Mention Gary Washburn’s name to any former student who has taken his music class at Honoka‘a High, and they’ll sing his praises all night long. Under his leadership, the school has received numerous honors including a Grammy Signature Schools Award. Last Saturday, he presented the Honoka‘a Jazz Band (HJB) in a 60-minute livestream concert at the Kahilu Theatre, and it was one of their finest moments.
The show was also a great educational experience for the students. Before the pandemic hit, HJB performed a multi-island tour with Texas blues musicians Johnny Nicholas and Marcia Ball. In 2019, the high school band played a series of free concerts on Oahu during National Jazz Appreciation Month. Over the past year of school closures, the class continued their music studies with Washburn via Zoom.
“Music teachers and students have had a tough time adjusting during the pandemic,” Washburn noted between songs. “With the long-distance learning thing, students don’t get to know each other, and it makes teaching really awkward.”
Despite the learning limitations, Washburn and HJB managed to record their 18th album at a local studio last year – appropriately tilted BANDemic. Their next CD is currently in the works.
Saturday’s show spotlighted various bandmembers with center stage solos, including a few of last year’s alumni who didn’t have the opportunity to perform in front of an audience.
Guitarist Jonah Villanueva was featured on two songs. “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” (Ray Charles cover) demonstrated his great vocals, and later he came back to perform lead guitar for “Raindown Tears” (Johnny Nicholas cover). Villanueva plays monthly at the Public House in Honoka‘a.
Alumnus Kaylynn Iona was joined by Kalei Aikau-Akau and they shared vocals on Beyoncé’s R&B hit “Halo.” They are both outstanding singers, but together, their flawless harmony vocals are stunning.
Chico Joaquin is a multi-instrumentalist who was brought forward to play guitar on “Okie Dokie Stomp,” an upbeat song originally done by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the legendary blues guitarist. Joaquin, like others in HJB, is sure to be a rising star in years to come.
HJB finished up their set with “Mambo Swing.” Washburn switched over from his bulky baritone sax to a soprano sax for this infectious dance number.
After 43 years of teaching music, what keeps Washburn motivated?
“The students!” said the music director in a post-show interview. “I’ve learned so much from them, and I try to pass on that they can earn a living making music here in Hawaii. I’ve been amazed at the number of my students that have gone into the business of music with numerous successes like winning Na Hoku and Grammy Awards. Playing a show at the Kahilu Theatre is a big deal for the students too.”
This new crop of talented Big Island musicians offers reassurance that our music scene will continue to flourish, thanks to Gary Washburn.
Missed the show? Don’t despair. You still can catch the livestream concert and interview on Kahilu.TV.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine.