Chatting with Rio Sakairi

“Rio Sakairi has singlehandedly influenced New York's current jazz scene more than anyone I know," proclaims jazz pianist and 2013 MacArthur “genius" grant winner Vijay Iyer. In her role as Artistic Director of the Jazz Gallery in New York City, she has received great acclaim for her work to launch careers of emerging artists and for her creative programming.

Rio will serve as one of five jurors for the final performances of the 2023 American Pianists Awards in April. Before a recent performance at the Jazz Gallery, she spent some time with us discussing her career, detailing how she stays up to date with rising artists, and offering advice to artists looking for bookings.

When I was four years old, I started playing piano and I immediately got good at it. Then my parents went crazy, like, Oh my gosh she’s a genius.

So I grew up in Japan and they really pushed me, which really pushed me away from music.

By the time I started middle school, I told them, I don't want to play piano anymore. But then because I loved music, I got myself involved in school choir, school orchestra, I played with a string instruments. I always had music one way or the other.

I moved to New York at the age of 18 to go to New School and I thought I wanted to study psychology. And when I got to New York, I said to myself, Well, I'm in New York City, I'm going to take a voice lesson, which makes no sense. But at that time, it did. So I started taking private voice lessons, and this teachers says, Oh, do you know the New School actually has a music program? So you should look into that.

Back then—now I know the school has a different program—but back in 1992, there used to be a jazz and contemporary music program. So I thought that's what it was. So I auditioned and somehow I got into it. So I switched to my program from BA be to BA/BFA a program to do five years. But once I got into the school, I realized that it was actually a jazz and jazz program, and I knew nothing about jazz, which was 30 years ago now. And that's how I sort of fell into jazz.

I think one of the one of the advantages that I had particularly early on when I started this 20 something years ago…I mean we are still a very lean organization and, you know, small compared to some other giants like Lincoln Center or SFJazz—but 25 years ago, lean is not even the word. It's just we had no budget. But then, you know, we were sort of underdog and people not paying attention to us, which actually gave me a lot of freedom to do whatever. And I think now we have experienced a lot of growth, which is great, but I also feel less of the freedom that I had when I started doing this. I kind of miss that.

Also we run as a not for profit, which is really helpful because as a not for profit, the purpose, we have a mission as organization and you know, yes, we like to make a little bit of profit so that we can keep doing what we are doing, you know, for the sustainability sake. But bottom line is not the goal of the endeavor. Endeavor is to contribute to this music and, you know, provides a space for artists to like, really be themselves and learning about who they are and connect the audience to the process.

Okay, I talk about this all the time, and I hope he's not mad at me. But when Miguel Zenon first played at the Jazz Gallery back in 1995, we had like 19 people all night long. This is right after he moved to the gallery. And if I ran a club that was commercially operated, I would say I really like you, but I can't have you back because I lost so much money tonight. But because we run as a not for profit, I was able to take a long-term approach like, well, we lost money today but I think he has something special and we're going to stick with him.

I'm here every night when there's a performance because sometimes there's a side person that comes in that piques my interest. Then I make a point to talk to a lot of people here, like young students who come here, young artists who play here.

I like talking to people. I try to go out and listen to music as much as I can.

Sometime I find people through, they send me an email with the video or audio and someone like James Francis, when he first came to New York, I first booked him through this video he sent me. Quality wasn't great, but I thought he could be good. Who knows, you know? And now he's playing with Pat Metheny and doing all the things, wonderful things. Then sometimes, you know, the older musicians would say, hey, you need to check this person out. So it's really all about paying attention as there's no one way.

There's always like, so many ways people can come to you. So just keeping my antenna up and then I guess I enjoy that part of the work. So it doesn't particularly feel like work. I'm like, Oh, know, it's exciting.

And you have to always remember, nobody asks you to do this. You want to do this, Nobody owes you anything.

So if you know and then don't take it personally, because each artist, they have their own agenda. I have my own agenda, Jazz Gallery has its own agenda and sometimes they cross paths and things could happen. But just because somebody is not hiring you or some venue is not hiring you, it's not a reflection on you as an artist. This is a very personal thing for everybody who's involved, and it's never personal.

So just don't get upset. And also, I wrote this in one of my blogs, but you want to have the imagination to put yourself in my shoes and find the creative way to approach me, because I have a lot of young artists who's constantly like, ask me for a gig. But if that's the only thing you say, every single time I run into you, I'm going to start avoiding you because I have so many other things to think about.

You know, how to make sure the door stays open. I want to feature older artists, younger artists. I want to do a project. You know, sometimes you might fit into that, but it's there's only so much amount of money, so much amount of days. So I tell them to just feel, be creative, be compassionate, be imaginative, and also, you know, sometimes people ask me, what's the secret to success?

Don't quit. It's really you know, the people are like, Oh, that's such a cliche, but there's a reason like cliches exist because it's really true. Don't quit. And sometimes it's not easy. But I've seen, you know, people who are just hanging in there and then one day it's funny how things just takes, you know, but you have to be in there for that to be you, for that things to take you and I think, you know, and this is a kind of business that if the play music itself give you so much joy, regardless of how many people are in the audience, go for it!

When I hear your music, I want to feel like I'm talking to you, if that makes sense. And yeah, so that's you know, I'm looking for people to be naked on stage, musically speaking.

I'm really looking forward to hearing all the piano players. I know most of them, and I've told them that, well, everybody, everybody knows me that I don't say things I don't mean. And I you know, I have personally I have personality likes and dislikes, but I know how to put that aside for the sake of music. And they know that I'm a tough critic. So everybody's like, yeah, I know you. I know you won't have any trouble judging us. And then, they told me what they have to do, different styles and genres. And so I'm really looking forward to just hearing music.


Rio will serve as juror for the 2023 American Piainists Awards finals.


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Our diverse world shapes our music, the artistic language of our contestants. It delights, informs, and inspires us all. It is in this spirit that the American Pianists Association welcomes people of any race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and gender identity, as well as people with disabilities. We commit to learn from diverse talents, ideas, and voices. We pledge to create an environment for our artists, audiences, community partners, board, and staff that is based on the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Further, we commit to enacting strategic and annual plans that provide focused, measurable strategies for living out these values every day.