Remembering Gabe Baltazar, a pioneering Asian American jazz artist (1929-2022).
When Gabe Baltazar Jr., the most influential jazz artist in the history of Hawaii, died on June 12, it marked the end of an era. He was 92. Baltazar’s family confirmed he’d been under hospice care at his home in Waialua.
I got to know Baltazar in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when jazz was thriving at night spots in Honolulu. I had started hosting a jazz show on KGU Radio, where he’d often stop by to talk story. By then, he was already a local hero.
In the 1960s, Baltazar got his big break playing lead alto saxophone in the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and toured internationally; his signature tune with the band was “Stairway To The Stars
.” In 1973, millions saw and heard him play a flute solo in an Aloha From Hawaii
satellite concert with Elvis.
For decades, Baltazar helped keep jazz alive in Hawaii, mentoring and inspiring generations of musicians. Born and raised here, he was the son of a Japanese American mother and a Filipino father. “My father was from the Philippines, he was a professional musician,” Baltazar said. “And then he came to Hawaii to play with a vaudeville show, to entertain the plantation people working in the pineapple and sugarcane fields.”
Gabe Baltazar Sr., also a saxophonist, encouraged his son to play music and gave Gabe a clarinet when he was 12. Baltazar grew up listening to jazz musicians who came to Hawaii in the 1940s to entertain the troops. “There was Artie Shaw’s band and they performed in Waikiki Beach,” he recalled. “And there [was] all barbed wire fence on the beach at that time, ’cause this was World War II. And I used to crawl under the barbed wire and listen to the band.”
Back then, jazz wasn’t taught in school in the islands. So he learned alto sax, playing alongside his dad in dance bands
In 1956, Baltazar moved to Los Angeles where he joined a group led by drummer Paul Togawa, who had been sent to an internment camp during World War II. When Baltazar played on Togawa’s debut album, it caught the ear of critics.
Influenced by Charlie Parker, Baltazar also recorded with James Moody, Oliver Nelson and Dizzy Gillespie. But at the height of his career, Baltazar moved back to Honolulu in 1969. During the day, he performed with the renowned Royal Hawaiian Band. At night, he played jazz.
I first heard Baltazar in 1978, when he formed a quartet to play at a place called the Cavalier in Honolulu, hiring three musicians just out of high school. One was bassist Benny Rietveld, who went on to tour with Sheila E. and Miles Davis. He’s now the bassist and musical director for Carlos Santana.
When news of Baltazar’s death broke, Rietveld recalled memories of his first musical mentor on social media: “The guy taught me so much, by virtue of putting up with a young punk who knew nothing about jazz bass playing, swing or feel! ... What a time it was, what a lot of fun, a ton of fiery virtuosity from the man himself.” Back visiting Hawaii, Rietveld told me, Baltazar also taught him the importance of humility.
During the three years Baltazar held court at the Cavalier, it was the
place to hear jazz. Count Basie and Dave Brubeck would stop by while in town. And whenever Richie Cole sat in, you could count on experiencing a battle of the saxes.
In 1981, Baltazar opened his own jazz club, Gabe’s in Waikiki, but it lasted less than six months. By then, my jazz show had ended. KGU became automated, broadcasting news talk radio from the mainland. I left to host music shows in the San Francisco Bay Area on KBLX “The Quiet Storm” and later, KCSM Jazz 91, but mainly worked as a journalist before returning to Honolulu in the late ’90s.
Years later, I interviewed Gabe for a television profile
when he headlined the 2004 Hawaii International Jazz Festival. He reminisced about once hearing jazz giants Trummy Young and Dexter Gordon and going to clubs such as The Blue Note and the Brown Derby, and treated me to a soulful solo rendition of “I’ll Remember You,” still sounding strong at age 74.
Then in 2013, I met with him several times to delve deeper into his journey for an NPR profile
. He had just published his autobiography, If It Swings, It’s Music
Baltazar’s story is an important chapter in the history of American jazz, says fellow musician Theo Garneau, who co-wrote Baltazar’s autobiography: “Gabe’s one of the pioneers of Asian Americans in jazz. Now that he’s no longer with us, let’s remember his legacy and share with others our appreciation for the man and his music.”
The last time I saw Gabe was in 2014. He was 84, performing in a reunion concert with members of his Cavalier quartet. I was moved, realizing that no matter his age, he’d continue playing with all this heart and soul.
A Celebration of Life for Gabe Baltazar will be held Friday, August 5 in Kaneohe, Hawaii. - Heidi Chang
Featured photo by Ron Hudson.