WHEN KURT R. JONES TAKES THE STAGE WITH IRISH BAND CELTIC WAVES AT KELLEY O’NEIL’S PUB IN WAIKIKI ON WEDNESDAY NIGHTS, HE BRINGS WITH HIM NOT ONLY FOUR DECADES WORTH OF EXPERI- ENCE AS A FIDDLER AND VOCALIST, BUT ALSO AN INTIMATE KNOWL- EDGE OF STRING INSTRUMENTS LIKE FEW OTHERS. Jones is a master violin luthier, one of the few in Hawai‘i. “Traditional Irish music was one of the elements that got me interested in violins in general,” recalls Jones. “Before I learned how to build violins, I was learning how to play them. My love of woodworking and playing folk music is what led me to this.”
In the mid-1980s, Jones worked as a roofer in Alaska. A friend he knew from Oregon (Jones is originally from Illinois) relocated his roofing building to the 49th state and Jones needed the money. “I was in my late twenties and made it a point to try and live everywhere in the western United States,” Jones says. “A ski patrol job I had in Colorado had basically turned into janitorial work so I went to Alaska and did roofing for five or six years.”
When Jones learned about the Violin Making School of America, founded by legendary violinmaker and music teacher Peter Prier in Utah, he moved to Salt Lake City and enrolled in the 36-month-long program. There, Jones learned how to build violins, violas, and cellos from scratch. He also learned to identify different types of violins and how to play the instrument profession- ally. “As part of the curriculum, you’re required to take lessons and play in the school’s orchestra. Our teacher regularly played in the Utah Symphony,” says Jones. “It’s not for everyone, but for me, I took as much advantage of this as possible.”
After graduating, Jones moved to Seattle and got a job working for Rafael Carrabba, whose seasoned violin company had built a reputation as one of the best in the business for string instrument restoration and repair. A few years later, he broke off to open his own shop; first in Salt Lake City, then Montana. During this time, Jones and his wife, Susanne Lindberg, who he had met while living in Alaska, had three children. “It was all pretty strange, trying to make a go of it all around the country, sometimes in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, I returned to Carrabba’s Violins and we settled down back in Seattle, for close to a decade,” Jones says.
It was back at Carrabba’s that Jones faced one of the biggest (but most rewarding) challenges of his career: helping restore the prized “General Kyd” Stradivarius cello for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Built in 1684 and valued at close to $10 million, the Kyd was an antique in bad shape. The arch had collapsed after over 300 years of use and careless repair attempts over the centuries had exacerbated the damage. In 2004, the instrument was stolen off the porch of Philharmonic principal cellist Peter Stumpf, and narrowly avoided becoming a CD rack, when a nurse later found the Kyd lying near a dumpster and chose to turn it over to police after seeing a news report (instead of asking her cabinetmaker boyfriend to install a hinge on the front and little shelves inside).
Jones, Carrabba, and a three-person crew spent 18 months restoring the cello. “Every morning, I basically pinched myself that I had the opportu- nity to look at it all day and get so well acquainted,” says Jones. “The hardest part was treating the Stradivarius as if it were just any other cello, because we worked on it with the same diligence as we would on every instrument.”
In 2015, Jones and his wife relocated to Honolulu, where he has once again set up a private studio, building and repairing string instruments. “Without any distractions, I could have a violin finished in about a month. Probably double that for a cello,” Jones says. His clients range from Hawai‘i Symphony performers to serious students to local private schools. His violins start at $22,000 (cellos are $40,000), which is inexpensive compared to other professional violins that can easily reach the six-figure range. And for local string instrument aficionados looking for the best violins, having a master luthier in the state is priceless.
“I’ve been here four years now and I still get a lot of people saying they don’t know I’m here,” says Jones. “I think Honolulu is that way, though. You don’t see everything right away, then one thing will lead you to another.”