News / Arts & Entertainment

Pioneering Asian-American Jazzman Recalls Musical Journey

The Paul Togawa Quartet performing in Los Angeles. Left to Right. Gabe Baltazar, Paul Togawa, Dick Johnston, Buddy Woodson, circa late 1950s. (Courtesy Gabe Baltazar)
The Paul Togawa Quartet performing in Los Angeles. Left to Right. Gabe Baltazar, Paul Togawa, Dick Johnston, Buddy Woodson, circa late 1950s. (Courtesy Gabe Baltazar)
Heidi Chang
— Gabe Baltazar is one of the few Asian Americans to achieve worldwide acclaim as a jazz artist.  The versatile musician played saxophone and clarinet with some of the biggest names in jazz. 

But, in 1969, at the height of his career, Baltazar decided to move back home to Hawaii. Now in his 80s, he's sharing his story in an autobiography called If It Swings, It's Music.

Baltazar had been playing professionally for 15 years when he was asked to join the influential Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1960.

“One of my biggest highlights in Stan's band was being featured on this beautiful standard tune called "Stairway to the Stars," which he liked that tune," he said. "And he thought it would be my signature song. And throughout my career, four years with the band, I was featured on that. And it was just great.”

Gabe Baltazar (fourth from left) with Stan Kenton and members of his band and Count Basie band members in New York City in 1962. (Courtesy Gabe Baltazar)Gabe Baltazar (fourth from left) with Stan Kenton and members of his band and Count Basie band members in New York City in 1962. (Courtesy Gabe Baltazar)
Baltazar's story is an important chapter in the history of American jazz, says fellow musician Theo Garneau, who co-wrote Baltazar's autobiography.

Garneau calls him one of the pioneering Asian-Americans in jazz, noting that his success came despite the anti-Asian atmosphere of the 1940s and 50s. 

LISTEN: Pioneering Asian-American Jazzman Retells his Musical Journey
Pioneering Asian-American Jazzman Retells his Musical Journeyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

“Sometimes people say, well, what difference does it make if he's Asian-American or not?" Garneau said. "I think it's important to remember that there was a lot of exclusion going on in Los Angeles and across the mainland. Asian-Americans were severely discriminated against before and after the second world war, and during the second world war. And this is part of our history, this is part of American history, it's part of Asian-American history.”

Baltazar grew up in Hawaii, 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, you know, people working in the fields, pineapple and sugarcane fields.”
Gabe Baltazar with his parents. Gabe Baltazar, Sr. was Filipino and also a professional musician. (Courtesy of Gabe Baltazar)Gabe Baltazar with his parents. Gabe Baltazar, Sr. was Filipino and also a professional musician. (Courtesy of Gabe Baltazar)
x
Gabe Baltazar with his parents. Gabe Baltazar, Sr. was Filipino and also a professional musician. (Courtesy of Gabe Baltazar)
Gabe Baltazar with his parents. Gabe Baltazar, Sr. was Filipino and also a professional musician. (Courtesy of Gabe Baltazar)


Gabe Baltazar Sr. encouraged his son to play music and gave him a clarinet when the boy was 12.

Baltazar grew up listening to musicians from the mainland who came to Hawaii in the 1940s to entertain the troops.

"There was Artie Shaw's band. They were stationed in Pearl Harbor, and they performed in Waikiki Beach," he said. "And there, all barbed wire fence on the beach, you know, at that time, because 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 Baltazar learned alto saxophone by playing alongside his father in dance bands.

In 1956, Baltazar moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with other Asian-American jazz musicians.

“My first recording was with Paul Togawa, a Japanese American from California who, earlier during World War II, was interned in the internment camp.”

Baltazar gained international recognition with Stan Kenton, then went on to work with Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly, Wes Montgomery and others.

But after 13 years in Los Angeles, Baltazar wanted to come home.
Gabe Baltazar with Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie at a concert celebrating the release of Baltazar’s autobiography, "If It Swings, It’s Music." (H. Chang/VOA)Gabe Baltazar with Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie at a concert celebrating the release of Baltazar’s autobiography, "If It Swings, It’s Music." (H. Chang/VOA)
x
Gabe Baltazar with Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie at a concert celebrating the release of Baltazar’s autobiography, "If It Swings, It’s Music." (H. Chang/VOA)
Gabe Baltazar with Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie at a concert celebrating the release of Baltazar’s autobiography, "If It Swings, It’s Music." (H. Chang/VOA)


“He came back to Hawaii in '69, so the world kind of forgot about him," said Garneau. "And it's just the beauty and the allure of Hawaii and the fact that he was a local guy, that he left when he was on top.”

Over the years, Baltazar became something of a local hero for nurturing many younger musicians.  And he's revered by music fans in the islands. These days, Baltazar rarely performs. But he's still eager to share a few tips he's learned along the way.

“I used to play like a thousand notes a minute, you know, during the young days. But now it's, you know, you don't try to get too fancy. You try to get more feeling in your music. So, in other words, you got to get your soul going," he said. "That's what music's all about. And swing, naturally. That's what my book's about, If It Swings, It's Music. That's the name of the book. And it's all in there.”

You May Like

China Investigates Former Powerful Security Chief

Former security chief and member of Politburo Standing Committee, Zhou Yongkang, under investigation for suspected 'serious disciplinary violation' More

India, US Look to Reset Ties During Kerry Visit

This week's talks will be first high level interaction between two countries since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge More

Video Young African Leadership Program Renamed to Honor Mandela

YALI program, launched by President Obama in 2010, aims to build skills in business, entrepreneurship, public management and civic leadership More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Snaporaz from: Loubizargues
March 01, 2014 2:40 PM
What a great job !!!


by: Theo Garneau from: Honolulu, HI
February 28, 2014 7:08 PM
Bravo Heidi Chang!
Heidi does a beautiful and concise job here of describing Gabe's importance as an artist and as a pioneer of Asian Americans in jazz.
And her choice of music in this piece is perfect!
VOA, Heidi, thank you for sharing Gabe's "Stairway to the Stars" with an ever-larger public!


by: marie from: Honolulu
February 28, 2014 7:06 PM
This is fantastic! Good job!


by: Bill Rhyne from: California
February 27, 2014 3:42 PM
Gabe is a great musician and gentle and generous man. When I was in the University of Hawaii-Manoa Jazz Ensemble in the 1970s, Gabe would perform with our band locally and share his experience with us and the audience. We were lucky to learn from him.


by: Alfonso Romero from: Santa Clara, CA
February 27, 2014 2:16 PM
Gabe is outstanding, and the book really highlights his amazing accomplishments. More Gabe coverage, please!


by: Brenda R from: Ben Lomond, CA
February 26, 2014 5:34 PM
Great piece! Gabe's work and the book are inspiring!

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Acclaimed jazz saxophonist Tia Fuller has made a name for herself appearing with such high-profile artists as Beyonce, Esperanza Spalding, and Terri Lyne Carrington. Tia and her quartet performed music from her CD “Angelic Warrior” on our latest edition of "The Hamilton Live."