Issue 15.3: June/July 2012

Giant Steps

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.


Honoka‘a—surrounded by lush, rolling ranch lands and fallow sugar fields—is these days little more than a vintage postage stamp off the Big Island’s Mamalahoa Highway. When the Hamakua Sugar Company closed in 1994, the tiny plantation town all but dried up. Workers who remained either toiled on nearby ranches or commuted to resorts on the island’s sunnier coast.

Ryan Hiraoka, descendant of a Honoka‘a plantation family, typified Washburn’s students: Before he traveled to Honolulu with the Honoka‘a Jazz Band, he’d never been off the island. Things are different for him these days.

“I never dreamed I’d be where I am now,” says Hiraoka, an award-winning songwriter and producer who graduated from Honoka‘a High twelve years ago. Shortly after, he started his own recording company, Rubbah Slippah Productions, and he’s written, performed and produced four solo albums—the most recent of which won a Na Hoku, the top award for music in Hawai‘i.

When he joined band class as a seventhgrader, “I didn’t consider myself musical,” Hiraoka says. But, he stresses, “If you have an ounce of musicality in you, Mr. Washburn will pull it out and encourage you to build on it.” On the first day of class, Washburn asks his future songsters to choose their weapon: which instrument they want to pursue. Hiraoka picked electric bass. His friend Kamakoa Asing couldn’t decide and raised his hand for every instrument before ultimately settling on the drums.

Jazz band quickly became more than just an easy grade for Hiraoka and his friends. They formed a band, Strange Groove, and performed regularly at local clubs—often alongside their teacher, because Washburn moonlights as a keyboardist as often as five nights a week. And when big-name musicians visit the Big Island he plays backup for them. He introduced the wide-eyed members of Strange Groove to Bonnie Raitt, Steely Dan and Joe Cocker, to name a few.

The stream of musical celebrities passing through the Big Island increased in 1994, when Honoka‘a’s lovingly restored People’s Theatre—the community’s hub of entertainment since 1930—began hosting the Hamakua Music Festival. Diverse acts such as Kenny Loggins, Rita Coolidge and Big Brother & the Holding Company played to packed houses. Waiting backstage was an enterprising high school teacher who made sure to usher the artists across the street to talk with his students.

“Washburn invited all these legends to our classroom to give us tips,” says Hiraoka. “He’d introduce them all nonchalant. We didn’t realize how lucky we were.”

Recently the Broadway star Ben Vereen stopped by the band room. He asked for volunteers to perform for him. A girl approached the mike and sang “Stormy Weather,” the classic about a failed relationship. After she finished, Vereen asked the girl, “Why did you pick this song? What is it about?” He told her to summon the feelings she’d have if someone close to her were hurt. He stood two feet from her and asked her to sing it again. This time the song’s sultry, sorrowful depth came through. Washburn’s eyes well up as he remembers watching his student transform into a bona fide performer. “It was so good,” he says. “The quality of her singing doubled that day.” 


Washburn might expose his students to music’s lofty heights, but he expects hard work in return. Each year the ensemble and jazz bands learn an impressive eighty to one hundred tunes, ranging from Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” to Brazilian bossa nova. Students bring in pop hits, and Washburn composes original numbers to hone particular skills, such as mastering the perfect “twang” on guitar. He keeps a chart of who plays what to ensure everybody gets equal stage time. Every April, band members head to Honolulu for Jazz Appreciation Month. They’ve opened for the Royal Hawaiian Band at ‘Iolani Palace and played at the Shriners Children’s Hospital, the Honolulu Academy of Arts and Ala Moana Center. 

Aside from the shriek of the school bell, the Honoka‘a band room could be a professional studio. Upcoming gigs are scrawled on the chalkboard. Luggage tags hang from the handles of black instrument cases, evidence of recent off-island tours. And the tidy stack of CDs on the teacher’s desk? Those are class recordings, available for a donation of $10. “I try to teach professional etiquette,” says Washburn. “I expect students to be on time, dressed right and ready to change everything at the last minute.”

“There’s no program like it in the state,” says Hiraoka, who went on to major in music at the University of Hawai‘i. “Mr. Washburn really knows how to educate, how to think out of the box.”

Maelan Abran, one of Hiraoka’s classmates, is doing just that. Her first album, A Little Closer (which Hiraoka helped produce) has gotten play on stations in Hawai‘i, Las Vegas and Tahiti; its original tracks feature a novel blend of reggae, Jawaiian and jazz.

The first time the raven-haired vocalist sang in front of the class, she remembers, she felt so embarrassed she ran into the hall and burst into tears. Washburn came out and asked her, “Do you really want to do this? Because if you do, it will get better with practice.” He was right. Abran spent every free minute in the band room, rehearsing and eventually mentoring other students. She got her first gig when she was 21 and has been singing professionally ever since.

“I owe a lot to Mr. Washburn,” she says, a common sentiment among the teacher’s alumni. Another student, Amy Mills, was painfully shy, with a voice that was sweet but far too quiet for anyone to take notice —until the talent show during her senior year, when she stunned her classmates with a chandelier-shaking performance of “I Will Always Love You.” After graduation she worked as a grocery clerk. Every so often Washburn would nudge her about pursuing music. One day she took his advice and left to study opera in New York City. She is now an accomplished soprano.

Washburn knows
a thing or two about launching big dreams from small towns. Skiatook, Oklahoma, where he was raised, isn’t as far from Honoka‘a as it might seem. It too has a lone traffic signal, half a dozen churches and gas stations, and little else. In between milking cows and taking care of the horses on their family’s farm, Washburn and his older brother Kent mastered every musical instrument they could get their hands on. Before Washburn could even drive a car, he was touring with the Shadow Lake 8 Orchestra, a dance band that rocked the South.


By the time he graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1968, he was a seasoned performer with a serious case of wanderlust. He ventured west, all the way across the Pacific to obtain his master’s in music from the University of Hawai‘i. Over the next few years, he bounced around the country, teaching in Oklahoma and then in Hawai‘i, earning a doctorate in Boston and finally following his brother Kent to Los Angeles to compose songs for Motown. Hawai‘i had captured his heart, however, and he returned to build his life in the Islands.

For the past thirty-four years, Washburn has taught three classes a day to an average of thirty-five students a class. “You do the math,” he laughs. It’s an equation that works for him; on his days off he has enough energy left to tend to his five-acre farm, lead horseback tours down into nearby Waipi‘o Valley and play keyboards at the Blue Dragon in Kawaihae.

So many of his pupils have pursued musical careers that he can fill a sheet of paper with names off the top of his head. Many return to perform at the annual alumni concert, a benefit for the music program held at People’s Theatre. But Washburn’s class isn’t only for future stage-strutters. “This is a rural town,” he says. “Most students don’t have money for instruments. The vast majority don’t take it further than the door when they leave school. This is the only time many of these kids will ever get to be in a rock ’n’ roll band.”

The talent erupting
out of Honoka‘a hasn’t gone unnoticed. Fifteen years ago an anonymous donor gave the school $150,000, specifying that half of it fund the much-lauded music program. Washburn stocked up on sound systems, keyboards, drum kits — the works. In 1998 the Hawai‘i House of Representatives presented Washburn with a resolution praising the Honoka‘a Jazz Band for its community involvement. And in 2010 the national spotlight shone on Honoka‘a when the jazz band won a National Association of Music Merchants award and appeared on National Public Radio’s From the Top.


Last year, though, was the banner year: Washburn’s class was recognized with two of the world’s most prestigious awards. First, Washburn was named a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction for his inspirational teaching. Then, to top things off, the school won a Grammy. Washburn had sent a sample recording of his students to the Grammy Foundation, and the judges liked what they heard: Honoka‘a was one of thirty-six schools chosen nationwide as a Grammy Signature School. Today a larger-than-life check from the foundation for $5,500 hangs in the band room above the xylophone.

“It’s kind of crazy that there’s a Grammy in little Honoka‘a,” says Hiraoka. Washburn agrees and smiles as he admits, “I kind of blew my own mind with that.”