I’ve always enjoyed this album, but I never truly understood it because I didn’t know much about Gabe Baltazar or his band (this band, at least. He’s had too many to list here). I can now say that, after reading excerpts from his recently published auto-biography, If It Swings, It’s Music, that I have a new appreciation for this album.
Sometimes you gotta think beyond the music to really grasp its power. Think about the stories behind the songs, how the album came to be recorded, even how the band was formed. That’s where you’ll often find the heart and soul of why music exists in the first place.
When Gabe returned to Hawaii in 1969 after working as a Los Angeles studio musician, he rejoined the Royal Hawaiian Band (and went from earning $40k to $13k annually). From there, Gabe embarked on a number of jams, bands, gigs and ventures through the late 1970s, recording on a number of artists’ albums, like Carole Kai, Mackey Feary, Bob Myers.
In 1978, Gabe had the opportunity to start up a regular jazz gig at a club called the Cavalier. He initially went in with Noel Okimoto on drums and Ben Rietveld on bass on a two-week option—and ending up staying for nearly three years, playing six nights a week with a quintet.
Within a few months, Gabe’s trio built a following and local musicians started sitting in. Guitarist Doug MacDonald and keyboardist Carl Wakeland soon joined the band.
What fascinates me about this group is (and thankfully they recorded an LP!) the chemistry between young jazz musicians and a reed player whose greatest claim in the jazz world is touring with Stan Kenton‘s band playing bebop and big band around the world.
“I’m the luna of the group, the overseer, I give them the old bebop tunes from my era and they give me the jazz fusion things. I learn from them and they learn from me.” – Gabe Baltazar, liner notes on the Gabe Baltazar LP
Excerpts from If It Swings, It’s Music
This is probably the first full-length auto-biography from a Hawaii jazz musician. Go pick it up at a local bookstore (I got mine at Barnes & Noble) or order it online from the University of Hawaii Press.
Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book, which was written with the help of Theo Garneau.
“To me, swing is the most important. It’s the pinnacle. The essence. I don’t care what style you play. If you can attain that, it’s the greatest achievement… That’s what kids need today, especially here in Hawai‘i. To know how to swing, because a lot of them don’t know the concept. And on the mainland, especially the black kids, they grew up in rhythm. Of course there’s rhythm in Hawai‘i, but I think we all should be more conscious of it, being that Hawai‘i has so many different ethnic groups. And it can be so original, because we have so many styles and vocabularies.” (page 151)
On the LP, Gabe Baltazar (Gee Bee Records, 1979)
“At the Cavalier, we went in six nights a week, a trio at first, me on reeds and piano, Noel [Okimoto], and Benny [Rietveld]. Then, on weekends we had Doug MacDonald play. Doug played a nice Wes Montgomery style, but he had his own thing. And since Carl Wakeland was coming down and sitting in with us, we;;, he sounded great with Noel and Benny, so we added him too. So, by mid-1978, we were working as a five piece, and all the guys in the band were exceptional players, so the place was packed just about every night. It became a happening thing… That club became an institution, a golden moment, probably the best jazz gig we ever had in Honolulu.” (page 158)
“We did an album with that group also, a thing I produced, and we sold it on the gig and in some of the stores. It did pretty good. We just called it Gabe Baltazar, on Gee Bee Records. I guess I was thinking of Dizzy Gillespie there, because he had his Dee Gee Records, so I had my Gee Bee. But that album was all original tunes and gave a good idea of what we were doing. And since I was doubling all the time, you hear soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones, piccolo, flute, bass flute, and the bass clarinet on that record.” (page 160)
Theo Garneau’s introduction reveals the behind-the-scenes work that went into this book. Theo put in a lot of time, dedication and effort into creating this exceptional book. Go buy it!
Where do we go from here?
First of all, I need to meet Gabe in person. Anyone reading this who can get me in touch with Gabe, let me know. Otherwise I’ll ask around and track him down myself! At this point, Gabe Baltazar is in his early 80s but is still jamming with jazz cats around the island.
Gabe’s “Kaena Point Road” will be featured on the Hawaiian Salt mixtape, releasing on April 20, 2013. Except you have to buy the Hawaiian Salt t-shirt to get the CD—it’s a promotional gift that comes free with the tee.