A 20th Anniversary Tribute to the Honolulu Jazz Quartet
It seemed like just yesterday that I was lying on the sand at Kaimana Beach next to my brother John Kolivas when out of the blue he told me “I’m thinking of starting my own jazz group.” “Sounds like a good idea,” I responded. Little did I know that twenty years later this group would still be going, stronger than ever, and that I would be writing about it.
The idea was actually our mother Dolly’s. A classical pianist and piano teacher, she knew that, at this point in his career, John needed to express himself musically as an artist and creator, not just as a performer. We all knew he was destined for greatness when the family came home after seeing The Godfatherand John, all of eleven and with no formal training, played the movie’s theme song on the piano, with two hands. He went on the conquer Broadway as a pit musician and later, also at our mother’s urging, auditioned for the Honolulu Symphony and got in—even without a conservatory education.
But in the summer of 2001, having just turned forty, John was brimming with musical ideas that needed to come out. His instrument would be a quartet (just as Duke Ellington thought of his orchestra as his instrument). Ironically, John was never considered the front man. The front man was the sound the group made together. In my 2006 documentary Jazz & The Creative Act, drummer Von Baron (the second of three HJQ drummers) explained that with this group “you hear the music, you don’t hear the individual instruments. I think what we strive for is to sound like one instrument instead of four instruments.” So, four distinctive, highly-individualistic musicians came together to create one sound, a sound that would become far greater than the sum of its parts. When hearing John Kolivas strike a note on his bass, a soft, warm feeling would shoot up your spine and radiate to your face. His playing laid down a bottom so solid a herd of elephants could dance on top of it. Saxophonist Tim Tsukiyama channeled the great tenor players of jazz—Lester Young, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, and Wilton Felder. But he had a distinctive voice of his own and was a thinking man’s horn player. Dan Del Negro came from the South Side of Chicago and brought a funk sensibility to the group. But Dan could play anything: from musical theatre; to be-bop; to spacey Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner chords; to Funkadelic, to classical, and all points in between. Then there were the drummers: First came the late-great Richie Pratt, former New York Jets lineman and former member of the New York Jazz Quartet. A giant, smiling Buddha of a man, his gravitational pull held the other members of the group in alignment, like planets revolving around the sun. Then came Von Baron, a much lighter, more ethereal, more mystical presence. He brought Latin rhythms and a New-Age sensitivity to the HJQ sound, and was very much the court jester of the group. Later, when Noel Okimoto took over as the group’s percussionist, everyone knew that the Honolulu Jazz Quartet had come of age. Noel’s Hawaii-jazz legacy, from his days with the legendary Gabe Baltazar and with the Betty Loo Taylor trio backing up the incomparable Jimmy Borges, brought a maturity, precision, and power to the Honolulu Jazz Quartet that has taken the group to a whole new level.
What distinguished HJQ from the beginning was that it was a group where everybody had each other’s back. “With the members of the band it’s all a matter of trust,” said Tsukiyamain Jazz & The Creative Act. “Trust that everyone has a role to play and will fulfill that role. And once you have that trust, then playing is just a joy.” The group was a safe place for musical expression, but that’s not to say they played it safe. When a soloist wanted to take flight and go “out there”, he, as a musical Icarus, could fly with reckless abandon towards the sun, knowing that his bandmates would gently pull him back to earth with invisible strings if he got into wings-melting-range. A fool-proof safety net was the secret of success for these high-wire artists.
Early triumphs glow bright in my memory. When HJQ’s first full-length CD, Sounds of the City, was about to drop, the group was the “house band” for the Hawaii International Jazz Festival at the Wailea Resort on Maui. The boys held their own alongside some of the greatest jazz acts in the world and made an indelible splash onto Hawaii’s music scene. The Honolulu Jazz Quartet played with the Honolulu Symphony Pops, with maestro Matt Cattingub conducting his orchestral arrangements of HJQ’s original compositions, followed by Sounds of the City CDs selling like hotcakes during intermission. (Unfortunately, our mother was in the hospital and could not be at the performance, but she was able to listen to a recording of it later on.) The great jazz critic and essayist Nat Hentoff, after listening to Sounds of the City, agreed to write the liner-notes for HJQ’s next CD—Tenacity—and came through with a glowing appraisal of the group.
These early highlights eventually gave way to a steadier, more measured progression in musical maturity, richness, and bold experimentation. The group’s recent jazz-re-imaginings of 60s pop and rock classics are among some of their most inventive, radical, yet crowd-pleasing works. And I think the third-to-last word in my previous sentence holds the key to the group’s longevity—crowd. As with all great jazz groups, HJQ is best experienced live. Over these twenty years an extensive, and loyal, HJQ ohana has formed around them. And these musicians are savvy enough to know that they are not the only ones who are making the music. In the energy-swapping experience of live music, especially jazz music, the musicians onstage are receptacles for the emotions, moods, life experiences, laughter and tears of the participants in the audience. So whenever John plucks a string on his bass, the sound it makes is imbued with the spirits of everyone in the room and with the spirits of everyone who ever grooved at an HJQ performance. It’s the same whenever Tim expels a breath into his reed, whenever Dan strikes a chord on the piano, whenever Noel hits a drum. The Law of Conservation of Energy (that energy can neither be created nor destroyed—only converted from one form of energy to another) is definitely at play here.
Over the years the HJQ ohana has lost many loved ones and dear friends. But when the band plays, all of these people return, through the music and through the emotional investments they have made in the quartet. For those of us who remain, the precious moments we spend experiencing the music will live on in us for the rest of our lives. So while twenty years is an impressive milestone for the Honolulu Jazz Quartet, in the grand scheme of things it is but a drop in the ocean. And like the ocean, the music is forever.
(Brother of HJQ’s leader, occasional singer with the band, and producer of their first CD—Sounds of the City)
Link to Jazz & The Creative Act:
Honolulu Jazz Quartet
"The Honolulu Jazz Quartet - through its performances at the Hawaii International Jazz Festival, the Honolulu Symphony Pops, and jazz venues throughout Hawaii - is ready to be recognized in jazz scenes throughout the world, as is manifestly, invigoratingly evident in 'Sounds of the City' and now 'Tenacity.'"
- Nat Hentoff, author "Jazz Is", "The Jazz Life", Listen to the Stories", and "American Music Is"
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Last updated: August 11, 2022.