Make some noise!
There’s no shame.
We’re here to have fun.
Like a coach prepping his players before they hit the field, Honokaʻa High’s Gary Washburn offered these inspirational words to his jazz band moments before their concert at the Kahilu Theatre. “I want them to get past being nervous and somewhat shy and hope they realize it’s all in fun,” noted Washburn in our pre-show interview.
It’s been a busy weekend for the Waimea venue with award-winning musicians Henry Kapono and Kimié Miner appearing and the Honokaʻa Jazz Band capped it off with a Sunday matinee.
Washburn has been teaching music at the school for 44 years. Along the way, the school was recognized with a NAMM Award (National Association of Music Merchandisers) as one of the best communities in the U.S. for music education. They also received a Grammy Signature Schools Award in 2013. In addition, Washburn earned a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction Award from the National Society of High School Scholars. Some of his former students have received Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards and are full-time musicians.
Before the show, Washburn invited me back to the green room to meet some of his star musicians. The atmosphere in the room was chaotic, like a noisy school cafeteria during lunch. Some students are playing cards and laughing, while the more serious players, like multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Aliza Gonzales, are seated in a back row and talked with me about their future. “I want to travel,” she proudly announced. Trombonist Zachary VanSpronsen intends to join the military when he graduates in a few months.
Washburn expressed the upcoming loss of VanSpronsen, one of his prized musicians. “Trombonists are like gold, and I don’t know how I’m going to replace him.”
Like other schools, teaching music during the pandemic has been a challenge. In previous years, Washburn brought his band on a tour of the islands and performed at various venues with top musicians. “Today’s show marks the band’s first venue performance since the pandemic hit.” He’s also had to deal with a freshman class that essentially missed the eighth grade and has some catching up to do in his music class.
Washburn structured his concert setlist around jazz classics like “Night in Tunisia” and pop hits such as Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Female vocalist Kalei Aikau-Akau did a marvelous job with “Natural Woman” and returned later for “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.”
Aliza Gonzales stepped away from her drum kit and came out to sing “Astrud (Basia)” dazzling the audience with “Sunday Kind of Love” (Etta James). This senior has talent.
Jaysetn Agedeppa, trumpeter, and sole male vocalist, skillfully tackled “Smooth” (Santana) and showed us some swagger during “Lowdown” (Boz Skaggs).
Of notable mention is Jed Altura, playing solos on a newly donated tenor sax, and guitarist Alex Santiago, who could barely be seen in the back row but was well heard when he cranked it up for his solos.
When I asked Washburn where he finds his inspiration and endurance to keep going for many years, he choked up and was emotional with his response. “It’s the students. I love working with them, and I’ve learned so much from them. It’s a new way of thinking for an old guy like me.”
Over the years, the Honokaʻa Jazz Band has released 19 CDs and plans to return to the studio this June to work on “Music Garden,” with a potential release date in September. The band’s catalog is not yet available on streaming services, so you should contact Honokaʻa High School to purchase a copy.
On March 27, Washburn and a smaller ensemble of the Jazz Band will perform at Gertrude’s in Kona.
Photos: Steve Roby
Steve Roby is the editor of Big Island Music Magazine.