“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. As the Artistic Director and the Director of Programming at The Jazz Gallery since 2000, Rio Sakairi has helped to identify and nurture some of today’s most important jazz artists. By seeking out the next generation of creative jazz players and composers and by guiding and nourishing their artistic visions over the span of a decade, Rio has had a significant impact on the jazz scene in New York and beyond. Her focus and vision have been decisive in putting The Jazz Gallery on New York’s cultural map and gaining the worldwide recognition that the venue enjoys. In Iyer’s words, “Rio has helped launch the career of virtually every notable jazz artist under 40 that I can think of. Her tireless efforts have rejuvenated the music and galvanized the musical community." Rio’s contributions were recognized in 2016, 2014 and 2010, when The Jazz Gallery received the CMA/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming. Rio was also award the Jazz Hero Award from Jazz Journalist Association in 2016.
Noted author, photographer, and record executive Hank O’Neal has praised Rio as “easily the finest Artistic Director associated with any jazz organization in New York City or possibly anywhere in the country." Veteran critic Ted Panken has observed, “Jazz would not sound the way it does today had not The Jazz Gallery served as a locus for New York’s polyglot musical community to exchange ideas and work on moving to the next step."
Rio’s accomplishments bear this out. She gave decisive early support to young musicians who went on to win the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition: the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the guitarist Lage Lund, the vocalist Gretchen Parlato, and the bassist Ben Williams, to name a few. In 2001 alone, Rio booked saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s début as a bandleader, drummer Dafnis Prieto’s first-ever U.S. bandleader appearance, and some of pianist Jason Moran’s earliest performances with The Bandwagon trio. Vijay Iyer was introduced to the New York jazz scene through his numerous performances at the Gallery upon his arrival in the same year. All four artists — Zenón, Prieto, Moran, and Iyer — went on to win the highly coveted MacArthur Fellowship. Additionally, many artists signed to Blue Note Records in recent years such as Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Aaron Parks, Lionel Loueke, and Ambrose Akinmusire received pivotal early exposure and support under Rio at The Jazz Gallery.
In addition to her work at The Jazz Gallery, Rio has also produced a benefit compilation CD, Home: Gift of Music, with proceeds going to Habitat for Humanity Japan in the wake of the devastating 2011 Tōhuku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. For this humanitarian endeavor, Rio called upon artists who became close friends through her work at the Gallery: Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens, Claudia Acuña, Sachal Vasandani, John Ellis, Doug Wamble, Adam Rogers, Johnathan Blake, and many more. Rio’s production credits also include George Wein’s CareFusion Jazz Festival at Symphony Space, Herbie Hancock’s 70th Birthday Tribute Jam Session at City Winery, “Off the Wall: A Tribute to Michael Jackson" at HarlemStage Gatehouse, and various events sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, among others.
Rio has drawn connections between musicians of widely varying sensibilities, linking established traditions and newly emerging sounds. The breadth of her curatorial accomplishments has been demonstrated by The Jazz Gallery’s Large Ensemble Commissioning Series of 2008-2009, Composers Series of 2002 and 2007, “New Voices" vocal series of 2010, annual Residency Commissions Series launched in 2011, and the recurring “Trumpet Shall Sound" series with the great Roy Hargrove, among other initiatives. Even as Rio has made the Gallery a community hub for younger, up-and-coming artists, she has also hosted repeat performances by such legends as Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake, Chucho Valdés, Lee Konitz, Chris Anderson, and Steve Coleman.
Rio has also demonstrated a keen ear for the pan-stylistic and global reach of the music by recruiting artists who draw on influences from hip-hop to singer-songwriters; from Africa and the Middle East to South Asia and Latin America. At the HarlemStage Gatehouse in 2007, Rio conceived and co-presented a collaborative project with legendary emcee Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and the reunited Roy Hargrove Big Band. It was one of the first notable and successful big band/hip-hop concerts, which helped ignite a widespread trend.
Born and raised in Tsuchiura, Japan, Rio came to New York in 1990 and earned a dual degree in music and liberal arts from The New School for Social Research. She first crossed paths with The Jazz Gallery after signing up for the Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride, a 510-mile bike trip from Fairbanks to Anchorage she undertook in 2000. “Everybody had to raise a minimum of $5,000.00 to take part," Rio recalls. “I wanted to do a fundraising concert, and I wound up approaching [Founder and Director Emeritus] Dale Fitzgerald at The Jazz Gallery, which was just getting started as a performance space. I put on the benefit, which was a great success, and then Dale asked me to get involved at the Gallery."
In a short time Rio was setting the Gallery’s agenda and on her way to becoming one of jazz’s most respected curators. When asked about her criteria and vision for the space, she responded, “What I’m looking for is soulfulness, and that’s not a stylistic reference. I want to see the artist’s personality realized honestly and creatively. Music is a way to communicate something, just like literature or any other art. There has to be a certain standard of technical ability, but beyond that what I’m looking for is honesty and soulfulness. I want to feel something when I hear you play. I want to know who you are."