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Swingtime in Honolulu!


New Orleans. Chicago. New York. Perhaps these are the places that first come to mind when we think of jazz. But Honolulu? You bet. This July, the Hawai'i International Jazz Festival returns to O'ahu for two days to revive the sound of Swing music that was so popular here in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. The festival's musicians, which this year include local saxophonist Gabe Baltazar and brilliant clarinetist Ken Peplowski (formerly with the Benny Goodman Orchestra), aim to recreate the magical energy once generated by resident Big Bands at hotels like the Moana and The Royal Hawaiian.

Waikïkï was full of revelry and glamour during the Swingtime era, but it wasn't the only place where people were getting down. The Alexander Young Hotel on the corner of King and Bishop streets (where Tamarind Park is now located) became the downtown spot for Big Band dancing on Friday nights. "My parents would drive down from the North Shore every Friday night to go dancing at the hotel's Rooftop Garden," recalls Dana Fujikake. Fujikake is, as Abe Weinstein's assistant, helping to organize this year's festival, now in its 11th year. Weinstein, who is the founder and executive director, adds, "What strikes me is that this was all part of an integrated lifestyle. Local people and tourists were all coming together and Swing dancing. There was a lot of partying. Everybody was swept away by it."

A “Battle of the Bands” between two military swing bands, about 1943. Photo Courtesy U.S. Army Museum of Hawai‘i

Johnny Noble played a big part. The Hawai'i-born Noble took over the Moana Orchestra in 1920 and was regarded as the King of Hawaiian Swing. He understood the similarities between Hawaiian songs and Mainland jazz syncopation and wrote compositions that synthesized the two beautifully. This became known as hapa-haole music and it set the tone for the introduction of Big Band Swing music later.

Harry Owens was another key player. Arriving from the Mainland in 1934, Owens was a trumpet player who went on to become the elegant leader of The Royal Hawaiian Big Band. When his ship rounded Diamond Head, he looked at the beach and said, "I've been born again." Owens, his Royal Hawaiian Big Band and Hilo Hattie flew to the Mainland to perform a live broadcast at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The reception was phenomenal. "People heard this unique sound and fell in love with it, and it served as a catalyst for Hawai'i tourism," says Weinstein. "This is the period when all the beach boys were making big tip money and high-end tourists were staying at the Royal for two or three months at a time and dancing."

This year's festival presents hapa-haole music and Big Band Swing, giving everyone a front-row seat to the evolution of jazz in the Islands. According to Weinstein, "It's going to be educational for everyone, but it will really bring back a lot of great memories for the old-timers."

WHAT: The 11th Annual Hawai‘i International Jazz Festival, featuring Swing music from the ’20s through the ’60s performed by the festival’s own 17-piece Big Band, with singing and dancing, and a multimedia presentation.

WHEN AND WHERE: July 30 and 31 on O‘ahu at The Hawai‘i Theatre and Aug. 6 and 7 on Maui at The Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

TICKETS: Tickets are $20, $35 and $45. Call 528-0506 (or 242-7469 on Maui) to order, or visit www.hawaiijazz.com.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2020
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