Jazz Pianist Carmen Staaf Treats Honoka’a High School Band to Performance and Music Lecture

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The walls of Honoka’a High’s band room are lined with photos of iconic musicians that have stopped by over the years. Folks like Dave Benot, Marcia Ball, Joshua Redman, and bluesman Johnny Nicholas have shared tips about a music career, and Nicholas even did a brief tour of the Big Island with the school’s Grammy-winning jazz band. Ask any of the students who’ve passed Mr. Washburn’s class, and they’ll tell what a great experience it was.

Band Director Gary Washburn is a dedicated teacher and accomplished jazz artist. He organized the Honokaa High Jazz Band in 1988, and in 2011, he received the Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction Award from the National Society of High School Scholars.

Carmen Staaf Trio at the Kahilu Theatre

Last Monday, in participation with the Kahilu Theatre’ Student Outreach Program, Washburn’s afternoon band class got a visit from jazz pianist Carmen Staaf. Staaf is the music director for jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, has played with a stack of big names in New York, was educated at the New England Conservatory, teaches at Berklee, and has led master classes around the globe. Her past major performances have included the Playboy Jazz Festival in a two-piano setting with  legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the Kennedy Center alongside Kenny Barron and Fred Hersch. Last Saturday, her trio, featuring Allison Miller (drums), and Tony Scheer (bass), played an incredible set at the Kahilu. Staaf has plans to return to the Big Island next February with the Leela Dance Collective for another concert at the Kahilu Theatre.

After hearing the Honokaa High School band play “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” a classic by Charles Mingus, Staaf said she was impressed with the large ensemble’s dynamics and solid timing. For learning how to improvise with a jazz solo, Staaf suggested listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s scatting techniques. “She was a wonderful vocalist who was known for scat singing and able to improvise jazz solos just using her voice,” said Staaf. “If you want to improvise with jazz – sing along with Ella, and you can’t go wrong.”

The pianist also recommended listening to Errol Garner – “He’s one of my ‘desert island disc’ heroes!” Staaf raved. She also suggested that the students try transcribing solos or favorite melodies. “It’s so good for your musicianship,” she added.

Staaf took a round of questions next. One student wanted to know if she knew any jazz guitarists. She named off Bill Fresell, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Jim Hall as some of her favorites. Staaf then stepped over to the piano and asked students to guess the name of the Thelonious Monk tune she was playing. “I Mean You,” shouted one student. After her performance several students gave her a hug and said they looked forward to her return to the island.

After her short stay on the Big Island, Staaf returns to the east coast for gigs in Boston and New York.

My thanks to the Kahilu Theatre, Gary Washburn, and Honokaa High School for their assistance with this article.


To lean more about Carmen Staaf’s music and tours, visit her website.

Keep up with the Honokaa Dragon Jazz Band on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/honokaajazzband/


Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos/video: Steve Roby. Featured image: Gary Washburn and Carmen Staaf.

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