If It Swings, It's Music NPR coverage of If It Swings, It's Music: The Autobiography of Hawaii's Gabe Baltazar Jr. by Gabe Baltazar Jr. and Theo Garneau. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo If It Swings, It's Music

If It Swings, It's Music

The Autobioraphy of Hawaii's Gabe Baltazar Jr.

by Gabe Baltazar Jr. and Theo Garneau

Paperback, 223 pages, Univ of Hawaii Pr, List Price: $24.99 |


Buy Featured Book

If It Swings, It's Music
The Autobioraphy of Hawaii's Gabe Baltazar Jr.
Gabe Baltazar Jr. and Theo Garneau

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

NPR Summary

Hawaiian jazz musician Gabe Baltazar Jr. looks back on his life and career in music. As one of the few Asian Americans to have achieved worldwide fame as a jazz artist, Baltazar has plenty of stories to share — from studio sessions with legends to reflections on becoming one of Hawaii's distinctive musicians.

Read an excerpt of this book

NPR stories about If It Swings, It's Music

Gabe Baltazar (fourth from left) at New York City's Birdland Club in 1962, with members of Stan Kenton's band and the Count Basie Orchestra. The photo, from Baltazar's collection, is signed by Kenton (fourth from from right) and trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison (second from right). Courtesy of Gabe Baltazar hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Gabe Baltazar

'If It Swings': An Asian-American Jazzman's Pioneering Career

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/224473301/227121540" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: If It Swings, It's Music

Now, 1961 was an incredible year. From the time we started to record with the new mellophonium section in February, till late in December, when we recorded three albums for Stan's Adventures series and called it a day, we did so much traveling and recording, so much was going on, that it was like we never stopped moving. Or playing. Or slept.

All kinds of people came and went. Musical chairs in all the sections. Bud Brisbois left. Bobby Knight left. Dee Barton, Marvin Stamm, Ray Starling, and Carl Saunders came in. In the saxophone section Marvin Holladay, Sam Donahue, and Wayne Dunstan left, but Allan Beutler, Joel Kaye, and Buddy Arnold came in. My brother Norman came in on trumpet. Stan's wife, Ann Richards, appeared nude in Playboy and his marriage came apart. I recorded some tracks for Herman Lubinsky at Savoy Records in New Jersey and got a write-up in Down Beat. With Stan we recorded some tunes with Nat King Cole and about eight albums — The Romantic Approach, The Sophisticated Approach, West Side Story, Adventures in Standards, Adventures in Jazz, and Adventures in Blues. Two of those won Grammys, West Side Story and Adventures in Jazz. On top of that, we played about three hundred one-nighters all over the country, and Canada.

We had January off, but we came back to work for Stan in February, some recording sessions in Hollywood, and, for better or worse, we had the same guys in the section — me, Marvin Holladay, Sam Donahue, Paul Renzi, and Wayne Dunstan. But the sax section wasn't the problem. We were trying to do an all-ballad album with the mellophoniums, but the intonation of the mellophoniums was not good, so they shelved it. It never came out. But over three days we did sometimes twenty takes on a tune, working all night.

And a lot of guys were unhappy about the mellophoniums. There was a lot of grumbling and bad vibes, especially with the trumpet players and trombone players, which is understandable, because that was their area, the brass. Plus, the mellophoniums were loud, so everybody had to blow harder. So we did a lot of rehearsing, a lot of takes, then nine guys left because of that, probably more.

And another problem for a lot of guys was that almost the whole book was rewritten. Stan put the old book on the shelf and had arrangers write new things to include the mellophoniums, so there were now four sections: trumpets, trombones, mellophoniums, and saxes, along with the rhythm section. It was a new band. But the guys wanted the old book, everybody preferred it, because it was more swinging. It was a regular five-saxes, five-trombones, five-trumpets book, and it was more swinging charts, with charts by Lennie Niehaus, Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan, and Don Sebesky. All the great tunes that were popular before I came in, "Peanut Vendor," or stuff from Cuban Fire, we were wanting to play that, but we hardly did because Stan took the charts out of the book.

But I looked at it like this. I said hey, this is a great innovation, the mellophonium section. Not only the sound, but because of the new book we had a lot of recording dates, because Stan wanted to feature the new section. So it was a plus. It was a lot of exposure for the band, and it was a lot of extra bread.

So after that first mellophonium album, which didn't come out, we went back in the studios in March, before the spring tour. See, Stan Kenton, once he makes up his mind, that's it. No more maybes. We had a mellophonium section and the Stan Kenton Orchestra was now the "New Era in Modern Music Orchestra." And over time the guys in the mellophonium section pretty much got it together.

So in March, just before the spring tour, we recorded The Romantic Approach and a lot of West Side Story, and they worked, the recordings worked.

The Romantic Approach, which was the first full album I did with Stan and without a singer, was all slow ballads, all the way. Stan arranged the whole thing, about ten, twelve tunes: "All the Things You Are," "Say It Isn't So," "Moonlight in Vermont," and so on. And it was beautiful, emotional, symphonic. And he gave the saxophone section some nice writing — nice scoring, inner voices, dynamics. It wasn't loud either, because the saxophone section plays counterpoint with the piano when there's no brass, when the brass hasn't come in yet. I think we sound good there.

And then Stan had Johnny Richards write arrangements for Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. So we also did that in a few sessions in March and April, still before my third tour. And I remember West Side Story well, because anything Johnny Richards arranged or composed was very exciting. His music was not only challenging, it was heavy. And playing his arrangement of West Side Story was challenging because those are just great parts for saxes.

And he was very demanding. Very emotional. He'd say, "Fellows, I want you to play with cojones!" Play with balls! I want that thing to kick ass!" He was always like that, very emotional cat. And he knows exactly what he wants, has a great ear. And on some of my solos, I think I have three or four there, he kind of smiled. I guess he approved, when I see him smiling. "Well, okay, he must have liked it."

And I still like West Side Story. I'm pretty happy with my playing. I was in a very creative mood, in a sense of where I try to feel his writing, because he writes with a lot of feeling. And being that the band was always shouting, I started to work on my upper registers, and you hear that in my playing, and sound effects, like honking and stomping. Well, you hear that all over my playing in 1961, I think. Just by listening to Charlie Mingus, it loosened me up a bit, where they were using everything that sounds. I kind of incorporated that, because I was looking for different avenues of improvisation. I always thought that the saxophone is one of the most versatile instruments. You can make all kind of sounds — human, bird, pretty, ugly, funky. It's something you can really be creative with.

And high notes, the upper registers, that's why I wanted to get into this back in the '60s, because Stan's band was so loud, to get heard you had to pop up those notes. See, when we recorded we didn't go into separate booths. It was live, one take, the whole band playing at the same time in one big room. I mean, for the drummer they had the baffles. But everything was live, and it was loud. Fifteen brasses. And we didn't have monitors, like now. Recording was still in a fairly primitive stage.

And then it's so exciting, Johnny Richards' music. Sometimes you can't help but get excited, and it brings out your playing. Expands it. It pretty much brought out what I wanted to do. Going for broke. I had to. I said, This is it, man. And like I say, that's how he wanted it. Playing with cojones.

From If It Swings, It's Music by Gabe Baltazar Jr. Copyright 2012 by Gabe Baltazar Jr. Excerpted by permission of University of Hawaii Press.