Legends Betty Loo Taylor, Danny Kaleikini, Jimmy Borges And Gabe Baltazar Relive Hawaii’s Early Jazz Scene
Count Basie’s Orchestra. Artie Shaw. Dixieland. Big band swing.
While these names and musical styles typically evoke imagery of post-Depression era New York and Chicago, they also were extremely pertinent to a burgeoning jazz scene here in Hawaii – and they were just the start. The entertainment atmosphere that developed in Honolulu from the onset of the Second World War through the early 1980s is an oft-forgotten catalyst that ushered in a musical heyday in Hawaii. It was at this time that soldiers, doctors, plantation and USO workers forked over a dime per dance in any number of nightclubs that lined Chinatown and Kalakaua Avenue. Everyone, from the headliner to the filler band and the shoe-shine boys, was singing or playing – not for money, per se, but for recognition.
We sat down with four legends of the Hawaii jazz world and asked them to share a few anecdotes from the time Hawaii was simmering as the world’s next great musical melting pot. Take the “A” train and stroll down sandy lanes with big band leader and sax virtuoso Gabe Baltazar; classically trained, jazz-inspired pianist Betty Loo Taylor; Jimmy Borges, who crooned his way to California and Las Vegas before returning home; and ever-the-showman Danny Kaleikini.
In slightly humbler times, both Baltazar and Kaleikini worked the shoeshine circuit in Chinatown. Kaleikini recalls the soundtrack of the streets at that time. He tells of his walk home mauka, from Chinatown to Papakolea, where he would pass by all sorts of musicians playing on their front porches. They played steel guitar, swing music, bop, Hawaiian.
“I was 8 years old, shining shoes down on Bethel Street next to Hawaii Theatre, right outside clubs like Tradewinds and the Brown Derby, where we knew there would be live music,” Kaleikini says. “My brothers and I would go down at 5 o’clock, when Jesse Kalima and his Thousand Pounds of Melody (backing band) were warming up. He’d ask us to sing Hawaiian songs in the street, and people would toss us nickels and pennies. We’d make two or three dollars and head home to buy a barbecue stick and a rice ball for 10 cents. We were ‘rich.'”
Baltazar, whose Filipino father became a band leader after accompanying silent films, had a more genuine approach.
“It was 1943; the war was in full swing,” he says. “I used to shine shoes up and down Hotel Street, near the prostitute hotels. The military would line up outside, and I’d capitalize on the fellas waiting their turn. I made a killing at 10 cents per shine.”
Borges was exposed to music through the creative efforts of his mother.
“My mom and aunties set up a hot dog stand right on the corner of King Street and Kalihi. The military trucks would pass through, and my aunties would dress all nice – they were totally hot! The soldiers would stop because they wanted to get to know the local girls. And they brought with them little plastic airplane toys and V-Disc records. They’d give them to us kids. These recordings had the sounds of all the big players of the day. I’d sit in my room with my crack seed and listen to Glenn Miller,” says Borges, who, at 6 years of age, would sing along to the records.
It wasn’t long before all of the boys were invited to play with the various bands they’d been hanging around. At 14, Baltazar was jamming in the dance-halls that lined Hotel Street, the continuous sounds of music teeming onto the street.
“There were no breaks,” Baltazar says. “We’d play 500 songs a night. People just wanted to dance.”
Taylor, who had been training in classical piano with Russian masters in New York, had enough of the structured life (and spending her parents’ money) and came home to play jazz. She sat in with her uncles at Waikiki Sands, a club next to the Moana Hotel. It wasn’t long before she had her own gig at the Moana, playing her version of Hawaiian jazz in a quartet at The Veranda. The year was 1952.
“The people would fill the courtyard below us, around the great banyan tree. Everyone was dancing. It was so festive, not like today. It was so lovely,” Taylor says.
At this time, Borges, Baltazar and Kaleikini each took extended jaunts abroad, where they absorbed the styles that permeated Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York and even Cuba. They each managed to land gigs that not only upped their skills, but also sowed the seeds for major acts to come to Hawaii.
“I was doing a recording date on Melrose Avenue in L.A. – it was a Dizzie Gillespie big band recording,” Baltazar says. “I had a solo, and so did this player named Buddy Collette. He played this real pretty, West Coast-style solo, and I played a wild East Coast-type thing. Right during the solos, in walks Charlie Mingus, who knew Collette. After the song ended, he yelled out to Collette, ‘Hey man, don’t let that Chinaman out blow you!’ I took it as a compliment.”
Borges found himself with a steady gig in Las Vegas, where on occasion, members of the Rat Pack would drop in for a listen. It wasn’t uncommon to find Sammy Davis Jr. listening to Borges, offering advice.
Kaleikini played his way from Chicago to Cuba, often demonstrating to audiences what was happening in Honolulu. At that time, many people still thought Hawaii was savage.
“People thought we climbed trees like monkeys and ate coconut for dinner,” adds Borges.
“We always had ties to home,” Kaleikini chimes in. “Every week, I would tune in to (the radio show) Hawaii Calls … and wait for the sounds of the waves crashing on Waikiki Beach. It was my connection to everything I was. I could then share that with whomever I was touring or playing with. It sparked a huge interest in Hawaii.”
It was at this time that Baltazar was asked to join Stan Kenton’s band, where he sat in the first horn position. It put Baltazar on the map as a premier player.
When the threesome made it back to Hawaii in the 1960s, they found a scene in full swing. Taylor was gigging and attracting top names who admired her unique style. Occasionally, Baltazar joined her.
“This guy, Russ Friedman, used to come watch us play,” says Borges, who began performing with Taylor in a quartet that would, in one form or another, last for the next three decades. “He’d focus on Betty. Afterwards, he’d tell me how she blew his mind with her chord fingering. He was a totally accomplished player from the Mainland scene, and here he was, humbled by Betty’s chops.”
It’s this sort of attention – along with big-name acts that stopped over in Hawaii after touring in Asia – that earned Hawaii recognition as a jazz hot spot. In fact, Trummy Young, an accomplished trombone player, settled in Hawaii and opened a club in Chinatown after touring with Louis Armstrong for a decade. There were female revue shows at a place called The Glades (“We all learned a lot about choreography from those girls … who weren’t always girls,” snickers Baltazar.); impromptu jam sessions at Hubba Hubba, Tradewinds, Barefoot Bar, The Polynesian Club and The Swing Club, to name a few. Navy man Artie Shaw set up shop in a club downtown as well.
By the early 1960s, word had spread to Hollywood that Honolulu was swinging. In came the stars, starlets and followers.
“I played a flute solo in Elvis Presley’s American Trilogy,” says Baltazar, who had numerous gigs with the icon. “I bent this note, like in a real blues style. Elvis turned around to look at me and gave this great smile. I’ll never forget it.”
Shortly thereafter, a wave of big-name stars and performers arrived to patronize the clubs in town. Members of the Count Basie Orchestra, Duke Ellington’s band, Lionel Hampton, Joe Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Herman and the Four Freshman made regular trips to Honolulu, often sitting in with local players.
“They would invite us to the Mainland to join them where they played, which was the ultimate compliment,” Borges says. “It helped spread the word on the Mainland that there were players in Hawaii that could hold their own.”
It was at this peak – 1967 – that Kaleikini was offered a five-year, $1.5 million contract to play six nights a week at what was then the Kahala Hilton. Often playing seven nights, it was a gig that he would hold for more than 30 years.
“There were guys like Don Ho and a few others making $45,000 per week in Waikiki back then,” mentions Borges, speaking about the late 1960s and early 1970s. As the ’70s came into full swing, more and more celebrities arrived on the heels of Hawaii Five-0 and Magnum, P.I.
“One holiday, Jimmy and I were playing at Trappers at the Hyatt Regency. Tony Bennett was in the audience, along with Lucy and Desi Arnez, Vincent Price and Glen Campbell,” Taylor says. “Tony was supposed to play this big New Year’s Eve concert at the Sheraton, and the people there wouldn’t let him play anywhere in town until the big show. So he played it, and by 12:30 a.m. (on the start of) New Year’s Day, he was on stage with us at Trappers, where he sang until 3:30 a.m.”
The second wave of all-stars to arrive, including Wynton Marsalis, Ramsey Lewis, Connie Haines (who played with Frank Sinatra for years), Al Jarreau, June Christy and others, would flood the new crop of clubs in Waikiki. Clubs such as The Jazz Club on Lewers, Lau Yee Chai, Betty Reilly’s Copacabana, The Wagon Wheel, Shell Bar and Keoni’s packed them in night after night. The upstairs-downstairs Little Dipper and The Clouds was run by a pair of showgirls who came over from L.A., according to Taylor, and were famous for getting Sammy Davis Jr. to perform. There were the Orchid and Continental rooms inside the Waikiki Sands, where comics like Lenny Bruce would play across the hall from Rose Murphy, the High-Lows and Bobby Hutcherson.
The town was surging with energy, often until 4 a.m.
Taylor shares with us a scene that she recalls with fervor. Next to the pool at Hilton Hawaiian Village was the Garden Bar. Every Sunday afternoon, a big Dixieland band would get swinging as the kids played in the pool, the adults danced and the waves could be heard nearby.
“It was a very special, lively time, indeed,” Taylor says.
While the blast of a tenor saxophone or the drone of a minor seventh chord played on the keys isn’t wafting down every avenue in town these days, there’s hope on the horizon. Both Taylor and Baltazar mention nephews and nieces who carry on the torch.
“There are some great players out there today,” Baltazar says. “My nephew, David Choy, plays in small haunts on the Big Island and Maui, occasionally making it over here. DeShannon Higa is blowing his trumpet all over the island. It just takes a little devotion to find us. We’re still out there.”