Sax man Gabe Baltazar finds himself with a fresh occupation, that of a writer about the jazz life
Jazz bassist Charles Mingus dropped in on a Gil Fuller recording session in L.A. one day in the mid-1960s and saw several familiar faces. There was featured guest Dizzy Gillespie, of course, as well as alto saxophonist Buddy Collette, one of the best studio men on the scene.
Collette was taking a solo on the tune that Fuller and his musicians were recording when Mingus walked in. Then so did the sax player next to him, a man Mingus had never seen before.
Mingus looked at the two sax players and then spoke to Collette: “Hey, Buddy, don’t let that Chinaman out-blow you, man. Blow that horn!”
The “Chinaman” was Gabe Baltazar.
“I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Baltazar said when he shared the story with me several weeks ago during a photo shoot at the Hawai’i State Art Museum.
“I used to play the New York style, see, and Buddy plays the West Coast style, very smooth, like Paul Desmond and all that. I had so much respect for the guy, (he was) a marvelous player. (When Mingus said that) … I said (to myself) ‘It must be a compliment from Charlie Mingus.”
The story of Baltazar’s encounter with Mingus is one of an almost endless series of first-person vignettes in his recently published autobiography, “If It Swings It’s Music.” Open it on almost any page and it will be difficult to stop reading.
Written in conversational style with assistance from music fan Theo Garneau, Baltazar’s book will appeal to several distinct audiences, including jazz fans and longtime Baltazar admirers.
His stories of life here in the ’30s and ’40s will fascinate anyone with an interest in what things were like “back in the day,” while another section of the book shares an insiders’ look at the national jazz scene of the ’50s and ’60s.
Baltazar will have a limited supply of copies with him tonight when he headlines “A Star-Studded Evening of Jazz” at the Hawai’i State Art Museum.
STATE ART MUSEUM staffers lucked out on the day of the photo shoot for this story. Baltazar serenaded all within earshot with an impromptu one-man concert while Star-Advertiser photographer Dennis Oda was taking pictures.
“I thought maybe a little action shot would be OK,” Baltazar explained. “(Oda) said ‘fine,’ so I just did it, just be fooling around. Sometimes it’s better than way, kind of relaxed more.”
Modest and soft-spoken despite his extensive national credits and the Hawai’i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award he received in 2007 for his achievements as a Hawaii recording artist, Baltazar had no plans to write a book until Garneau approached him. Garneau wanted to make Baltazar the subject of his doctoral dissertation. Baltazar thought about it and decided it was OK. Garneau collected information for his thesis during a series of 24 conversations with Baltazar at the Musicians’ Union building in central Honolulu.
Garneau got his doctorate, and Baltazar’s first-person narratives proved to be so interesting that a book deal followed.
“(The publisher) found something interesting about (my) life in Hawaii playing jazz … and the next thing you know there’s a book out,” Baltazar said.
Baltazar thought he’d come home to retire when he returned from the mainland in 1969. He was wrong. Baltazar rejoined the Royal Hawaiian Band, became a popular presence on the local jazz scene, and tested the waters, so to speak, as a club owner.
It’s all there in the book.
Baltazar eventually married “an old sweetheart” and moved “out in the country,” playing just enough to “keep in shape.” Then came the book.
“Here I am, kinda semi-retired … and now, from the book, I’ve been getting some calls from people,” he said. “Even on the mainland.”
And so, after “retiring” at least twice — when he returned to Hawaii in 1969, and then when he retired from the Royal Hawaiian Band — Baltazar is embarking on a new chapter in his career.
“I never expected to be promoting a book. It’s something that came up that I never expected,” he said. “I hope this book will be a good experience, reading for future players who want to be a jazz player about the fun and the pitfalls of playing jazz as a lifestyle. I hope it will be helpful for the young people who want to scratch into the jazz scene.”
— John Berger / email@example.com