foreign countries and fall victim to violence have no one to blame but themselves. It’s only natural that they should be attacked.’ People who simply wanted to project their negative feelings or find someone to blame would say, ‘Look, I’ve been saying for a long time that such-and-such is bad,’ and use my case to say whatever they want. It made me sad.”

Japanese people who have the privilege of living free from racial discrimination in their home country rarely have the opportunity to become aware of their race. How many of them think that discrimination can happen close to home, or that it might happen in their daily lives? I suspect that most of them do not even think that they are the kind of people who would discriminate.

“I think most people in Japan are not even aware that they are Asian in the first place. When I was attacked, I was beaten up while being called Chinese. Rather than try to tell them that I was Japanese, I just tried to escape. I felt it was pointless to tell the criminals who ambushed me that I was Japanese. I also felt that saying ‘I’m Japanese’ at the moment could also imply that they could have beaten me up if I were Chinese, and run the risk of tapping into some sort of unconscious bias. You see, when we find ourselves in an overwhelming situation like mine, we are often forced to come face to face with the seeds of the internalized racism we carry.”

The quantity of information flowing through social media every day is far more than we can ever digest. We are always searching for answers, but what do we consider to be the right answer? We are inclined to accept the opinions of those who are closest to us; when we see someone say something different, we are inclined to deny it. However, the information we want to believe is not all there is to this world. In a society where the spotlight is focused only on the claims of the majority, it is necessary to understand that there are a range of opinions and to have the ability to imagine ideas other than one’s own.

“After the incident, I wondered if I should go back to New York. However, I found that the New York jazz community and all my musicians and friends were waiting for me, so I decided to return. I was supported by them throughout my recovery. It is nice to be needed by someone, isn’t it?”

During April and May of 2022, Unno held live concerts in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and other cities to celebrate the release of Get My Mojo Back.

“I would like to compose more music in the future,” he said. “I also plan to resume performing at various venues while continuing my rehabilitation. I believe that suffering and sadness will always manifest themselves in sound, just as they did for those who came before us. I am very lucky to have jazz as a means of expression. When I think about the power of music, I begin to feel that I can bounce back from the incident. And I also feel a new mission bubbling up inside of me: that is, to convey love through sound and interrupt the cycle of hatred.”


This article was originally printed by NEUT Magazine in November 2022. icon

Featured-image photograph by Elena Iwata