Interview: Gary Washburn of Big Island Jazz-Funk Ensemble Justin Thyme

“Reflection is only a moment of quite meditation and thanks for all that has been given.” Gary Washburn of the 1970s Big Island jazz-funk ensemble Justin Thyme discusses his influences and ideas that continue to drive his music.

Listening to A Life In A Day start-to-finish is heavy—the spoken word introduction alone transports you into a transcendental space where separate emotions and actions are related as a whole in what is about to be a wild journey through sound.

Reading bandleader Gary Washburn‘s recollections about his Big Island-based band and the 13-part musical suite they performed throughout Hawaiian in the late-1970s is just as moving. (If you haven’t bought the album yet, get it on iTunes or on CDuniverse.com.)

Gary Washburn's Justin Thyme "A Life In A Day"

Gary Washburn’s Justin Thyme “A Life In A Day”

Now that you all know Justin Thyme’s A Life In A Day has been one of my biggest finds of the year, I’d like to take things a step further. I recently reached out to composer and Justin Thyme bandleader Gary Washburn via his Facebook page. Gary graciously returned my inquiry with answers to my questions regarding A Life In A Day and his most recent musical suite, Earth Life: October Full Moon (released October 2013).

I’m happy to announce that in addition to my interview with Gary, I’m also excited to share with you a newspaper article that Gary dug up. It was published in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald on May 21, 1976. Enjoy and keep digging!

Justin Thyme, May 21, 1976, Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

Justin Thyme, May 21, 1976, Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

Let’s start with basic background info: who you are, where you were born/raised, and how you started in music?

I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Raised in Skiatook, Oklahoma, on the Osage Indian Reservation. My mom started me on piano when I was 4-5; my dad started me on clarinet when I was 7-8. We played music at home (my brother, Kent, dad and myself). I played in band at school all through High School.

At age 15 I began playing with the Shadow Lake 8. A very popular band at the time in the Midwest. You can find the history of the band online. The band was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame recently.

I started college as a veterinary major, but was spending so much time with music, I changed majors.

How did you end up in Hawaii?

In 1970 I received a Teaching Assistantship in music composition from the University of Hawaii and came to Hawaii to complete my Masters.

When you arrived in Hawaii, what was the music scene like? What made Hawaii’s music special?

When I arrived in Hawaii the music scene was vibrant. The International Market Place was full of music. Artists at that time… Herb Ohta, Olomana, The Society of Seven, Don Ho, Dick Jensen, Ox which later became Seawind.

At the University, I was exposed to and involved in different contemporary and ethnic music ensembles… Japan, Korea, India, Africa, Java. The Juilliard Contemporary Music Ensemble came each Summer. There was a lot of experimental music going on. My composition teachers were Neil McKay, Armand Russell, Joji Yuasa, Morton Feldmand, Ingolf Dahl.

 Is Hawaii’s music scene today just as vibrant as it was in the 70s? Why or why not?

The Hawaii music on the Big Island is very limited as compared to when I started here in the 70’s. Alot less venues are hiring musicians. The pay is terrible. Most of the gigs are solo, duo and trio. The solo and duo gigs usually have a sequencer that replaces the drummer and bass player. The gigs I have are usually solo or trio, occasionally a quartet.

My steady Sunday gig is surprisingly with a “big band”, The Olliephonic Horns. We play every Sunday at the Blue Dragon Restaurant. How the horns survive is a long story but we make it work. I was not that involved with the music scene in Honolulu during the 70s so I can’t really say.

You’ve written some incredible jazz-fusion-funk tracks for the suite, A Life In A Day. What were some of the biggest influencers on you when you wrote this?

My music has been influenced by my experience with ethnic music, experimental music and jazz artists like: Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Weather Report, Ray Charles, Wayne Shorter and all the music I experienced with the Shadow Lake 8… There are many other influences also.

Music at the University of Hawaii Summer 1969

Summer music events and courses at the University of Hawaii Summer 1969

Your teachers at UH must have played an important role in your development as an artist. You’re now the band director at Honokaa High School, what kinds of ideas and practices you teaching your students? 

The teachers I had at the University had an impact on my composing not my teaching. Ideas that I teach include being proud of yourself even when you screw up, have fun, do your best, listen to and respect each other, develop your personality as you develop your playing ability and of course an understanding of the musics we perform and developing technique.

The introductory spoken word track sets the tone for the Justin Thyme album. Can you give us more insight on the concept or theme that listeners should be aware of when listening to the album?

In a day a person experiences many of the same emotional, personal, psychological and social situations that one experiences throughout the life cycle. These situations recur over and over… cycles in a “corkscrew” pattern as life progresses and we experience the stimuli.

Life begins at conception—the journey of life begins and we experience it through our senses. As we age our senses are conditioned by our environment. We learn to anticipate and react based on these “habits” of thought and action. Through this learning process we “evolve” and grow towards the next level of life.

This is a brief explanation of my concept for the composition.

Tell me about the band members. How did you assemble everyone together?

As I was gigging in Hilo, I came in contact with various musicians. As I got to know them better, I invited them to become involved in a rehearsal band to read and play my original compositions as well as learning some “standards” together.

Did Justin Thyme tour at all? If so, what was that experience like and what do you recall about touring for this piece?

We began performing where ever we could here on the Big Island. Our reputation grew and we decided on the name Justin Thyme because we thought that the kind of music we were playing was new to the area, thus “just in time” to create interest and growth for us as musicians.

I received a National Endowment Grant to compose A Life In A Day for the rehearsal band. Then I received a State Foundation Grant to perform the piece for the UH  Hilo campus and on the UH Manoa campus.

We traveled in a large U-Haul truck with all the equipment in Honolulu. We were a family of musicians dedicated to performing the piece as much as possible. It was a fun adventure.

Favorite track on the album?

Each movement is unique and as a result I enjoy them pretty much equally. In writing the piece I tried to feature each one of the musicians as a soloist in various musical settings that fit their individual style and technical ability.

What’s the story behind the album artwork?

I gave my brother, who is my publisher and producer, the idea of the piece as “Circles are shapes that spiral out”. He in turn gave it to a graphic designer who cam up with the final design.

I love hearing the crowd’s reaction at the end of the album. What was the response like for your performances?

The crowd reaction was always very enthusiastic. I think this is the result of the music and musical ensemble being new and unique to Hawaii. We performed a short program of the music at various schools for the “Artists in the Schools” program and the reaction was the same.

After the performance we opened it up to questions from the students. It is interesting that their questions were more about what they saw than what they heard.

What prompted these types of questions from the audience?

The students at the concert saw…a tuba player that also played harmonica that looked like Jesus and dressed like him also. A saxophone player that rocked back and forth in kind of a spastic “Joe Cocker” style and a lot of instruments they hadn’t ever seen… vibraphone, B-3 organ, Soprano sax, flugalhorn etc. so they were curious about those things.

October Full Moon is an absolute delight. The live performance and compositional qualities remind me of A Life In A Day. I wonder what ties you’ve found between the two suites, which were recorded some 30 years apart?

In composition, if you do not have support that funds you to compose for a particular group of musicians, quartet, symphony, band, vocalist, movie etc., then in order to get a performance it must be written for a musical genre that is available to perform it. In this case, I knew I had a friend that had been in Justin Thyme that understood my compositional style that was willing to work with me. This person was Bailey Matsuda. He helped me get a demo together to get other musicians interested.

Plot-wise, they are similar. October Full Moon is more about more specific so-called responsibilities of man’s relation to the earthly environment.

Recognizing the natural environment and it’s supremacy over us as we live on Earth; how fragile and short life is; our responsibility to take care of the Earth. “Ways of Wisdom” and “Paths to Peace” has to do with what history has shown us about war and the fact that logically it should lead the world to peace.

We are given our body and are responsible to take care of it the best we can within our environmental situation(s). When the body is worn out or reclaimed by the Maker, we return to dust… we return to the earth.

Reflection is only a moment of quite meditation and thanks for all that has been given.

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