Issue 9.4: August/September 2006

Re-Birth of Cool

story by Ric Valdez
photos by Brad Goda

 

It’s pushing 11 p.m. on a misty Tuesday night: Down on the street, buses come and go, tires hissing on the rain-washed asphalt. Meanwhile, up a steep, nearly hidden flight of stairs, the loft space is filling up. There’s art on the walls, a disco ball on the ceiling, couches and tables scattered here and there. Out on the rooftop lanai, a herd of smokers huddles under table-mounted umbrellas, while a mini-skirted waitress makes the rounds. Bartender’s got a Mohawk and there’s recorded bossa nova on the sound system.

I’m nursing a Guinness and musing on a larger-than-life painting of a koi fish when a squawking saxophone pulls me back. The New Jass Quartet is heading into its first set of the evening: A clean, stripped-down jazz-rock fusion—guitar, sax, bass, drums. A kid barges into the lounge in a blazer and high-water pants, shuffles and mimes on and around the couches, an updated scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.

The quartet is laying it down for the I-pod generation, many of whom probably don’t recognize the song’s roots—Miles Davis in his electric-funk era; a time when, some still claim, he wasn’t playing jazz at all. The music is breaking the scene down into essential, bit-by-bit moments: Off-the-hook … everybody looking everywhere … hugs and kisses … people coming in and going out and it’s the jazz—yes, this is jazz—that’s pulling all the strings.

It could be SoHo but it’s not: This is Chinatown, Honolulu, and 39 North Hotel Street is on fire.

I always knock before entering Shoji Ledward’s closet-sized practice studio, over at ABC Music in Kaka‘ako. Shoji’s big as a defensive lineman, and it’s only possible to see a slice of him when peering through the small viewing window in the door. This time, it appears that he’s napping: Head bent, eyes closed behind reading glasses, he sits virtually motionless in a fold-up chair, surrounded by CDs, charts, music books and a few guitars in gig bags.

But then the fluid notes, muffled through the soundproofed door, tell another story: Shoji is wide-awake and wailing away on his blue, custom-made seven-string axe, creating spontaneous, swinging, horn-like melodies over a tune I don’t recognize. His finger-style technique is an attack, roughly the equivalent of playing two guitars at once: Plucking with his right hand while the digits on his meaty left hand crawl over the fret board, pressing and pulling strings, creating a complex, three-part rhythmic counterpoint—melody line, accompaniment and bass.


 
The New Jass Quartet has functioned
at Thirty-Nine Hotel's de facto

house band since the Chinatown
gallery/nightclub opened in the summer

of 2004. Pictured here are bassist
Jeremy Wood and drummer

Justin James.

On most Fridays, I spend half an hour with Shoji, hoping he can help me cultivate my own guitar chops. But music is just a hobby for me, and lately I’ve been curious about what it means to be a working jazz musician in the middle of the Pacific, far removed from the music’s acknowledged centers in New York or, even in its current battered state, New Orleans. So this week we’re passing on the lesson to talk about the scene.

In Honolulu’s tight-knit jazz community, Shoji’s a maverick: He doesn’t belong to the local musician’s union; he teaches, has a few regular gigs and holds down a nine-to-five job, working in the warehouse at Borders Books and Music. But his talent is so pure and undeniable that he can get away with it: His music is not necessarily for the masses—and, frankly, that’s not his primary concern.

“I don’t worry about having a bass player, drummers or pianists … I play solo,” says Shoji, in describing the delicate balance between making a living and making the music that scratches his own itch. “Jazz is a funny word that gets used in a lot of different ways, and I don’t know that people always understand what it is they’re trying to define. That’s the biggest disadvantage: People hire you with an expectation that’s framed by the word ‘jazz’ and what they might perceive it to be. That’s where it gets a little weird sometimes.”

However one interprets the word, at the moment Honolulu’s passion for jazz is on an upstroke: Big band to bebop, Latin to fusion; Chinatown bar to Waikiki resort to the musician’s union hall in Kaka‘ako: On pretty much any night of the week, you can find as many as three generations of players, tattooed prodigies through seasoned elders, making jazz to rival any of the music’s giants … in fact, you’ll find many who’ve played alongside those titans.

Neophyte hipsters might see this as breaking news, but from Shoji’s vantage point, it’s nothing new—the talent is always here and the scene is always bubbling just below the surface, in the practice studios and the stalwart lounges and the places like Ward’s Rafters in Kaimuki, where namesake Jackie Ward has been hosting informal, Sunday afternoon jazz parties for more than a decade now. It’s just that, now and then, critical mass is achieved and the scene erupts.

“To me it looks like it runs in about fifteen to twenty year cycles,” says Shoji, cradling his guitar in his lap. “I’ve gone through about two of them already, and it appears that I’m going through another one now: Some people think that maybe jazz is something they should be paying attention to, so immediately there is this huge rush to become jazzy again.”

Shoji might sound a bit jaded, but look at the history: Honolulu’s love affair with jazz has run hot and cold for a century now. As early as 1905, famed Honolulu composer Sonny Cunha was using ragtime and jazz as the backbone for songs like “My Honolulu Tomboy.” By 1921, in a profile of Mekia Kealakai, Paradise of the Pacific magazine was touting the newly minted Royal Hawaiian Band master as Hawai‘i’s best hope for staving off the “threatened degeneracy of island melodies into cheap jazz”—not an altogether unreasonable worry, given a profusion of jazzy “Hawaiian” songs coming out of New York’s Tin Pan Alley, written by people who’d never laid eyes on the Islands. Take, as only one example, the Al Jolson hit “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula.”


 

 
Keith Hiraoka, Robert Scellato, Phil
Scellato, Scott Villiger and Aaron

Hill (left to right) make the scene on a
Sunday arternoon at Ward's Rafters.

And the wheel keeps spinning: By the 1930s, legendary Hawaiian steel guitarist Sol Ho‘opi‘i was playing and recording up-tempo tunes like “Twelfth Street Rag” and “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” while the expanding Waikiki tourist industry was fueling a hapa haole music boom that drew on ragtime, jazz, blues and foxtrot to create what the outside world increasingly came to see as “Hawaiian” music.

On the other side of the coin, ‘ukulele virtuoso Eddie Kamae, who founded the Sons of Hawai‘i in 1960 and in the process helped spark the subsequent Hawaiian cultural renaissance, first made a name for himself in the late 1940s at Waikiki’s now-defunct Lau Yee Chai restaurant: As half of the duo ‘Ukulele Rascals, he honed an innovative picking style that was based in part on the playing of guitar legends Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Kamae’s Sons of Hawai‘i bandmate Gabby Pahinui, arguably the most famous slack-key guitarist of all, once said he would have preferred to make his name playing jazz. And through it all there were the legendary Honolulu clubs: Places like the Brown Derby (once-upon-a-time host to Ella Fitzgerald, among others) and the Blue Note, Gibson’s Bar, Casino and The Breakers.

Those clubs are all long gone. Shoji is right: The pendulum swings, regular as a metronome.

Lewers Lounge at the Halekulani Hotel is an intimate venue, dark and elegant, all koa wood set in a Hawaiian motif. Up on stage, bassist Bruce Hamada and pianist Jim Howard project the air of cool sophisticates: Coats and ties, throwing out unpredictable interpretations of the chamber jazz canon—Gershwin, Berlin, Porter. At the moment, they’re midway through an inspired rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things”—a song that, owing to Julie Andrews’ star turn in The Sound of Music, is readily recognizable to virtually any listener on the planet. At the same time, it’s a completely malleable tune—if you need proof, seek out John Coltrane’s ethereal, thirteen-plus-minute version, recorded circa 1961.

In other words, it’s the kind of song that appeals to a broad listener base, while still allowing the musicians to do their thing—which is one secret of this duo’s success. Another is raw talent: Bruce and Jim have been playing at Lewers for more than fifteen years, during which time they’ve also worked with virtually every noteworthy local musician and shared the stage with legends like Frank Morgan, Ronnie Kuber, Ernie Watts and Stan Getz. Recently, Dianna Krall dropped by for an impromptu set.

Even so, the duo has seen its share of quiet nights in the lounge—even now, on this particular Wednesday, they started the evening playing to a young couple parked on a love seat, obviously way more into each other than whatever was going down on stage. Not the norm for these two, but it happens sometimes.

“We do acoustic jazz, we don’t use any synthesizers … no fusion,” says Bruce between sets, brushing the front of his suit. “And sometimes it’s hard to reach people who aren’t familiar with jazz—sometimes people get turned off by it, like they do classical or the opera … they feel intimidated by the music because they think they have to know theory.


 

 
Bassist Bruce Hamada and pianist Jim
Howard have been a mainstay at Lewers Lounge form more than fifteen years

now, purring their own spin on iconic
songs from the chamber jazz canon.

“My dad, also Bruce Hamada, is a well-known jazz drummer from the Islands—he was with the Royal Hawaiian Band. When I was a kid, he didn’t want me to be a musician because of the business, but it was better for my father’s generation than it is now—these days, it’s like we’re an endangered species.”

But when I ask why he doesn’t simply up and go to a place where audiences might be more generally tuned in, Bruce has a simple answer: Hawai‘i is home.

A sax solo drifts onto Kapi‘olani Boulevard as I approach a visiting Japanese hipster. He’s standing on the sidewalk, rolling a cigarette and wearing a silk-screened T-shirt—a picture of Miles Davis circa Birth of the Cool. I offer a light and ask him what he thinks of jazz.

“Jazz is everything … it’s freedom … it’s a life of journey, philosophy, romance, architecture … it’s art … an art form, you know?” Both his sentiments and the name of the club we’re about to enter might seem a bit overblown, but Jazz Minds Art & Cafe, one of Honolulu’s new crop of live venues, is genuinely trying to establish a comfortable haven for jazz musicians and fans.

Inside, the walls are covered with pictures of legendary musicians. There are plush teacup chairs and sofas, and tonight the Jerome James Jazz Collective is onstage, at the moment putting its own energetic spin on George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The vibe is wide open: A new crop of fans, mostly college-age, supporting a new generation of musicians as they develop their chops onstage.

Taking a seat on a couch, I strike up a conversation with one of the cafe’s more mature patrons—and, as it turns out, one of Hawai‘i’s top musicians. Chuck James, father of Jazz Collective drummer Jerome, has himself seen more than a couple rotations of Hawai‘i’s jazz wheel of fortune. These days, Chuck owns a drum school and plays professionally with a handful of groups around Honolulu, but when he came to Hawai‘i in the ’70s, it was to work clubs like the Hanohano Room, Trapper’s and Keone’s, with musicians like vocalist Jimmy Borges and the late trombonist Trummy Young—himself a NYC transplant who’d gigged with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Earl Hines.

“It’s really nice to see all these young people enjoying jazz—it’s kind of a new thing happening and I hope that it’s really going to take off,” he says. “There are new innovations being introduced into jazz: Hip-hop, the new poetry, machines—it’s not the same old thing, and it’s bringing in a new audience.”

While we’re talking, a series of video clips have been projecting on a backdrop behind the stage. Chuck points toward the screen: A black-and-white short of Louis Armstrong and his orchestra. “Once upon a time there were all these swing clubs in Honolulu. Down on Hotel Street there was the Brown Derby … it was a big thing, like 52nd Street in New York City. It could happen here again you know.”

They call her “Lady Fingers” and she holds court five nights week at the Veranda, an open-air room overlooking the lagoon at the Kahala Resort. A childhood prodigy who went on to become a classically trained pianist, Betty Loo Taylor is now a proud grandmother—but this modest octogenarian remains a musical force to be reckoned with. She estimates her repertoire is comprised of somewhere near 800 tunes and, like Chuck James, she’s seen both the highs and lows—among them a thirty-plus-year stint as accompanist for Jimmy Borges during his record-breaking run at Keone’s.

“God, I started in ’52 and this is 2006,” says Betty Loo with a laugh, recalling how she originally left the Islands—and classical music—for New York’s post-war jazz scene. “I heard so many greats while I was there, and I began to ask myself why I was studying the classics, when I didn’t really want to be a concert pianist—I mean, it would take me a lifetime to get up and play one perfect note and then maybe drop dead,” she laughs. “I spent so much time going out and listening to jazz, and you can’t practice eight hours a day when you’ve been out at Birdland until four or five in the morning.


 

 
Pianist Betty Loo Taylor (pictured here
with guitarist Brien Matson and drummer

Sonny Froman) has been on the scene
since the 1950's

“When I came home from New York City in the ’50s, this place was popping. There was jazz everywhere: Waikiki, downtown, Chinatown. Everywhere.” She pauses for a moment, staring off the balcony and toward the swaying palm trees. “Then, for a while you could count the places to play on one hand. I don’t know why, but I don’t think it will ever be like it used to be.”

I ask her what she thinks of the current crop of local musicians.

“We have some new players these days that will probably end up being top notch. There’s this young boy, Abe Lagrimas, who plays drums. … I can’t remember who once said this to me—maybe [pianist] Errol Garner’s brother Linton?—but it’s a great line: ‘All these young kids coming up … just don’t look behind you.’”

As she says this, Lady Fingers is laughing again.

Tremendous: The kid doesn’t look old enough to drink; wiry-thin with an off-set cap pulled down over his eyes. But there he is, taking a solo at the Honolulu Club, hammering at the drums with a thundering beat. Bang-bip-boom! Hands flying over the traps, kettles and cymbals; foot bouncing on the bass-pedal; a fantastic crash of sound.

Twenty-two-year-old Abe Lagrimas Jr. is the real thing, having just returned home to Hawai‘i a few months ago from Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Now he’s in high demand among local jazz musicians, booked anywhere from five to seven nights a week: Here at the Honolulu Club; around town with trumpeter DeShannon Higa’s outfit; sitting in with various musicians at Studio Six, pianist Rich Crandall’s long-running, Tuesday night jam session at the Musician’s Association union hall.

Abe doesn’t have enough facial hair to grow a decent goatee and the majority of the musicians he plays with are twenty and even thirty years his senior. And much of the audience is even older than that. I ask him how he landed in this scene, rather than marching to the beat followed by most Hawai‘i kids his age—that is, hip-hop or reggae.

“It’s tough for young people to get into jazz,” he admits. “The first reaction is usually that jazz is the music of older generations. But there’s freedom in jazz, the spontaneity of it—in jazz we play standards, the same tunes week after week, but it’s finding new ways to play that, to keep it interesting for us and the audience. The whole hip-hop jazz thing is catching on and that’s great: People just need to be more open-minded and exposed to it—they just need to give jazz a try, listen to it, make it a part of their lives like they do other music.”

All of this puts me in mind of something Shoji Ledward told me, when I first asked him what he thought jazz was.

“Here’s the deal: Jazz is an interesting machine because it doesn’t have an answer. I can give you some parameters of what I think it is, but the music itself is a protean product. What I play, people would probably call jazz—I’m just doing exactly what I want to do, playing what I want to play … and in that sense I’m very happy.” HH

On August 4 & 5, the Hawai‘i International Jazz Festival will present its 13th annual concert series. “Swingtime Hana Hou!”(no relation to the magazine) will celebrate the heyday of Hawai‘i’s jazz scene with two days of performances by Jeff Petersen, Abe Lagrimas, Gabe Baltazar, DeShannon Higa and a host of others. For information on that event, visit www.hawaiijazz.com. For information on musicians mentioned in this story and day-by-day listings of local jazz performances, see www.honolulujazzscene.net.