Texas bluesman Johnny Nicholas is no stranger to the Big Island. While playing here a few years ago, a mutual friend told Nicholas about Honokaa High’s award-winning Music Director Gary Washburn, and the school’s well-known Dragon Jazz Band.
They met and soon their mutual musical appreciation developed into an opportunity for Washburn and his students to join Nicholas and world-renowned entertainer Marcia Ball on a multi-island tour in 2015 and 2016. Two years later, Washburn and Nicholas arranged a three-city tour of the Big Island – – Hilo, Honokaa, and Kona during January 26-28.
Prior to this year’s shows, Nicholas and his band Hell Bent performed a concert for Honokaa High and Intermediate School, and spent time coaching the young musicians in the Dragon Jazz Band.
The thirteen-member version of the Dragon Jazz Band (normally 43) is full of fresh new talent this semester, and now features an all-female horn section — Terri Connors and Jeanne Altura on trumpet, Mollie Green on trombone, and Zhanelyn Cacho on tenor sax. They’re known as The Little Lady Band.
Listen to an interview with The Little Lady Band.
I arrived at the Palace Theatre around 4:30 pm while Nicholas and Hell Bent were rehearsing with Washburn’s ensemble. After Nicholas and Hell Bent finished, Washburn worked out last-minute kinks with his students, and had some words with the young men who were tardy to sound check.
“Girls are so much easier to work with,” Washburn told me during a break. “They show up on time, have practiced, and play well.” On the surface, Washburn might seem like a strict taskmaster, but has their best interest in mind and is well-respected by his students. “I know they think I yell at them, but I want them to have fun on stage too.”
The Palace’s three-hour show opened with Hilo sax-man Randy Skaggs and his quartet, Soul on a Roll. Their six-song set of jazz-fusion instrumentals did a wonderful job of warming up the crowd.
Washburn’s Dragon Jazz Band were up next with several familiar covers by Paul Simon, Sam Cooke, and Ruth Brown. Though the nearly 500-seat Palace Theatre might intimidate some young musicians, The Dragon Jazz pulled off a flawless performance.
Before their set was up, Washburn spoke to the concertgoers about working with his students in a public performance.
“I learned that about 90% of my students have never been to a live concert, which really surprised me. We have lots of concerts in Honokaa, but it’s usually too expensive for families to attend.” Washburn then thanked Nicholas and his band for being dedicated to music education and working with his students.
In his set, Nicholas acknowledged Washburn as well. “It’s such a blast to work with Gary and his kids. In Texas, we’ve worked with a lot of kids who are interested in music, and I believe, if you have a gift you’re supposed to share it.”
Forty miles north of Hilo is the former sugar plantation town of Honokaa. It was the next stop on Nicholas’ tour where they performed at the historic Honokaa People’s Theater. Built in 1930, it still offers current movies, plays, and top name attractions like Judy Collins.
The town is also home to Honokaa High, which has one of the strongest music programs in the state, thanks to the incredibly gifted and dedicated Gary Washburn.
At the beginning of Saturday’s concert, Tammie Picklesimer (above), Vice Principal at Honokaa High School, gave recognition to Nicholas and his band for the time they spent with the students and allowing them to perform together.
“We’re so thankful for this opportunity, one that can’t be learned in text books. It’s a life experience that will never be forgotten. We’re so excited to have these blues legends perform here tonight!”
Washburn then added his gratitude, and Dragon Jazz Band members presented Johnny and band with leis.
“”So many schools don’t get to experience working with professionals like these musicians from Texas. They’re not getting rich doing this. They came to interact with our students and take us on the road with them. They raised our bar, and now our students have to learn the professional regiment of coming to a sound check, being on time, and having their act together. I want to let you know that it was much more than having them come to our school, play a concert, and work with us. Johnny made the arrangements to have all the right sound and equipment for each show. It’s a huge thing, and I so much appreciate it, Johnny.”
Nicholas later announced that he’d like to include the Big Island on his annual tour schedule, and perhaps set up a summer band camp for the students.
Hell Bent deserves a lot of recognition too, adding the perfect accompaniment for Nicholas’ bluesy vocals and playing. Bruce Hughes (bass), and John Chipman (drums) are gifted Austin all-stars and regular members for the group. For this Hawaiian leg of the 2018 tour, Nicholas brought along guitarist-mandolinist Jeff Plankenhorn, or “Plank” as he is known. The Ohio-born musician has released four albums, and has appeared on recordings with Joe Ely, Ray Wylie, and Slaid Cleaves.
The 55-mile drive from Honokaa to Kona passes through several of the island’s eight climate zones before arriving at the resort side of the island. In the heart of the tourist area, just steps away from the shoreline, is the open-air second-story club known as Gertrude’s Jazz Bar.
Nicholas’s band crammed themselves and gear on Gertrude’s tiny 5’ x 12’ stage. Johnny was positioned in front, and the Dragon Jazz Band filled out the remaining space on stage right.
It didn’t take long or much encouragement for the crowd to hit the modest dance floor and boogie. Since it’s an open-air bar, the music spilled out to the street where a pair of young ladies swayed to “Bayou Blues” while waiting at the crosswalk. Sounds of the Pacific Ocean waves breaking filled in behind them.
In between songs while the band tuned up, a few folks came up to shake hands with Washburn and Nicholas, and thank them for helping music education in the schools.
Over tour’s three days, the students played two 500+ seat venues, and now a packed club. It’s so packed that even the owners are hustling drink and meal orders. The young musician’s experience is invaluable.
Before returning to the mainland, Nicholas traveled back to Honokaa High on Monday for one last talk with Washburn’s Dragon Jazz Band.
There’s some speculation Nicholas might return soon, maybe to branch out and work with other Big Island students at the Kahilu Theatre’s Summer Arts program, or even perform at the Big Island Jazz & Blues Festival. Whatever the case may be, Johnny Nicholas is certainly taking some aloha spirit and great memories with him back to Austin.
Don’t miss any of his shows when comes back!
Johnny Nicholas and Hell Bent
Hell Bent | Don’t Say I Never Told You So | Mr. Moon | Bayou Blues | Roll On Mississippi | Broke Again | Mama Talk To Your Daughter | Too Many Bad Habits | Fresh Air | Before I Grow Old * | Rocking My Blues To Sleep * | Boogie Back To Texas * | Honeydrippin’ Baby * | Texas Drifter * | Flip, Flop, And Fly
*w/ The Little Lady Band
To find out more about Johnny Nicholas and Hell Bent, visit: http://johnnynicholasblues.com
Jeff Planken’s music and tour schedule can be found here: https://www.jeffplankenhornmusic.com
Keep up with the Honokaa Dragon Jazz Band on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/honokaajazzband/