Sincerity breeds positive feelings in the people around you.
Just ask Ira Nepus, a trombone player from Hawaii by way of Los Angeles, California.
Turns out Ira has been performing, recording, and living music everyday for the past 26 years! When I interviewed Ira in December, (Ward at Hungry Ear Records put me in touch with him, small world, right?) I had no idea of his prolific career beyond Hawaii, which makes me wonder why I hadn’t found his official website sooner.
And get this: You know that Paul McCartney album due out February 2012, featuring Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton? Yup, Ira’s a trombonist on that record, and he even worked directly with Sir Paul for 3 hours on solos!
Even at the age of 65, Ira Nepus continues to focus his efforts on one of his greatest passions: music. And the results prove that Ira’s positive energy, sincerity and perseverance have granted him all the opportunities he deserves.
Hey Ira, let me know what new gigs you find in 2012 and beyond! Thanks for a great interview, aloha!
Aloha Got Soul: Basic background info: Where are you from, and what got you into music?
Ira Nepus: I was born in Los Angeles, California. My father was a jazz lover and musician and my mother was a Spanish dancer. I grew up with the best jazz and best gypsy music possible. When the elementary school orchestra was being formed, I wound up with the trombone at age 10 and never left it alone since.
What were your first impressions of the islands and the people living here when you arrived in 1972? And what brought you to Hawaii, college?
I first came to Hawaii in 1970 with the Woody Herman Thundering Herd Big Band on the way back from a tour of Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Phillippines, and Hong Kong. I fell in love with Hawaii immediately and vowed to return as soon as possible.
My parents said if you leave Los Angeles and become a beach bum, that wouldn’t be cool, so I got a Marching Band Scholarship at the University of Hawaii and moved in August of 1972.
At first, other than surfing, I felt like the Ugly Duckling. It took me about a year to get un-haolefied, and get with the rhythm of Honolulu. Lucky I played trombone, because that helped me meet a lot of the younger students who are the movers and shakers of Hawaii today.
Robert Shinoda was one of them. Ryan Hotoke another, and of course, Trummy Young was happy to see me, since we had met years ago when I worked at Disneyland in a top forty band back in the 60s. I had given Trummy a spray bottle for his trombone slide, and he still had it when I moved to Hawaii. We were instant friends.
What local musicians influenced you the most?
There were so many great local musicians. Probably my biggest mentor ever on the trombone, happened to be living in Hawaii when I was there, Trummy Young. We practiced together, and told stories, laughed a lot, and I got to hear one of the great influences for so many trombone players, right in my own backyard. Trummy taught me a lot of his material and I used to sub for him whenever he would go to a jazz festival on the mainland.
I learned a lot about life from Trummy. His spirit is still with me every single day. I have passed on a lot of his teachings to many of my students over the years. I will always be grateful to Trummy.
There were other great Hawaiian players, like Gabe Baltazar (probably the next biggest next to Trummy), also the guys in the Ox / Seawind group that went on to so much success. Then Mike Morita, the Choy Brothers, Ollie Mitchell, Gary Grant, Jerry Hey, and too many to mention right away.
With so many talented musicians, live gigs, and studio sessions all over Honolulu in the 70s, did you know at the time that this was a unique moment in Hawaii’s history? Or did you look back years later and realize it then? Today’s music scene is so different, I wish I could’ve experienced it back then!
We were gigging fools, and didn’t realize then how lucky we were. I cherish those days. And I respect every gig that comes along here today.
Vinyl records are some of the only examples of the music scene from the 70s and 80s that we can look back to today. But what about all the performances that weren’t recorded? What do you remember most about the gigs, musicians, and nightclubs of the time?
There was so much wonderful live entertainment back in the 70s. Every hotel and showroom hosted music 6-7 nights a week. We were gigging constantly.
“For 5 years I lived up in Manoa Valley with no telephone. If someone needed me for a gig, they would have to come put a note by my door and then I would take my bike to the Manoa Market Place and use a pay phone to call them back.”
We worked the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the early evening, or Oceania near the Aloha Tower from Dick Jensen to John Rowles, full big bands in each venue, and then we would all go out and jam until the wee hours with Jimmy Borges, Betty Lou Taylor. A group called Ox (later Seawind) usually had an afterhours gig. We could listen or sit-in when the time was right.
Music Magic, Glass Candle over at Dukes, The Del Courtney Big Band put a lot of musicians to work over at the Royal Hawaiian. Trummy Young was playing at the Hanohano Room at the top of the Sheraton, Gabe Baltazar even got his own club named after him, Azure McCall and Tennyson Stevens, the shows at the Blaisdell where we would sometime become the added horn section to people like George Benson or Natalie Cole who were passing through.
Recording sessions would start after our normal nighttime gigs, so that way everyone could be available. We also recorded in the daytime before the shows, many of the Hawaiian artists from Al Harrington, Melveen Leed, Loyal Garner, comedian Mel Cabang, it was pretty wild times.
These are just some quick recollections.
A lot of people wonder how jazz, funk, and soul reached Hawaii, especially when they hear a band like Lemuria. What mainland acts were big at the time, and why do you think black American music became so popular in Hawaii?
Afro-American soul and R&B music just seemed to fit Hawaii. Maybe inspired by the local surfers and dancers in the dance clubs: Chaka Khan, Earth Wind and Fire, Tower of Power, got us all pumped up for driving to the North Shore and getting some waves. I still listen to this music to make me feel good.
“Lemuria was definitely influenced by sweet soul music from the mainland. But being Hawaii, it had its own twist on things which made it different and special.”
Kirk Thompson was a gifted producer. He knew how to get the best out of each artist. I am always grateful for him giving me the opportunity to do my own album.
Lemuria continues to remain something of a mystery to me. What was the energy like in the studio when you recorded the Lemuria album? Was the experience performing with the band as heavenly as the music? Please share your thoughts on this legendary Hawaiian funk band.
Kirk Thompson and Don Ho supported my album, Trombone Feeling, so I gave back to Kirk by recording the tunes on the Lemuria album. I don’t think we rehearsed much. Just like Trombone Feeling, it pretty much just happened in the studio. The vibe and energy of everyone involved was all about fun. The singers were magically soulful to begin with. It was kind of effortless. We played a few live concerts after the album, but that was pretty much it.
You say that “Lemuria was definitely influenced by sweet soul music from the mainland. But being Hawaii, it had its own twist on things which made it different and special“. What did you mean? Can you describe that “twist” and elaborate more on what makes Hawaiian Afro American R&B so special?
Those songs we had for Lemuria were special and not typical of the mainland soul. I can’t describe it exactly, but I think the romance that is available in the Islands had something to do with it. Dream-like quality. Lemuria also described a magical land, which Hawaii is, you just have to tap into it.
“There is a big spiritual aspect of living in Hawaii, an energy which rejuvenates the soul. You can find it if you seek it.”
You’re still performing today and fans around the world continue to enjoy your music. What’s the greatest thing about a 24-year-old fan (me) interviewing you about a scene that existed 40 years ago?
I think it is too cool that you are just 24 years young, and so passionate about the music we still love from over 40 years ago; and so organized and on it! I feel privileged. Thank you for asking me to describe whatever I can still remember.
Why did you leave Hawaii?
I never had island fever, ever. Around 1980 or so, the hotels stopped booking so much live entertainment and the economy of Hawaii was starting to get affected by the lack of prosperity on the mainland. I could feel the tsunami about to hit. I was already collecting unemployment, and barely making a living anymore.
My wife, June, we married in Hawaii in 1977, she helped me see the writing on the wall. I knew if I moved back to Los Angeles, I might have a better chance at making a living playing music. It was really spiritually hard to move back, and I went into a sort of depression for quite a few years when I did return.
In 1983 I was asked to open Tokyo Disneyland as the Music Director and Band Leader. Suddenly my life and energy mode changed again. I did that great experience for 6 months and then returned to freelancing in Los Angeles. There were musician strikes going on and work was slim again. I went into another financial slump, but then just kept taking any kind of gig to keep paying the bills.
Probably around 1985, things started picking up for me. I became a member of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra in 1986, over 25 years ago. I worked with Benny Carter (one of the greatest musicians of our time) as his musical contractor. The Gerald Wilson Big Band, Nelson Riddle TV sessions, and the ball started rolling big time and has not stopped since.
One of the big lessons I learned at the UH was from a young student when we were at our lockers in the practice rooms at the UH. He came from a family of sugar cane farmers on Kauai.
He said to me, “Ira, you know the difference between a successful person and a failure?! The successful person never gave up.”
So simple, and yet I share this now with students across the country whenever I get to do workshops at high schools or universities. So true. It is not just about talent, it is about focus and perseverance, and not feeling sorry for yourself, but hanging-in there.
Anything else you’d like to say before your tour in Japan with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra? (The orchestra toured Japan in December 2011.)
I have been playing professionally for over 50 years now. And when I was a teenager I worked with Johnny St. Cyr (banjo player), who was one of the original members of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five Band. He was maybe my first mentor and inspiration.
Around Christmas time back in the early 60’s, he sent me a letter with his philosophy on life, and it is still with me today. He told me, stay prepared, your lucky break could happen way later in your career.
I turned 65 last year (2010) and should be thinking about retiring, but actually my musical life and career is seeing miracles right now. Last year I recorded an album with Elton John and Leon Russell called The Union. We then went on tour in the U.S. and London, plus Elvis Costello (whose record project I also worked on), Greg Allman ( from the Allman Bros.), Jeff Bridges (the actor/singer/guitar player) and we got to have a great hang, all of us.
Then two weeks ago I was called in to play some solos for Paul McCartney, for his new album coming out in February 2012, along with Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and a cast of thousands. I was the last musician to be put on this album project. Paul sat next to me for 3 hours letting me know how he wanted the solos constructed. It was perhaps the biggest thrill of my life.
In October 2011 I received the Jazz Educator of the Year Award by the Los Angeles Jazz Society. A few years ago, I had a solo spot on American Idol.
I have had a very lucky career, and Johnny St. Cyr’s spirit has stayed right there with me, along with Trummy Young, and Benny Carter, and a few other great friends and inspirations. In other words, don’t think you are ever too old for anything.
Next year I am planning a surf trip to Magdalena Bay, kind of Survivor Trip, on an island with only 12 surfers max allowed, no electricity, and we are just going to surf and fish for food. Should be an adventure, which I am all about anyway.
“My time in Hawaii from 1972-1981 helped to change my life.”
My degree at the UH in Education and Music, and all the great friends I met along the way, and the heart and soul (the Aloha Spirit) from the people of Hawaii.
There is no place like Hawaii. I learned so much from living in Honolulu, getting to play with the Glass Candle (I still admire Robert Shinoda so much) and visiting all the outer islands and learning the local differences of each island.
It took me over 8 years getting used to living back on the mainland again. And it took probably 20 years for my career to get back on track. But it is all about attitude and spirit. People around you can feel what is really going on with you. It has to be sincere.
Check out the funky title track, “Trombone Feeling”, by Ira Nepus.
(Thanks Waxist Selecta!)