Randy Skaggs – Keeping Jazz Alive in Hilo

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It says a lot when sixty faithful jazzlovers stand in line on a rainy Hilo night to catch a two-hour concert held in a movie theatre’s lobby. Jazz music, in general, is hard to find on the radio, and major New York clubs in the Village –The Speakeasy and The Jazz Gallery–have disappeared. 

Jazz music is certainly not dead here on the Big Island. Kahulanui’s nine-piece band harkens back to the Glenn Miller era, and add a Hawaiian twist to the sound. In Waimea, you can hear North Kohala’s Richard  Russel’s band Red Water Trio perform jazz standards on Friday evenings at the Red Water Cafe.

Randy Skaggs (original photo by Steve Roby)

But the man keeping jazz alive on the east side of the island is Hilo sax man Randy Skaggs and his quartet, Soul on a Roll. They currently deliver a semi-regular monthly show at the Palace Theatre to a jazz-hungry audience. 

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Skaggs got his first taste of Hawaii back in 1983 playing a cruise ship gig. “They used to have American Hawaii Cruises,” Skaggs reminisced.”The boat left out of Honolulu, and toured the islands. Hilo was my favorite stop. It reminded me of Gresham, Oregon where I grew up in the ’60’s.” After spending some time in Los Angeles in the film and TV industry, Skaggs and his wife decided to move to Hilo in 1990.

Besides working with his band, Skaggs also teaches music at St. Joseph’s School in Hilo, and started the band program there twenty-five years ago, “I’m also the Big Island director for the Hawaii All-State Marching Band,” said Skaggs. “We do the Pasadena Parade every few years.”

In 2014, he wanted to organize an experimental jazz group, which became known as Soul on a Roll. They started playing regular gigs at the Hilo Bay Cafe’s event room for two years. Skaggs came up with the band’s name Soul on a Roll partly because he grew up listening to soul music, and wanted the name to tie in with food since they were playing a restaurant. “It’s sort of a play on a fish sandwich,” joked Skaggs.

Bassist Brian Crist (photo Steve Roby)

Skaggs assembled Walter Greenwood on organ, Brian Crist on bass, and Michael Surprenant on drums. However, when the Hilo Bay Cafe decided to reconfigure the restaurant, the event room was eliminated as well as the entertainment.

Luckily, the Palace Theatre heard about the band, and “Jazz Night at the Palace” was born. “They advertise our events,” said Skaggs, “and I have people sign up for an email list so they can find out about our gigs.”

Skaggs agrees that jazz music has been limited here, but sees the scene is growing and developing. “Jazz is best served when there’s a population base that enjoys jazz,” emphasized Skaggs. “There’s some incredible talent here. It’s just a matter of finding your niche, and getting people to come out and see you perform.”

Drummer Michael Surprenant (photo Steve Roby)

At February’s Jazz Night at the Palace concert, Skaggs peppered his set with original tunes, and classics from legends like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Chucho Valdés, and Wayne Shorter. Most of the songs were intentionally performed in a shorter format rather than long extended solos. “It’s different here than New York clubs. People want to hear variety… a diverse collection of songs,” said Skaggs.

In past seasons at the Palace Theatre, Skaggs and his band members have provided the music for musicals such as last year’s Shout! — The Mod Musical, which brought the audience back to the style and freedom of the 1960s. “Around here you’ve got to keep a lot of plates spinning to keep it going,” said Skaggs, ”You can’t just do one thing! There’s only a handful of musicians here that can make a living playing just music.”


If you’d like to know when the next Soul on a Roll gig is happening, sign up for their email list here: randyskaggsmusic@googlemail.com

February’s Jazz Night at The Palace Set List

Opener | Waltz For The Medicinal Herbs | Doxy | Strange Scene | Siamese Samba | Stormy Monday | Adam’s Apple | Mambo Influenciado | Blackbird | Four on Six | Red Clay | Hilo Bay Shuffle

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