‘I Was Their Punching Bag’ — A Jazz Musician Falls Victim to a Vicious Beating

Tadataka Unno, a longtime jazz pianist, had just wrapped up a recording session in Midtown on Sept. 27 and was heading home to his wife and infant son in Harlem. As he passed through the turnstile to leave the West 135th Street station at St. Nicholas Avenue at around 7:30 p.m., a group of teenagers blocked his exit.

Unno tried to weave through, when, he said, a young woman pushed him from behind and accused him of bumping into her. One of the teens said, “She’s pregnant,” and began punching Unno in the face.

“It was eight of them against me,” Unno recalled in an interview from his home. “They just said, ‘Beat him up. Beat the Chinese mother—–r up.’” 

The 40-year-old pianist picked up his glasses, climbed the station stairs and tried to run. The teens chased him, but his assailants knocked him down, and continued beating him in the middle of St. Nicholas Avenue.

“I was their punching bag. It was a game for them,” Unno said. He suffered a broken shoulder and arm. No one has been arrested.

Tadataka Unno (Photo/Sayaka Unno)

The attack on Unno occurred during escalating violence against people of Asian ancestry, fueled by fears of COVID-19 and coming amid references by President Trump to the “Kung flu” and the “Chinese virus.” New York City police say there have been 26 hate crimes against Asians so far this year; there were three in the city in all of 2019.

“I thought I was going to die. I was in a panic and was desperate for help. … I had to live for my newborn son,” said Unno.  

A crowd watched from nearby basketball courts, but for several minutes, nobody helped, Unno said. Finally, a woman called 911 and stayed by his side until police and an ambulance came.  

Unno underwent surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital for multiple fractures. He will have to undergo rehabilitation, but Unno is not certain if he will fully recover.

Was this a hate crime? Unno isn’t sure. “They called me ‘Asian’ and ‘Chinese.’ …  I can’t claim for sure whether this was a hate crime or not.”

Police haven’t classified it that way.

“This was a heinous crime, but not a hate crime,” said Deputy Inspector Stewart Hsiao Loo, commanding officer of the New York Police Department’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force, which was formed over the summer. “A hate crime needs to be motivated by the race of the victim. This crime was motivated by a dispute of bumping into each other.”

Unno said the attack made him realize how silent many in the Asian community are about racism. “I was surprised by the number of Asians who told me they had experienced similar cases,” he said. 

The Anti-Defamation League said it saw a dramatic spike in anti-Asian sentiment on Twitter in following Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis on Oct. 2.

The pandemic has led to extreme stress, and has made some people more likely to hurt others, said Dr. Philip Muskin, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. As of late June, the Centers for Disease Control said that more than 40 percent of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health, with a higher percentage among younger adults and racial minorities.

Unno, who grew up in Japan, started playing piano when he was 4 and jazz when he was 9. He came to the United States in 2008 and has played with such major legends as Jimmy Cobb, who called Unno a “young genius.” He has appeared at major New York jazz clubs, including the Blue Note, the Village Vanguard and Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and has recorded six albums under his name and 32 as a side man. He is known in the jazz world as “Tada.”

Tadataka Unno, playing with trumpeter Roy Hargrove (Photo/Pascal Martos)

“When you are dealing with art produced by marginalized people, if it’s taken serious by folks who come from outside the culture … they are paying homage to those marginalized people’s ancestors,” said jazz drummer Jerome Jennings, who is Black, in an interview.  “Tada is from Japan. … He has taken our heroes seriously … not only the music, but the people Tada respects.” 

Jennings started a GoFundMe page for Unno, with a goal of $25,000. By Oct. 14, it had reached nearly $150,000. 

“I have been touched by so many kind people,” said Unno. “I even received an email from somebody in China, saying, ‘Sorry that you were mistaken as Chinese.’ I don’t have any negative feelings, and now feel bad that somebody feels bad for me.” 

Unno struggles to decide if he wants to raise his son in the United States. He noted that his assailants were Black, and also that he has partnered with many Black musicians over the years.

“I saw the dark side and the light side of this country,” he said. “I consider Black people to be my brothers. They’ve allowed me to be part of their group.” Yet at the same time, “the truth is, I was assaulted. They happened to be Black, and that does not change my feelings about the community.”

Now, Unno questions how the assault will affect his musical career. He cannot lift his arm or pick up his 4-month-old son. “I wonder … if I can’t play the piano again,” he said. “I’ll have to rethink what to do with my life.”

And, his worries go beyond his own profession: “In the world of music, race and age are hurdles that can be overcome,” he said. “So, I wonder why in the real world, we cannot catch up to the music world in the same way?”

About the author(s)

Anna Mutoh is a fellow at the Columbia Journalism School's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and has a 20-year career in investment banking with published work in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Japan’s NewsPicks.