© 2023 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ward’s Rafters: Don’t Let it be Forgot

Noe Tanigawa
Noe Tanigawa

An underground icon in Honolulu has just gone the way of male northern white rhinos.  Ward’s Rafters, a weekend music venue in residential Kaimuki, has hosted its final concert.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports, thousands who made the trek down the driveway and up the stairs will never forget Ward’s Rafters’ particular ambiance.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Laurence Ward holding a photo of his mother, Jackie, who would sit just there at the entrance to the Rafters, beaming support and encouragement to musicians. She and husband Herbert, a bass player with the Honolulu Symphony, organized the Hawaii Chamber Orchestra.

The Ward Rafters ohana is planning to keep the party going at the Dragon Upstairs, April 22nd, 2018, Sunday, 3-6.  $10 cover, bring food, buy liquor.  Rafters supporter John Knorek, who is helping organize the event,  says Darryl Pellegrini, drummer, Reggie Padilla, sax, will anchor the events.  Stay posted through the Honolulu Jazz Scenelistings.

When Herbert Ward got a job playing bass with the Honolulu Symphony, the whole family moved to O’ahu in 1966.  Son, Larry Ward says, as organizers of the Hawaii Chamber Orchestra, they often needed places to rehearse and perform.

So finally one day they said, We’ve got this huge space we’ve been using just for rehearsal space and storing costumes, why don’t we make something of it?

So my dad got to work.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
The unassuming street that so many thousands marched up and down in search of Ward Rafters.

On the Ward home on Maunaloa Street in Kaimuki.  The floors and bathroom had to be finished, soundproofing, windows, then later, skylights, bay window.

Laurence Ward:  The day that he finished this, he went downstairs to the second floor porch, and my mom was in the garden.  He leaned over the railing said, Okay honey, I think I’m done.  That night he came up here and dropped dead of a heart attack.

Ward:  The first event here was a celebration of his life.

And the newly inaugurated Ward Rafters was off and running---soon others called.

Ward:  We’re not jazz musicians but we play bluegrass, or Celtic, or whatever, is there any way we can do that here too?  We said okay, ow about Friday and Saturday evening optional?  Sunday was the given.  My mother was insisting, we have to have continuity, no breaks! So for 24 years, no breaks,

Larry’s mother was the legendary Jackie Ward.  She hit the ground running in Honolulu in the ‘60’s and 70’s.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Great artists passing through enjoyed the local ambiance. Local artists, like Gabe Baltazar here, Azure McCall, Abe Lagrimas, Starr Kalahiki, and many many more kept the rafters vibrating with music.

Ward:  When we first got here she was hired by Alfred Preis to work at Parks and Recreation.  She immediately started saying, Let’s put on these huge festivals!

They soon kicked off the Great Hawaiian jubilees that filled Kapiolani Park and other venues with people, stages and booths into the 1980’s.  She also started the Great Hawaii Jazz Blowout.

What was the idea for her?

Ward:  Just get people involved in culture and arts.  Get into music and dance and song and arts and food and get together and socialize and connect.

"Oh she was a trip!"  That’s pianist Les Peetz who was there at Ward’s Rafters’ inception in 1994.

Peetz:  Marvelously active, normally good humored, extremely dedicated to the Rafters and her family and everybody else. 

Was it sheer love of music?

Peetz:  Yes, it was, because she wasn’t making anything.  If anything she was breaking even and you didn’t ask her about the profit.  You just showed up and you played and you had a great time.

Everyone just put a little something in the calabash when they left.  Asked how that worked for musicians, Peetz says, "Quite well!"

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Jackie Ward was also the first organizer of a public radio initiative in Hawaii! 

Ward:  In 1976, because of her radio background, she worked in Danish radio and also in Vienna she worked for Blue Danube Network which was the predecessor of Voice of America, also Radio Prague.   She said, Hey there’s no public radio here in Hawai’i!  Let’s form public radio.  So she put together a board of directors, she was the first chairwoman, and incorporated what was then called Hawaii Islands Public Radio.  She got it started and got the first grant started also.  A couple years later, John Henry Felix took over as board chair and finished the process.

Of course, any mention of Ward’s Rafters on radio or any other media was strictly verboten.

Ward:  Social media or anywhere.  I was very strict about that.  We could not do any public advertising.  But we didn’t need to.  

Ward's email list was more than five thousand.  Over the years, neighbors complained about noise and Ward calculated that 90 decibels at his doorway insured staying within the law.  His decibel meter was always at hand, but guests always had to be reminded to keep excited voices down on the way out.

"You’ll never find another place like that."  Singer, guitarist Rachel Gonzales.

Gonzales:  It was a venue where people came from all over.  They went through, they got inspired.  For people like me, I grew in that place, it was a stretching out time.   I don’t think you’ll ever see another place like that.

Ward:  Every weekend.  Over 3 thousand something performances, at least 150 thousand guests have come through here…

You think about the many guests, wine bottles in hand, who parked in the neighborhood and headed down the driveway.  So many footsteps, winding up to the attic,  where music, and smiles always awaited.  People brought their own food and drinks.  Larry always said, no hard stuff, but beer and wine okay.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Ward:  We never had any problems with alcohol as such. people always had the idea this is totally a family oriented venue.  A lot of times we’d have kids and dogs running around, that kind of stuff. And the one thing that really distinguished us, when performers came here, they knew they were coming in for a listening audience.  Most musicians, not classical obviously, but the pop and reggae and Hawaiian and stuff, they’re used to playing with people yammering and drinking, paying half attention that kind of stuff.  Here, everybody focused.  And if anybody got out of hand my mother would go, SSHHHHH!  Make sure people listened, so it was guaranteed.  Musicians love that.  They’d always thank us for that.

This 24 year Labor of Love, was begun by the Ward family and run by Larry the last 9 years after Jackie became forgetful.  She passed in 2014, leaving the Maunaloa Street house to her two sons.  Larry tried various creative crowd sourcing ideas, including subscription membership to the Rafters, to fund a buyout of the property and save the music events.  Eventually, he and all of us who signed on to support, had to admit it did not make the monthly nut.  The Rafters space is now awaiting the perfect renter.

And there is a library of sheet music available, the holdings of the former Hawaii Chamber Orchestra.  Chamber settings and arrangements for other small groups, Ward hopes to keep the collection together, as part of a lending library, hopefully.

For images and video from Ward's Rafters events, check their Facebook page.  Larry Ward is working on a Rafters website that may include a wellness and counseling thread.  Contact him for more information:   Wards Rafters  

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Don't let it be forgot

That once there was a spot

For one brief shining moment

That was known as Ward's Rafters!

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
Related Stories