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

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    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.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora

    New in Music Alley

    Take It From The Top: Stanley Jordani
    || 0:00:00
    ...  
     
    X
    May 17, 2016 5:01 PM
    Jazz fusion artist, Stanley Jordan is known for his touch technique which allows him to play melodies and chords simultaneously. He can also play two different guitars or a guitar and piano at the same time.

    Jazz fusion artist, Stanley Jordan is known for his touch technique which allows him to play melodies and chords simultaneously.  He can also play two different guitars or a guitar and piano at the same time.