The door is always hard to find. It’ll be hidden in some alleyway, often times down a stairwell, in a neighborhood you were told to never go late at night. And certainly not alone. The streets are usually quiet, apart from the sound of your heels clicking on the sidewalk and the nearly silent hiss of steam rising up from sewer plates.
You hesitate, but the cab driver said this was definitely the place to go. And so you enter. Inside, you see a dark and smoky den, dimly lit by the soft light from flickering candles. You spot the occasional glint of bourbon in glass, then look onstage at a glowing sax or trumpet or perhaps a metallic glare from drum cymbals, all set against an unassuming back wall draped in black.
Typically, the room—intimate with hushed conversation—is populated by ladies in cocktail dresses and men in ties, all sitting at small, round tables. Some are smiling, their eyes half closed. They nod now and then, giving into the syncopated rhythm and harmonies of jazz.
This is a jazz club. There aren’t any like it on Maui. Arguably, there is no “scene,” no nightly venue for locals to gather in sophisticated appreciation of John Coltrane or Miles Davis. There is an abundance of jazz musicians who live here, but there are no back-alley or underground speakeasies for them to jam, test their improvisational skills, take risks or just play freely the music that was born of freedom.
Other than one night at Cafe Marc Aurel, a coffeehouse and wine bar in Wailuku, and two post-dinner jams at the oceanfront restaurant Pacific’O in Lahaina, there exists only a handful of restaurants—Capische? and Bamboo Chi in Wailea, Ma’alaea Grill, Reilley’s in Ka’anapali—that feature mainly solo jazz pianists. And only during dinner hours.
Just last year, Yorman’s By the Sea, a southern-inspired eatery, opened on the ground level of the Menehune Shores Resort in Kihei. It was to feature an actual house band playing jazz standards during and after dinner. But before they opened, condo residents complained about the potential noise to the Maui County Liquor Commission. After two contentious hearings, the commissioners told Yorman’s to keep it down and knock it off by 10 p.m., or else. The LC also suggested Yorman’s play something more “subdued” than jazz.
Such actions were unthinkable a mere generation ago. In 1981, the infamous Blackie’s Bar & Jazz Club delighted jazz fans in Lahaina. For 11 years, owners Blackie and Sara Gabarian hosted live jazz three to four nights a week. While Blackie says he preferred the “mainstream, straight-ahead” jazz of the ‘30s and ‘40s, local musicians today fondly recall the creative freedom and support they felt playing at his club.
“It was a great time,” says 84-year-old Blackie today. “But I’m a creature of the wind. After a while, I had to do something else.”
Today, jazz fans have to go to completely new establishments for their syncopated fixes. These days, the most consistent—and surprising—proponents of jazz on Maui are the big resorts. During the summer, Whaler’s Village at Ka’anapali offers free, live jazz concerts early Sunday evenings. Other resorts book regular shows, but the granddaddy of them all is the Four Seasons Resort in Wailea.
Four nights a week, the resort boasts jazz pianist Sal Godinez with accompanying stand-up bass player Marcus Johnson in their Lobby Lounge. It’s often packed.
It’s not your typical dining venue, nor is it a smoky bar. It’s an open-air lobby in a four-star hotel that caters to the notoriously rich and famous—reportedly Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee attended one recent jazz night. Somehow, at least on Maui, jazz has become the music of choice at our high-end restaurants and hotels that typically cater to society’s affluent, upper echelon.
It wasn’t always that way. Jazz traces its roots back to the American slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Oppressed, persecuted and stripped of their culture, African slaves gleaned what little liberation they could in the form of song and dance, blending spiritual hymns with traditional folk music, using percussion and creative improvisation—what would later build the foundation of ragtime, a precursor to jazz. Their white American owners ate it up.
In 1866, Civil War Reconstruction began its winding path of righteousness throughout the South. The goal was to protect African-Americans by prohibiting discrimination. But by the late 1800s, segregation was prevalent, legalized by no less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court. A little over a hundred years ago, the “Land of the free” was considered one of the most racist nations on earth.
And this was precisely when jazz stepped in. Shunned by most of white America at the time, black communities began coming together, socially and politically. They did so with music, one of the only professions that wasn’t closed to them.
“Segregation made it possible for further black cultural syncretism to take place, which made jazz not only a viable expression across a broad spectrum of the artistic black community, but also an expression open to experimentation because it was built on the idea of blending,” wrote Gerald Early, Professor of English and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Jazz also became an important barrier-breaker in World War I, as black troops who performed in military bands exposed Europe to America’s unique brand of martial ragtime. During the Great Depression, radio jazz lifted the spirits of a nation in hard economic times. Swing jazz provided a physical outlet—that would be dancing—that liberated people, white and black, from the stresses of economic hardship.
And yet, in the luxurious comfort of the tropical vacation destination we call home, “jazz” seems to translate into little more than “pleasant-sounding background music for visitors.” Local hotels and restaurants mainly want instrumental music that won’t distract guests from eating or drinking—basically, from spending money.
Some venues have strong holds on the content of jazz being performed, requesting that musicians stick to more familiar standards and tone down stylistic flourishes. One hotel manager even told a local musician not to “make so many faces” while playing.
“It’s as if they were saying, ‘Don’t be too artistic now!’” the musician told me later.
But how do these jazz pros retain the integrity of a music revered for its power, strength and creative freedom? How do they reconcile the loss of their art for the gain of commerce? Is what they play still jazz?
“The secret to playing hotel lobby jazz is to be real,” said Mark Johnston, a keyboardist. “You just can’t be real loud. You have to find what you groove on and you have to play the room. If people are eating, you don’t wanna play some crazy Sun Ra stuff. But it’s up to the individual to offer their vision. You can use innovation when playing ‘Girl from Ipanema.’ But [in hotels and restaurants] you don’t wanna change it too much to be esoteric.”
Other musicians—taking a cue from trumpet player Wynton Marsalis—prefer to think of jazz as a style of playing music with “a quiet intensity.” Johnston recognizes this as well.
“I’ve seen how musicians justify navigating through the difficult territory of lobby jazz,” he said. “And I’ve seen them sit there and very quietly, wail their asses off. Hotel lobby jazz tends to be creamier. But for the most part, I like chunks in my peanut butter.”
The lack of a jazz scene outside the hotels and restaurants on Maui is not for lack of talent. There are dozens of professional players who have done the mainland tour circuit, recorded albums, played in major cities and jazz-friendly urban areas and then, like many transplants, tired of the rat race and moved here, finding enjoyment—and work—in other areas.
Or as one musician put it, “Jazz paid zero percent of my mortgage.”
Many professionals find the lack of competitive venues and the resulting pressures to be refreshing. Still, musicians are a restless lot.
Successful keyboardist Gene Argel said that while he loves Maui now, he once considered moving to New York for more gigs. But he said fellow jazz guitarist and keyboardist Shiro Mori talked him out of it.
“If you’re a jazz player, you’re going to play,” Argel said Mori told him. “You don’t need a place.”
Argel eventually agreed.
“You play it ‘cause your life depends on it,” he told me. MTW