Gary Washburn: Jazzing Up a High School Band

Gary Washburn: Jazzing Up a High School Band

—Heʻs Taken Honoka‘aʻs Music Program to the Top

…By Catherine Tarleton…

It’s a bright, windy afternoon in Honoka’a for the Peace Day Festival, and the Honoka‘a High School Jazz Band is rocking the field with some big, belted-out blues by a diminutive female vocalist. The kids play with heart — a crisp, professional sound that has the crowd dancing in the grass.

Stage right, squatting down, a tall guy holds fluttering sheet music clamped to the stand while the saxes wail. That’s Band Director Gary Washburn, doing what it takes, the way he has for over 30 years, to make the Honoka‘a High School music program the best it can be. Good enough to win an award from the Grammy Foundation in April as one of 36 “Grammy Signature Schools” nationwide, out of 23,000 eligible schools. Pretty much proving it’s one of the best anywhere.

Last year, the band received a NAMM Award (National Association of Music Merchandisers) as one of the best communities in the US for music education, and Gary earned a “Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction Award” by the National Society of High School Scholars. They’ve performed 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 multi-concert tour of Oahu annually to celebrate “National Jazz Appreciation Month,” and their 11th CD has just been released.

Originally from Oklahoma, Gary and his brother Kent took piano lessons from a teacher, coincidentally named Ruth Washburn, who played piano with a traveling “one-car band” in the 1930s. She made music fun for the boys, and her lessons stuck. In school, the band director had him play whatever instrument was needed: saxophone, clarinet, oboe, etc., although Gary wanted to be a drummer.

He started playing professionally at age 16, touring in the summers with his brother Kent,  of EmKay Productions in Los Angeles. Their band, the “Shadow Lake Eight” (aka “The Jades”) played with Brenda Lee, worked behind Ray Hamilton, Johnny Nash and the Charlie Daniels Band, among others, and appeared on the Bob Hope Show. Radical, because the band teamed up with an African-American girl group, the “Del Chiffons,” and popular, as they toured night clubs and college campuses across the Midwest in the 1960s, they ultimately disbanded when one of their number was drafted to serve in the Viet Nam war.

Gary attended Oklahoma State, switched his major from veterinary medicine to music, and traveled to Univerisity of Hawai‘i at Manoa to earn a Master’s Degree in music composition. He studied in Boston, worked in Los Angeles, and in 1978 came to the Big Island to settle down, teach and play music. When he began at Honoka‘a High School, they had a band room and instruments, but no music program to speak of.

“We started from scratch with 15 kids who played wind instruments,” he said. “I had a chorus class, guitar class, ‘ukulele class and a band, but no beginning band….and I told the school, ‘You are never going to have anything unless I can get to them before puberty and cars set in.’”

Washburn set up 7th and 8th grade music appreciation classes, then discovered a way to make them more fun, the way Mrs. Washburn did for him. “I was going through some state books of the kinds of classes you can offer, and there was one called ‘ensemble,’ where you combined students for a particular kind of music,” he said. The light bulb flashed on. “I thought, ‘OK, rock-and-roll works.’”

“I kind of turned it around on them,” he said, “applying it to what kids were listening to –Kalapana, the Caz, Olomana. They put something in for me to listen to and I could write it down. It inspired them; it turned them on.” Out of his own pocket, he bought a drum set, an electric keyboard and other instruments, and soon had a rhythm section for the chorus class. Although they learned by listening at first, as the kids got more into it, they wanted to learn how to read music, so Washburn taught them.

He also developed an innovative chart system, like a little league or soccer coach might use. Tracking for each song who had the solos, who played bass, drums, guitar, etc., he gave every student both a visual map of arrangements and a chance to play to their abilities.

Along the way, the band grew larger and stronger. It occurred to Washburn, “Why do we produce all this music and never play for anybody? ” They started offering free school concerts in Laupahoehoe, Waimea, Kohala, Kea‘au and many other schools and community programs.

Their current performance schedule includes ensemble shows, an annual Jazz Band Concert, a talent show in Honoka‘a, an alumni “Legacy Band” Concert, school concerts around the island, community events like Relay for Life, the Visitor Industry Charity Walk, Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival, a trip to the Honolulu Jazz Festival, and an invitation to play for a large convention group.

Expenses are funded by the kids and their families, community donations, proceeds from concerts and the Jazz Band CD recorded each year. Washburn emphasizes that the CD is not for sale. “We give it away for a donation of $10 or more,” he said.

Washburn does most of the arrangements for the Jazz Band and Ensembles. “It’s one of my joys because I am in love with writing music,” he said. Although, unlike “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (a movie he’s never seen), Washburn doesn’t have a master work in progress, he does have original music he would like to finish, including an orchestral piece once played by the Honolulu Symphony. His CD of original compositions, “A Life In A Day” by the group Justin Thyme, was produced by Milan Entertainment and ex-Motown producer Kent Washburn, for a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, and is very popular in Japan.

Gary also continues playing gigs with the Olliephonics, Doug Johnson, Ati Mohala, Bill Noble, and Terry Secor and Full Circle. Proficient at most instruments, “I call myself ‘the resident sub,’” he said. “I never witnessed a teacher who could pick up any instrument and play with the kids,” said Washburn.

“It helps me understand the kids…Working with kids is just truly a blessing. I learn from them every year. There’s always some kid who looks at things a different way, and I think, ‘Wow I never thought of that.’”

“Some music teachers are so jaded by their own education, they’re not able to look at things and expand on their own creativity,” he said. “Kids are going to pursue music in college, they are going to pursue it in high school, to play for family parties, work at the hotels, or keep it for themselves. They are going to learn different ways for their own satisfaction.”

“What percentage are going to be professional musicians? Probably more than athletics. A large percentage will at least supplement their income. They develop a love of music and take it a step farther,” he said, “They will have music in their lives.”

Many former students do have music as a very big part of their lives. Polynesian recording artist R.J. Lanui Kaneao is a Jazz Band success story (Class of ’92), whose father helped build stages and support the band while R.J. was in school. Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning producer Ryan Hiraoka (Class of 2000), learned to play bass from Washburn in the 7th grade. Hiraoka earned a BA in music from UH Manoa, founded Rubbah Slippah Productions (RSP) in 2005 and topped playlists in 2006 with the hit song “Big Island Ladies” from his debut CD.

“I think he is inspirational in that he expects a lot from these kids,” said band mom Calley O’Neill, whose son Noa is a percussionist. “And when you expect a lot, they rise to the occasion every time—when you are inspirational yourself. And, after 30 years he has built a reputation as the
single best music teacher in Hawai‘i.”

“It’s having fun,” said Washburn, “having fun with music. I love music. I’m driven by that and by the needs of students to enjoy it.” When asked how long he plans to continue, he said, “I used to say I would retire when I stop having fun, but I don’t see myself ever stopping having fun.” ϖ

To find out more about the band, make a donation and obtain your CD, please call Gary Washburn at Honoka‘a High School, 775.8800 ext.287.

Contact writer Catherine Tarleton at


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