Making music that matters: Honokaa Jazz Band releases ‘Playin’ in Traffic’

  • Honokaa Jazz Band performs in front of Honokaa People’s Theatre. (COURTESY PHOTO/SARAH ANDERSON)

  • Vocalists Ryan Hooley and Kaylynn Iona sing along Honokaa’s main street. (COURTESY PHOTO/SARAH ANDERSON)

HONOKAA — Music is a big deal in Honokaa.

The Grammy-winning home of the Dragons is also home to an ever-evolving music program at Honokaa High School directed by music guru Gary Washburn for the last four decades, give or take a year.

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Under his leadership, Honokaa Jazz Band just released their 18th CD, “Playin’ in Traffic.”

Taking the typical school music program to a whole different level, the jazz band tours across the islands every April for Jazz Appreciation Month. They’ve performed for four national conventions, National Public Radio’s “From the Top,” the Big Island Jazz Festival and CNN’s “Jazz Alley.” In the last two years, their select ensemble — Dragon Jazz — played on a multi-island tour with renowned blues artists Marcia Ball and Johnny Nicholas.

In 2008, HHS was recognized by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation for outstanding music education. In 2011, they received a Grammy Signature Schools Award and Washburn was named a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction.

“Playin’ in Traffic” features three original songs by Washburn and the stellar talents of 15 young musicians.

“I composed ‘Bonito Sombrero’ for the band because I have two very talented pianists, Joe Miyasaki and Francis Altura,” Washburn said. “And, I composed ‘Geckos’ and arranged ‘Europa’ for the string quintet. These are band members who play both saxophone and violin, trumpet and cello, viola and trumpet, etc. I haven’t ever seen or heard a band that has that versatility.”

“I personally think this year’s CD is really good,” said trumpeter Terri Connors, a HHS senior.

She switched from clarinet because she wanted to play a bigger role in the jazz band. Washburn initially taught her to play, and she took private lessons with “Jazz Angel” Andrea Lindborg, working her way up to the first chair position.

“I have a love-hate relationship with solos,” Connors said. “In the moment, it is super fun … And if you make a mistake, the thing that Mr. Washburn says is ‘just sound confident in it.’”

HHS senior Stephanie Onza, the band’s lead alto saxophonist, also has mixed feelings about soloing, but she loves the new CD.

“It’s my favorite so far,” she said. “I think it’s amazing that our school could have an opportunity like this.”

Onza is a visual artist as well as a musician.

“I started playing in the band because I like being able to develop new skills in different categories,” she said. “I thought it was another cool thing I could add to my personality.”

“The whole reason I went to Honokaa was I wanted to be in the band,” MC/vocalist Ryan Hooley said, who graduated last year and now works at Kahilu Theatre.

A ukulele and guitar player, he learned to play the piano from Washburn and it’s now his favorite instrument.

“When I started with the band, I didn’t know I wanted to be a singer,” Hooley said. “When I felt like I had enough of a voice, it was so great just being able to relate to a crowd of 200 people and see them smiling and dancing. Nothing I’ve experienced is as rewarding as that.”

The title track of “Playin’ in Traffic” was inspired by a performance at Honokaa’s “First Friday” monthly street fair. Sarah Anderson, the band’s photographer for many years, was “instrumental” in the concept.

“They were playing in front of Honokaa People’s Theatre and I was taking pictures,” she said. “The Jazz Band always draws a big audience, and they were right up against the line (that separates pedestrians from vehicles on the road). I said, ‘Gary, looks like you guys are literally playing in traffic’ … You could see the light bulb come on in his head when he told me that sounds like it should be the name of a tune. And then he wrote the song, and it became the title of the album.”

Band members were on board right away, and on a reasonably sunny day recently they drove out to a less-traveled road, parked and posed for their cover shot.

“It’s kind of like traffic, Honokaa-style,” Anderson said.

Using her photo, the album cover was designed by Keli Ann Kaholoaa of Illuminations printing company.

“After my CD (“Sassy”) was nominated for a Na Hoku Hanohano Award a couple of years ago, my brain started working again and I thought ‘there haven’t been any high school groups nominated for a Hoku… why not us?’” Washburn said.

“So I reached out to my brother, Kent, who’s a music executive. We were able to get EmKay Records involved — the music label I record for — and they agreed to release ‘Playin’ in Traffic’ on a worldwide platform to satisfy all the commercial requirements,” he said. “We used a professional on the mainland to master Karl Kasberg’s recordings and mixes, Sarah and Keli Ann at Illuminations did the cover and voila, here we go on another adventure.”

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CDs are available at Music Exchange in Kona and Hilo, Agasa Music in Hilo, General Store and Gallery of Great Things in Waimea, Volcano Garden Arts and Chuck James Music Studios in Honolulu. They can also be obtained at any of the band’s performances or through the school at 775-8800 or by emailing Gary_Washburn@notes.k12.hi.us.

“Playin’ In Traffic” is released on the EmKay Records label, under exclusive license to Milan Entertainment, and will be available on all Digital Service Providers throughout the US, Canada and Mexico beginning Oct. 19.