Kai Ono

Dave and Gunda Hiebert Fellow


“My name does mean “ocean” in Japanese. My parents named me that in the hopes that I would have a heart as wide as the ocean. Over the last few years I’ve increasingly felt responsibility towards my name, as my conviction for my artistic vision burns more and more.”

— Kai Ono

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Kai Ono is a composer-pianist, raised in the bustling suburbs of Irvine, California and currently living in the mosaic city of Queens, New York. He likes the color grey, the sound of laughter, and things that fly.

Kai is able and mostly willing to play several genres of music on the piano he is familiar with, but his primary specializations are jazz and classical. In the past, he’s won some awards in festivals and competitions such as the West Virginia Intersection of Jazz and Classical Festival, the Rosalyn Tureck Fourth International Bach Competition, and the Celia Mendez Young Artists’ Beethoven Competition. Although he really enjoys playing in smaller house venues, he’s also been on bigger stages like the Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall, the Jazz at the Lincoln Center, and the Lied Center of Kansas.

As a composer, Kai was a recipient of Downbeat Magazine’s Undergraduate College Outstanding Composition for Big Band and the ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award for his piece Everybody is with Everybody Else, which was performed at the Jazz at the Lincoln Center in New York City. His piece, Two Novellas for Clarinet and Piano was a winner of both the National Federation of Music Clubs Student Composition Awards and the NFMC Emil and Ruth Beyer Composition Awards. He’s also had multiple opportunities to perform his own compositions around the country, most notably at the Society of Composers, Inc. National Conference at the University of Puget Sound, Washington, the SCI Student National Conference at Ball State University, Indiana, the North American Saxophone Alliance regional conference in South Dakota State University, the National Trumpet Competition in Denver Colorado, and the Lied Center of Kansas.

Kai also really likes people, so collaboration in the music world is something he’s always excited about. He’s is currently a member of the Additive Color Ensemble, along with flutist Brian Allred and saxophonist David Berrios, where the three musicians engage in commissioning, educational outreach, and improvisation exploration projects. Through this group, Kai has found enjoyment lately experimenting with the structure of concerts and venues, understanding how the untrained ear perceives music, and designing concerts to best contextualize the music they perform.

Kai recently graduated from the University of Kansas with a BM in Piano Performance and Composition with distinction, and as a Presser Scholar. He is eternally grateful for his amazing mentors he’s studied under so far - piano with Dr. Scott McBride Smith and Chizuko Asada, composition with James Barnes, Dr. Forrest Pierce, Dr. Kip Haaheim, and Dan Gailey, and jazz with TJ Martley.