Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Olivier Koning
In 1978, when Gary Washburn applied for the job of band director at Honoka‘a High & Intermediate School, the music program was in a shambles. A graffiti-inscribed piano, a beatup bass guitar and a few unloved wind instruments comprised the sum total of musical equipment at the rural East Hawai‘i school. Intermediate students had no music classes whatsoever. The last band teacher had reportedly been taped to a chair and then left in the closet by a couple of thuggish upper-classmen.
That didn’t dissuade Washburn. An Oklahoma transplant and new father, Washburn needed steady employment. His only deal-breaker was a marching band: He refused to lead one. He’d given it a try back in his home state, but as a devoted musician—one who’d recently earned a Gold record for co-writing the hit “Searchin’ (I’ve Got to Find My Love)” for Motown Records—he found it contemptible that students should practice year-round only to perform during sporting events for people who were waiting in line to buy hot dogs.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to play an instrument while marching in time?” he asks, incredulous. “And what are students going do with that skill after high school? Wait for somebody to die so they can get a position in the county band?” Luckily the principal at the time, Jerry Sakamoto, didn’t care about cultivating halftime entertainment. He simply told Washburn to get as many kids involved in music as possible. But, he added, if Washburn couldn’t fill his classes, he’d have to teach remedial math and English.
“So I taught rock ’n’ roll,” laughs Washburn, smoothing back his silver ponytail. “I started listening to what the kids listen to.” The new music teacher carpeted the band room’s linoleum floor and plastered the walls with posters of musical geniuses, transforming the echo chamber into a rehearsal space. He cobbled together enough instruments for an ensemble, repairing those he found (still in service thirty-odd years later), borrowing a horn or two from other schools, accepting donations from musical friends and making up the difference out of his own pocket. (He personally owns around twenty of the instruments used in class.
Students brought in songs they liked— by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Frank Sinatra— and Washburn arranged them for the nascent band. When the local bullies strutted past the door jeering, he invited them in. “Come see how difficult it is to play an instrument,” he said. “Maybe you’ll discover you’re good at it.” The bait worked; the bruisers became his advocates. Soon he was turning kids away. Band class—extended from seventh to twelfth grade—became a privilege for those willing to earn it.
But a question remained. If the school band didn’t accompany the football team, what exactly was its role?
Turns out that at Honoka‘a, music classes were categorized as vocational, not as part of the art department. That suited Washburn perfectly. After all, his own musical career had started when he was 15 and began playing gigs with his older brother’s dance band.
So he took the act on the road. He scheduled the Honoka‘a Jazz Band to perform at other high schools around the island, in shopping malls, at community festivals—just about anywhere that would give his students a stage. Before long the sounds emanating from Washburn’s class reverberated far beyond the school hallways. They echoed throughout the state, across the Pacific Ocean and right into some of music’s most hallowed institutions.