The Christmas holiday season could be a little rough on Deems Tsutakawa. It was not unusual to see the Seattle-based, always-in-demand smooth jazz pianist with his fingers wrapped together, between the crush of festive gigs he was hired to play.
“Everybody wanted him,” said Mayumi Tsutakawa, the musician’s older sister. “He’d play five, six, seven shows a week that time of year.”
Deems Tsutakawa died Feb. 25, at age 69. The cause was cancer.
Born the third of four children to one of the city’s most esteemed family of artists, Tsutakawa found his voice as a jazz pianist while attending Franklin High School. While still a teenager, said Mayumi, he performed professionally “at hundreds of weddings and events.”
The work was good, and it set him up for his adult career both as a soloist and playing with small ensembles. Over subsequent decades, he became a noted composer, arranger and close collaborator with other musicians, including his younger brother, Marcus Tsutakawa.
Coming of age in the 1960s and early ’70s, Tsutakawa was as taken by funk, blues and R&B as he was by jazz improvisation. A seamless blend of those influences is apparent in his playing, which was light of touch and buoyant, yet enriched by soul and Tsutakawa’s big heart.
“He was just that way in general,” said flutist Bradley Leighton, who frequently played with Tsutakawa since their first meeting in the mid-1980s.