It’s Jazz Time in Honolulu

Jazz has a long, cool history in Hawaii, and the scene has never been hotter

Susan Sunderland
Friday - March 25, 2005
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Noel Okimoto

This is a view of Oahu’s jazz scene through the eyes of percussionist Noel Okimoto and other artists. It’s fitting to get the low-down from a drummer because he usually provides the downbeat, the first note of a measure. Without that first beat, nothing happens musically.

But we’re putting the spotlight on Okimoto for another reason. He is a worldclass musician with incredible credentials. How great is he? A local vocalist put it right out there for us: “Noel is so great, he can play fly sh*t on sheet music.”

For musicians, that is the ultimate compliment.

Actually, there are a number of jazz artists who merit the same regard. They’re Okimoto’s friends and colleagues who, like jazz, create music in a collaborative and supportive spirit. So this is a showcase of jazz and the cool cats who have kept this uniquely American sound alive in our town.

“It was jazz for me from an early age,” Okimoto recalls. “That was the music I loved, that was the music I listened to, and jazz musicians were the ones I studied through my career.”

A self-taught musician, Okimoto played music by ear. His early mentor was his father, George, who played drums in the Ebbtides dance band. Okimoto sat in to play with the band at age 10 and worked every weekend. On-the-job training turned into a regular gig for young Okimoto when he later replaced his dad as the group’s drummer.

“Learning drums from Dad wasn’t easy, but I had a love and passion for it that kept me on track. Every day I was getting scoldings and crying,” Okimoto says. “Maybe that’s why I learned so fast.”

He didn’t learn to read music until seventh grade at Kalakaua Intermediate School. Two ninth-graders in band class took him under their wings and played the sounds that corresponded to the notes on music sheet.

“I learned backwards, hearing the sound first, then associating it with marks on the sheet,” Okimoto says. But the rote method worked. “Eventually my brain power grew, and I realized it was all mathematical.”

That was fortuitous, because the Kalihiborn musician today is reading music in amazing ways that’s instinctive and intuitive. With the improvisational nature of jazz, that’s an asset.

“Jazz is America’s only true indigenous art form,” Okimoto says. “It is the most democratic of all musical art forms. It’s communal music, played with a lot of freedom. But at the highest level, it requires a high level of discipline.” He adds, “It is incredibly deep music on an emotional level. It places a greater responsibility on the listener.

That’s where sometimes jazz musicians lose the audience, even the great ones. There’s a responsibility on the audience to be able to understand what’s going on and to enjoy it on an emotional, not cerebral, level.”

Hawaii’s interpretation of jazz is unique too. Multi-ethnic influences cross over in the music — a kind of cross pollination — that produces a unique sound. As Henry Miyamura taught Okimoto at McKinley High School in the early days, “It doesn’t matter what genre it is, it’s all about the music.” The basic form and structure must be genuine and true.

Gabe Baltazar

Jazz vocalist Jimmy Borges offers an example of Hawaii’s cross pollination. “We have different ethnic inputs into jazz. We have a special sound when it’s utilized,” he says.

“Roland Cazimero plays nice jazz chords, and he’s never given credit for that. Listen carefully to his music. He has nice jazz changes. He uses that with Robert when they play together. That’s part of their unique sound.”

Borges also cites guitarist-vocalist Zanuck Lindsey and Hawaiian guitarist Sam Ahia as artists who play with a jazz influence. Jazz is making a comeback in island music, he claims, and the showcase is coming through Internet sales in a category called “world jazz.”

“Hawaii artists are getting noticed all over the world,” Borges says. Getting the Grammy recognition recently for an Island recording is a significant start, and he predicts “with globalization of our music, jazz will follow suit.”


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