Masakazu Yoshizawa, 57;
Japanese flute player featured in many films

By Valerie J. Nelson
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 16, 2007

Masakazu Yoshizawa, a musician best known for his mastery of traditional Japanese flutes who was featured on the "Memoirs of a Geisha" soundtrack, died Oct. 24 of stomach cancer at his San Gabriel home, said his daughter, Chrissy. He was 57.

A scholar of ancient and modern Japanese traditional music, Yoshizawa had already been hired to act as a drummer in "Geisha" when he was asked to play the shakuhachi -- a bamboo flute -- and other Japanese instruments for the 2005 film's soundtrack, composed by John Williams.

"Masa was a brilliant musician and a very important member of the orchestra, and he will be greatly missed," Williams said in a statement to The Times.

The Oscar-nominated "Geisha" music was adapted by Williams into a substantial concert suite that featured Yoshizawa on shakuhachi and Yo-Yo Ma on cello.

It was performed at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts in 2006.

When he moved from his native Japan to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, Yoshizawa worked as a clarinet and saxophone player, and as a sushi chef, until he was asked to play the shakuhachi for a job, which rekindled his interest in Japanese music.

After returning to Japan to take lessons in shakuhachi, which he had played as a child, he increasingly was hired to work in film and television because "they wanted a sound that Western music didn't have . . . that was new and fit the film," Yoshizawa said in 2005 on Cultural News, a website about Japan-themed films.

For the 1993 film "Jurassic Park," he also worked with Williams, who had him play the shakuhachi because it "sounds like a dinosaur's cry," Yoshizawa said on the website.

Yoshizawa played on soundtracks for dozens of movies, including the "Karate Kid" sequels of the late 1980s and the 1993 films "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" and "The Joy Luck Club." On television, he played the shakuhachi on the 1980 miniseries "Shogun" and other shows.

Born Sept. 10, 1950, in Takayama, Japan, he grew up in a village where his mother was the only obstetrician and his father was the veterinarian.

Required to play a musical instrument in school, Yoshizawa took up the accordion at age 9 and followed it with piano, Western woodwinds and the shakuhachi.

By 19, he was performing with orchestras in Tokyo and as a studio musician.

He studied Western musical tradition at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music, earning a degree in the early 1970s.

In Los Angeles, he regularly performed as a soloist, often at community events. Since 1993 he had played with a trio called Kokin-Gumi, which performed original traditional and contemporary music and toured the U.S. and Japan.

Although he was best known for the shakuhachi, he had mastered several traditional Japanese flutes and taught others how to play.

A perfectionist when it came to his music, he could display "a goofy side," his daughter said, and often served as a sushi chef at parties for friends.

Yoshizawa was divorced.

In addition to his daughter, Chrissy, of San Gabriel, he is survived by his son, James, of Long Beach; sister Chieko of Japan; and a granddaughter.