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Chinatown Treasures: Jazz in the 1950s

noe tanigawa

Tonight, citizens could find out what the City plans to do to relieve the filth and crime in Chinatown. Mayor Blangiardi, the City Managing Director, and all the area representatives are scheduled for presentations at tonight's Downtown Chinatown Neighborhood Board meeting. Recent depressing images of the area can make us forget the unique heritage of Honolulu's Chinatown, but during and after WWII, Hotel Street was the center of a vibrant music scene.


Credit Noe Tanigawa
The Dragon Upstairs, a long time jazz venue on Nu'uanu Avenue


Put yourself there: Chinatown, Honolulu during and after WWII.  Drummer Harold Chang, now 92, remembers jazz clubs all through the neighborhood. 


"There was the Swing Club, the Two Jacks, the Brown Derby."


Chang says fine musicians cycled through Hawai'i in the military. And the robust entertainment scene, centered in Chinatown, attracted high quality players to the islands. 


"Good musicians were coming in and going out. In the service, at night they'd go to Hotel Street. And jam, you know?"


You can still find Honolulu's oldest bar, good old Smith's Union, on Hotel Street. Established in 1934, it opens daily at 8 a.m.  In the late 40s, 50s and 60s, Remember international tattoo trend setter Sailor Jerry? His tattoo parlor and others, welcomed patrons, alongside fortune tellers, next to liquor stores, taxi dance halls, and jazz bars on Hotel Street. 


"Eddie Sartain who was owner of the Brown Derby on Nu'uanu Avenue, he brought in Louis Armstrong, all those people."


Credit Debbie Yeoh
Jazz legend Harold Chang, still plays casuals and with the Monday Night Big Band before Covid hit. He's 92 years young, traveled to 41 countries in his eighties.

  It was an era when Bing Crosby won an Oscar for Sweet Leilani. Music from and in Hawai'i was booming. Chang says there were dozens of jazz bars as well as burlesque houses with live musicians. There's a fascinating history of Japanese burlesque theaters that doubled as jazz bars in Honolulu. 


Chang mentions popular hangouts around town, including Leroy's on Nimitz Highway, owned by Abe Lum, and the Zebra Room on Kalakaua. Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader played there. Chang played at the Waikiki Tavern, a bar, restaurant and hotel on Kuhi'o Beach where the police substation currently sits. He saw Billie Holiday perform there.


"That's how a lot of local guys learned how to play really good jazz because of the outsiders coming in. Black guys and white guys to play on Hotel Street and all those places there."


Chang's break came when vibraphonist Arthur Lyman tapped him to form his exotica group in 1957. Their first release, Taboo, hit #1 in the country a month after they opened at the Hilton Shell Bar. 


"We were born with a silver spoon, gold spoon in our mouth, man! We had to travel, we had to do tv shows, we did Andy Williams,  Red Skelton, Steve Allen, all those shows! And then of course doing Hawaiian Eye TV shows really helped us."


Serendipitously, Chang says, Taboo was recorded on a high fidelity label that experimented with stereo effects before stereo was invented.


 'When Taboo hit, that must have blown the stack with all the percussion sounds coming from every place, and the bird calls."


Through the 60s, Lyman's group packed the Shell Bar six night s a week. They got a gold record for Yellow Bird, and Chang receives royalty checks for that blockbuster regularly. View why Harold Chang remains a legend among drummers in this 1964 video. Hear more of Chang's story in a future Aloha Friday Conversation.


Arthur Lyman's group recorded over twenty albums, mostly in the aluminum Hilton dome. Exotica began to fade in the 70s as rock's popularity grew.  


Like exotica, Chinatown has enjoyed revivals over the years—and right now the music scene there is struggling back. A new establishment, Skull and Crown, is continuing the tiki bar tradition on the 'Ewa end of Hotel Street. Starr Kalahiki and sometimes Sandy Tsukiyama, perform in the outdoor terrace,  6-10 p.m. Saturday nights. Reservations recommended.


Closing music: Starr Kalahiki with Don Tiki doing Moonglow a the Blue Note. Vibe solo by Abe Lagrimas. Earlier in the story, the Louis Armstrong cut features trombonist Trummy Young, who settled in Hawai'i in 1964. This version of Armstrong's C'est Si Bon recorded in 1960.



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