Aloha Swingtown

April 2, 2012 | By Brian Berusch

Jimmy Borges and Gabe Baltazar at Trappers 1979. Photo courtesy of Trappers.

The golden era of jazz in Waikiki

For some, it will be very hard to picture. The Waikiki of yore—maybe you’ve seen some images in one of our historic museums, in a painting on a gallery wall or even a postcard in one of the ABC Stores: Waikiki at the turn of last century, nary a building in sight; just palm trees, ocean and buttoned-up sunbathers … maybe an old-timey automobile rattling down the dusty avenue.

Few would know that during this so-called “Golden Era” of Waikiki, there were dozens upon dozens of jazz clubs scattered around the unpaved streets, atop bustling restaurants and tucked underneath rustling palm fronds. That’s right: The early sounds of Waikiki—aside from the sweet whisper of trade winds—was a tinkling piano, a muted trumpet and a snare drum. Waikiki was the epicenter of jazz in the Pan-Asia region.

Betty Lou Taylor—who was born and raised on O‘ahu, yet studied classical piano in New York with Russian masters—returned home in the early 1950s to find a jazz scene in full swing on the streets of Waikiki. Her uncles had a standing gig at the Waikiki Sands, a club next to the Moana Hotel (now the Westin Moana Surfrider), in which she would sit in to tickle the ivories, astounded at the crowds that the club would draw.

Before long she had her own gig at the Moana, performing standards in a quartet at The Veranda to a bustle of swinging music aficionados.

“The people would fill the courtyard below us, around the great banyan tree. Everyone was dancing. It was so festive. It was so lovely,” Taylor says during our exclusive interview. “I also had a standing gig at the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Garden Bar. Every Sunday afternoon a big Dixieland band would get swinging as the kids played in the pool. The adults would dance, and you could hear the waves nearby.”

Saxophone legend Gabe Baltazar—who still can be found occasionally pursing his lips and blowing standards around O‘ahu—returned home from the Army in 1946 to find a bevy of clubs in Waikiki. Before being called back to the mainland to tour with Stan Kenton’s orchestra—where he got to hone his chops with the likes of some of the biggest names in jazz.

“Right on Kapahulu there was an old upstairs and downstairs club run by a couple of lesbians who used to be in show biz,” he shares emphatically. “The downstairs was called Little Dipper, the upstairs was The Clouds. It was famous for bringing in Sammy Davis, The Four Freshman, The Hi-Lo’s, Bobby Hutcherson and other big-time performers between the ’50s and into the ’60s.”

Baltazar also shares memories of a club called Waikiki Sands that was propped up right in the sands of Kuhio Beach, where the surfboard lockers now stand. The upstairs Orchid Room would see comics like Lenny Bruce and singers, while the Continental Room would see bigger draw acts like Rose Murphy. There was The Wagon Wheel (near where Tiffany & Co. is now), The Penthouse, Don the Beach-comber and a few more clubs scattered throughout the International Market Place.

“Betty Riley’s Copacabana on Kalakaua and McCully was a huge nightclub that brought in acts like the Delta Rhythm Boys, the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers,” adds Baltazar. “Lau Yee Chai was a famous Chinese restaurant all done up in beautiful Chinese architecture on Kuhio, near Keo’s now. They had this great Chinese food, and they’d bring in hot acts from the mainland like Connie Stevens.”

The Shell Bar with Trummy Young (a famous trombonist who traveled with Louis Armstrong) and Ramsey Lewis was a highlight for Baltazar and legendary Hawai‘i crooner Jimmy Borges.

If the swinging crowds weren’t enough, the scene was beginning to draw seasoned musicians from bands like the Count Basie Orchestra, Duke Ellington’s band, Lionel Hampton, Joe Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Herman and The Four Freshman, all of whom made regular trips to Honolulu to sit in with local players.

It wasn’t uncommon for jazz clubs in Waikiki to swing well past 4 a.m. “They would invite us to the mainland to join them where they played, which was the ultimate compliment,” says Borges. “It was not only amazing for all the local players from Hawai‘i to get some love on the road, but it helped spread the word on the mainland that there were players in Hawai‘i that could hold their own.”

“One holiday, Jimmy and I were playing at Trappers at the Hyatt Regency,” shares Taylor. “Tony Bennett was in the audience, along with Lucy and Desi Arnez, Vincent Price and Glen Campbell. Tony was supposed to play this big New Year’s Eve concert at the Sheraton, and the people there wouldn’t let him play anywhere in town until the big show. So he played it, and by 12:30 a.m. [on the start of] New Year’s Day, he was on stage with us at Trappers, where he sang until 3:30 a.m.”

As the decades pressed on into the early 1960s, Don Ho set up shop at a club on Lewers Street where he was earning an impressive (even by today’s standards) $45,000 per week in Waikiki. Borges points to the success of shows like Magnum P.I. and the original Hawaii Five-O that created a buzz about the romance of Waikiki.

Moving into the ’70s, the second wave of all-stars to arrive; including Wynton Marsalis, Connie Haines (who played with Frank Sinatra for years), Al Jarreau, June Christy and others, would flood the new crop of clubs—some built literally on top of the old clubs— smack dab in Waikiki.

Today, there’s only a handful of jazz-specific clubs left in Waikiki—although there’s certainly no shortage of places to see live music. Lewers Lounge inside the elegant Halekulani is an upscale, leather and low-light joint with excellent piano music and custom cocktails. Jazz Minds near the Convention Center is devoted to all things new jazz. Occasionally one of the hotels will let a jazz-influenced performer take the stage. And as they launch into a golden oldie or standard from an era past, if you close your eyes … let the trade winds ruffle your hair and the music enter your entire body … you’ll hear the swinging sounds of old Waikiki.