Dragon Jazz Band takes flight
The band room is usually jamming with random sounds of instruments tuning, clattering drums, scales and scraps of songs between laughs and snatches of conversation. Lately though, the band room in Honokaa is very different and focused — rocking the rhythms of R&B diva Marcia Ball, or blues guitarist Johnny Nicholas and his band, Hellbent.
For the first time, the Honokaa High School Jazz Band, under the direction of four-decade leader Gary Washburn, has been invited to tour with professional musicians Ball and Nicholas on a four-island concert series.
Kicking off Jan. 24 at Waimea’s Kahilu Theatre, the full jazz band will play the opening set, and a select group of horn players will join Ball and Nicholas onstage for several of their numbers. Then, eight musicians — aka the new Dragon Jazz Band — will accompany Ball and Nicholas on tour in Hilo, Kauai, Maui and Oahu.
Already one of the seven wonders of Honokaa, the jazz band has a long list of accomplishments and accolades. They’ve played on National Public Radio’s “From the Top,” and opened for the Royal Hawaiian Band at Iolani Palace where they were recognized by the State Legislature. They do a yearly multi-concert tour of Oahu to celebrate National Jazz Appreciation Month. Washburn himself received the Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction Award by the National Society of High School Scholars, and in 2011 the band received a national Grammy Signature Schools Award.
This tour is a very unique experience and educational opportunity for the young musicians.
A band is born
“About a year ago, one of the kids brought in a recording of Marcia’s,” says Washburn. “She had performed in Hilo, and this person had gone to the concert. We chose two of her numbers, ‘Foreclosed on the House of Love’ and ‘You Make Me Happy’ for our 2014 CD.”
A mutual friend introduced Washburn to Nicholas, who in turn connected him to Ball. She gave permission to use her songs and Washburn wrote the arrangements for their CD. They kept in touch afterward, and this fall Nicholas contacted Washburn with an idea.
“He and Marcia decided to do a cultural exchange kind of thing,” says Washburn. “Not just concerts, but interacting with students in schools.”
The concept for the concert tour was born, as was the Dragon Jazz Band with Kamea Phenicie on tenor sax, Elliot Reddekopp on trumpet, Emma Reddekopp on piano, Kamaehu Arraujo-Duldulao on trumpet, Andrew Connors on trombone, Nick Rohfeld on drums, Ron-Jon Pira on bass and Lexi Dalmacia on guitar.
“Music came down on my daddy’s side,” says Ball. “My grandmother provided the piano. She had it delivered to the house, and she’s the one who would pick me up and take me to lessons. I was six years old, and the piano teacher in my little town was a lil’ ol’ lady with an old black dog and a dark house. It was pretty terrifying!”
Ball wasn’t in the high school band, opting to play sports like basketball or softball instead. “When the band marched down the field, you couldn’t really tell what letters they were making. It was very hard for them to make a good ‘V,’” she jokes.
In fact, she never intended to be a musician. “My eight-year-old grandson has more basic music knowledge (than I did), and he gets it from the Internet,” she says.
Since those early piano lessons, Ball has developed her signature “side saddle” way of playing — legs crossed, one foot swinging with the beat — that lets her engage with the audience and add action and motion to her music. She has received eight Living Blues Awards, 10 Blues Music Awards and is an inductee to both the Gulf Coast and Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Ball has played at the White House with B.B. King and Della Reese, and appeared on “Austin City Limits” and HBO’s “Treme.” She performed in “Piano Blues,” a film directed by Clint Eastwood which aired on PBS Television nationwide in 2003.
“That was an interesting day, hanging out with Clint Eastwood after playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival,” says Ball. “It was the Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Etta James stage. They picked me up and drove out to Eastwood’s studio. I didn’t even put on lipstick or look in the mirror. I walked into the studio and they were filming me from the moment I came in.”
Of her music, the Houston Chronicle says, “Marcia Ball’s brand of blues lifts the spirit — old-school R&B mixed with Cajun, zydeco, boogie-woogie, swamp pop and just about every other stripe of music from Southeast Texas’ Golden Triangle across the state line toward New Orleans and Baton Rouge.”
Her collaborator on the tour, Johnny Nicholas, has played rhythm and blues with great bands from Rhode Island to Chicago, Louisiana and Texas for over 40 years. He has performed with Johnny Shines and Snooky Prior on their award-winning album “Back to the Country,” and with Asleep at the Wheel, Howlin Wolf, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Bonnie Rait, Eric Clapton, Pops and Mavis Staples, Delbert McClinton, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Jimmie Vaughan, among many others.
Ball says, “Johnny writes instant classics and sings them to break your heart and rock your soul.”
“This is the first time ever that we’ve been asked to perform with and back up major artists,” says Washburn. “It’s really cool that the kids are getting to be on the tour, so they can really see what goes into it as far as rehearsals, sound check, travel and transportation.”
Band mom and head enthusiast Sue Dela Cruz knows very well about orchestrating all those logistics, with son Andy and daughter Terri both in the band.
“I’m coordinating the trip for Gary so that all he has to do is go and play,” says Dela Cruz. “It’s everything from getting rooms, cars and making sure we have enough drivers, to figuring out what kind of fundraising we need to do.”
With an estimated $500 per musician, fundraising efforts started several months ago and include a GoFundMe account that’s reached about 50 percent of its goal. “If we don’t make our goal, we’re still going to fundraise so we can reimburse our students,” says Dela Cruz.
The jazz band’s current CD is also available free with a $10 donation. Interested supporters can contact Sue Dela Cruz at [email protected] or obtain copies at the Jan. 24 concert.
“I encourage everybody to come to the show,” says Dela Cruz. “They’re very talented musicians. Come and hear them. It’s amazing what these kids can do.”
The Jan. 24 kickoff concert on Sunday, Jan. 24 begins at 6 p.m. at the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea. Projected to be a sell-out, tickets for the show are available online at www.kahilutheatre.org.