Remembering Pianist Deems Tsutakawa: On and Off Court

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Deems Tsutakawa, the popular and esteemed Seattle jazz pianist, died February 25th after a long illness.  His keyboard work made him a local celebrity and a world figure.  As a member of a family of artistic giants, he couldn’t escape his own role, and didn’t try.  He played his own game.

I knew him best as a shifty and accomplished pickup basketball player.  Small in stature, his game was quick, deceptive, and joyful.  We played for years with a motley and irregular group of locals, all of us limited in talent.  Most often, the game was at the tiny gym in the basement of Immanuel Lutheran Church, but we played at several other venues around town.  Deems had a signature move that I could never defend.  He would fake left, dive right under my helpless left arm, then rock back and fire his set shot from 15 or 20 feet.  He hit for a very high percentage.

When he wasn’t shooting hoops he was playing the piano.  Everywhere.  All over town.  He played at bars, clubs, Benaroya Hall, community festivals.  He gave new meaning to the word ubiquitous.  His style was both universal and totally personal.  At times he seemed to have sprung full-grown from an earlier generation of Seattle lounge entertainers–Overton Berry, Joni Metcalf, Walt Wagner, Betty Hall Jones.  Easy rapport with the audience, asking about their kids he had never met, deftly adjusting his repertoire to the evening’s taste.  If Deems had been cast as a third brother in the Seattle piano bar movie “The Fabulous Baker Boys” with Jeff and Beau Bridges, he would have fit right in.  As far as I know, he never attempted acting, but I can see him on the big screen, putting the make on Michelle Pfieffer, totally convincing.

From his decades of recordings, albums, and countless public appearances, he may be best known for “Tough Tofu,” the closest thing to his signature tune.  The title is a sanitized adaptation of a common vulgarism that loosely translated means: stop complaining, live with it, shut up and get on with your life.  Deems played one-on-one with the Grim Reaper for over eight years, and until last week he always came out ahead.  I never saw him down. 

The last time we met was at a baggage claim at SeaTac,  He was waiting to pick up his electric keyboard after a series of gigs in Hawaii.  I walked up behind him and asked, “How’s your jump shot?”  He wheeled, looked at me, and yelled: “Non-Existent!” and we both started to laugh.

So many will miss you, Deems.  Tough Tofu.

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Gordon Bowker is a writer, entrepreneur, and a big fan of music.

3 COMMENTS

  1. This is an beautiful and fitting tribute to an utterly charming guy. He did play his own game, brilliantly. Thanks.

  2. Thank you, Gordon, for your memory of Deems as a talented and “shifty” player. It is a view some of us never saw. But loved visiting through your tribute.

  3. Deems was also heck of a tennis player, remember playing against him in a Pac Asian tennis tourney years ago. Guy was a fierce competitor, but so fun to compete against him, then afterwards laugh and enjoy his company, not to mention his music

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