I’ve written about Gary Washburn twice. This is the third and the first on my blog; I’m guessing that it won’t be my last.
Gary has been teaching music at Honoka’a High School for 35 years. He has transformed this small town with his dedication to music and the kids he teaches. The first time I heard about him I was reading the in-flight magazine for Hawaiian Airlines. They did a feature story about his influence over multiple generations of high school kids here.
I’ve seen him in concert with the debut of his original suite, Earth Life: October Full Moon, eight movements for two pianos and percussion. The Honoka’a People’s Theatre was packed for the recorded performance. I can’t wait for the CD and DVD to come out in January. I’ve also seen him perform with his Legacy jazz band at a club: teacher and former students joined together by their love of music.
This weekend’s performance was something different yet again. At its core, like the other events, was Gary. The Honoka’a People’s Theatre hosted a musical concert that would have blown my socks off if I had been wearing any. It was the Honoka’a High School Alumni Concert, now in its 19th year. Any person who took Mr. Washburn’s music classes in high school is invited to perform. That’s 34 years worth of classes. And they gladly come, some from jobs and lives off island. They come to have fun, see old friends, make new memories, and honor the man who shapes their lives and this town.
As Dianne, Mitch and I walked closer to the theatre, we could see small clumps of people excitedly talking and hugging. It was like Homecoming night, only better, because they would have an active role in the event. Even from a distance we could hear good-humored jabs about which graduating class was best, which had the best musical talent, and which had the most fun. When we settled into our third row seats, the Emcee made it clear that ’86 was definitely the best year.
“Tita Nui” (Tita – Sister, Nui – big, large, great, important) is a local radio personality who entertained us with quips about growing up Portugee (Portuguese) and all that means in Hawaii. The Portuguese are teased here the way the Polish were teased in my hometown. She’s funny and talks pidgin, the local mix of Hawaiian and English with a salting of other immigrant languages thrown in. Her advice column for the Hamakua Times monthly is written in pidgin, with a translation for the pidgin impaired. Her big personality, intimate knowledge of the performers (“I got the secrets”), and her humor set the stage for the feeling of warm family fun to come.
In fact, family is exactly the right word. Most of the performers brought parents as well as their children, and in some cases, grandchildren to the program. Young people held brand new babies. Tots scampered from one adult to another around the theatre. Young tweens sat with their own tribes away from parents. But when a performer was on stage, all attention was there in respect for and loyalty to that person.
The opening act represented the earliest class with a performer this night, 1982, four years after Gary arrived. She’s a grandmother of 10, and oh, by the way, a glamorous professional singer on island. She’s living my fantasy of singing for audiences at the resorts! Her daughter also took Mr. Washburn’s class and sang later in the program, with Mom singing back-up. The daughter’s four year old joined them, with her own microphone and a chair to stand on. She will be in the Class of ‘26. We all hope Mr. Washburn will still be teaching then; if the tyke’s performance tonight is any indication, she’ll be singing in his class too.
Another singer, class of ‘01 poignantly revealed that her parents were never able to attend any of her performances while she was in high school. She was making a point of singing in the program this night because her parents could be here – they were making up for eleven years of lost time.
What’s cool about this program is that the performers chose their own music. While Gary has focused his high school band on jazz, tonight we heard everything from country to funk to a Hawaiian waltz. Some played guitar or piano, and sang and played solo. Others borrowed back-up talent, including Jeff on his violin, a frequent performer at Third Thursday Thrive potlucks. One person performed his own composition – quite a good piece. The only common denominator was that everyone on stage, musician or singer, was a former Washburn student.
One young man, a recent graduate with a college music degree played Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk. We could tell that Mr. Washburn was pleased with this choice of music, and he took a moment to explain who Monk was to the audience – ever the teacher.
We also enjoyed several top notch torch singers. Song after song rocked the house. Everyone in the audience was pulling for each one of the performers – these were old friends, or friends of children or parents, with all that means in a very small town, despite the rivalry among different class years.
Mr. Washburn himself played on most numbers, both piano and brass. And many of the singers had the Legacy Band back them up. I had seen them in August at the Blue Dragon while out with Julia and Joanne. The Legacy Band includes young graduates of Gary’s program who have decided to stay together and play around the island. It’s a full jazz band, much of it brass and they play everything from 1930’s music to more recent jazz. The band shrinks and grows as members leave to go to college and come back on breaks. As Gary said tonight, you don’t see many brass bands because these instruments are hard to play; it takes a certain kind of dedication.
Not all of the performers made music their career. But they all clearly keep music central to who they are. Many gave heartfelt and even tearful tributes to the influence of Mr. Washburn in their lives. They all wanted to give back to the humble man, clearly embarrassed by all the praise, who gave them so much. And they did – all proceeds went to the music program at Honoka’a High School.
At the end of the program, the Emcee announced that Gary is to receive yet another award. In February, he will be named one of five Living Treasures of the State of Hawaii.
That feels right. How many other high school music teachers write, perform, and record whole suites of their own music? How many other high school music programs have received a Grammy? How many other high school graduates stay in a band with their former teacher and play together professionally? How many other towns in Hawai’i or even the mainland can boast that their high school music program has a quality alumni concert every year that people pay to attend? How many other teachers have orchestrated all of these things? He has influenced not only his students, but the whole town.
At the end, we all stood and sang a song in Hawaiian. Everyone held hands along each row and connected row to row at the ends of the aisles. I didn’t know the song, so I just joined the chain of people holding hands and swayed with them. But I will learn it: I’ll get Faye to help me with the pronunciation. It is called Hawai’i Aloha, and is traditionally sung at the end of major local events.
Warm bountiful love filled the theatre – really. I wish I could have been Mr. Washburn’s student, not that I was young enough – I had my BS and MS by the time he came to Honoka’a. But in my fantasies, I might have become that torch singer. At the very least, I would have been on that stage singing my heart out in gratitude to a man that changed a town.
Next year will be the 20th Anniversary Honoka’a High School Alumni Concert, and the organizers plan to do it up big. I’ll be there. I invite you to join us.
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