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Honolulu’s Underground Big Band Scene

Noe Tanigawa
Noe Tanigawa

A Google search of music jobs in Hawai‘i unearths 28 “opportunities,” about a third are volunteer, and only one is for actually playing music, part time, for $17.75 an hour in the Hawai‘i County Band.  This illustrates the reason so many musicians in the islands work other jobs and create their own opportunities to play what they like.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Note the "POTE'S" on the music stands, this is the Shriners Potentate's Band. They rehearse in the basement of the hospital on Wednesday nights.

Trumpeter Phil Scellato arrived in Honolulu when live entertainment bred a whole scene of flashy, big living local characters.  He came to play in Nephi Hannemann’s band in the 1970’s and has seen music jobs pretty much dry up since.  The musicians here at Washington Middle School tonight all have day jobs.

Scellato plays with his brother, Bob, as the PBS Big Band at Jazz Minds, but for fun, he's in the Monday Night Band here, and he plays with the Shriners Band on Wednesdays.  

"We try to stay with the oldies, the music of the ‘20’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s," says Santo di Martino, the leader of the Shriners Big Band for 20 years and going strong.  A smaller group than the Monday night, this is the Potentate’s band, they play for Shriners functions and in the community.  

“I see my purpose as a double role," says Martino, "Helping the children at Shriners Hospital first and foremost, and keeping alive the big bands, because there aren’t a lot of us on the island that are doing that."

“You don’t get into physical shape by watching sporting events," says saxophone player, Dr. Robert Marvit. He works in rehab medicine, including music therapy. “You don’t get your brain wound up by listening to music as much as you do if you play music.  Because eye-hand coordination, there’s no specific area in the brain that is localized for music so you’re really exercising all kinds of areas.  Memory, recall, motor control, balance, a whole bunch of things."

Marvit continues, “I believe that playing music like exercise, will keep your brain functional and more effective regardless of what the aging process does to you.”

Nights of music involving many people don’t just happen.  Someone has to find the music, get arrangements that span abilities, make copies, and herd the cats. Not to mention, find a place for eighteen brass instruments to practice at full volume.  Wayne Kawahara, a state traffic engineer by day, was the recent guiding light of the Monday Night Band.

“It’s hard to replace someone like that, someone so knowledgeable,” says pianist Nora Oyama Haugen.  She and her husband, trumpeter Stanton Haugen, are mainstays in the big band underground scene.  She says Kawahara had a huge music collection, and made a point of meeting big band composers and arrangers if he could.  He was also an influential saxophone teacher.

“He never had any children, he had a girlfriend," says Haugen. "But his child was the big band music.” 

“So we’re kind of in transition right now because we played at his funeral May 5th ," says Oyama Haugen. "He didn’t want a funeral.  He really would have been mad, but we decided we would play for his funeral.  Everybody played their hearts out for it.”

Wayne Kawahara, 57, DOT civil engineer, his obituary didn’t even mention music…

Three Honolulu big bands meet weekly, you need an invitation to rehearsals or to join.  The Thursday Night Jazz Band rehearses at St. Andrews’ Priory.

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