Jazzing it up in
a mans world
Jazz pianist Betty Loo TaylorBy John Berger
to be honored at jazz fest
Special to the Star-Bulletin
BETTY Loo Taylor came home from New York in the '50s to a golden age in jazz.
Artists like George Shearing and Mel Torme could be found playing small Waikiki clubs. Jazz clubs abounded, in Chinatown and Waikiki. "And these were places that were open all week, not just one or two nights on weekend," Taylor said by phone from Las Vegas as she wrapped up a mainland concert tour.
"The original Waikiki Lau Yee Chai used to bring in a lot of mainland acts, and on Kalakaua, where Kuhio Beach is, there was a complex of restaurants and upstairs apartments. There was a lot of work for musicians."
As one of the few women in a man's world, Taylor says she had no problems being accepted by her male colleagues.
"You mainly see men (in jazz). Any time you see a woman performing you may be a lot more critical, whereas with men, you just kind of take it for granted that they can do it. But I never experienced it one way or the other. The guys were always respectful."
Taylor plays with two of her favorite guys -- Steve Jones (bass) and Noel Okimoto (drums) -- at Hawaii Theatre tomorrow. Abe Weinstein, director of the Hawaii International Jazz Festival, and one of Taylor's biggest fans, is making her the focal point and honoree of "Hawaiian Jazz Night."
What: Part of the 6th annual Hawaii International Jazz Festival, also featuring Melveen Leed, Loyal Garner, Gabe Baltazar, Brother Noland and more
HAWAIIAN JAZZ NIGHT
When: 7 p.m. tomorrow
Place: Hawaii Theatre
Also: Continues 7 p.m. Saturday with Night with Tiger Okoshi, Nestor Torres, Jimmy Borges and Shari Lynn; and 7 p.m. Sunday with Big Band Jazz; ticket prices same as above
"It's sort of like a 'This Is Your Life' type thing, and I thought, 'If we brought up most of the people I've worked with in Hawaii, Jesus, most of them are dead!' "
She plans to have Jimmy Borges, Rachel Gonzales and Gabe Baltazar sing with her. "In between that I'll be playing with the trio or solo by myself. I'm trying to pace it and keep it interesting by playing with different people."
Although she'll be the star on Friday, she enjoys the semi-anonymity that comes with accompanying others. "I enjoy working with everybody, each one has different things to say, whether as a singer or musician, and I feel it's just my job to enhance."
Her professional partnership with Borges at Trappers in the late '70s was certainly one of Hawaii's great jazz double bills, although older fans may cite earlier gigs and others might mention her recent pairing with Azure McCall.
Taylor was "about 6 or 7" when she began taking piano lessons from the Maryknoll sisters and one of the nuns discovered she had perfect pitch.
"The nuns would have me face the wall while they played different notes and I would identify them. I don't know why they did it, but I think it was then that I knew it was something special."
Taylor pursued her musical interests through high school and then studied classical music on the mainland. She spent four years in New York City preparing for a career as a classical concert pianist before deciding that she didn't want to spend the rest of her life practicing.
"I always loved jazz, and I always wanted to play jazz, and I always did it by ear, so I came home and started woodshedding around town. There were a lot more opportunities for jazz musicians then."
Trappers revived the big-name jazz club concept in the '80s with a series of gigs by artists like Herbie Mann, Freddie Hubbard, Mose Allison, Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis and Gil Scott-Heron. But that was more than 10 years ago.
"You don't see that anymore in Hawaii except maybe for New Year's Eve or some big convention that is not available to the public. Seeing someone in concert is not like seeing them in a nightclub."
Taylor says today's young aspiring musicians no longer can sneak into the neighborhood jazz club to watch, pick up pointers and eventually sit in with the musicians. Hawaii doesn't have that kind of scene anymore, and few clubs admit anyone under 21.
Karaoke has pretty much wiped out the old-time sing-along piano bar scene, generally reducing opportunities for all musicians.
"In the old days, young jazz fans were welcome to sit in and we had a lot of weekend jazz jam sessions. The place would be packed. There's no such thing now days, and I think even if you held a jam session it would be hard to fill a room," Taylor said.
She advises young musicians to get a day job. "Make sure you have something you can fall back on. Get a degree or be learn how to be an electrician or something, because you can't rely on just playing music anymore."
Taylor knows she's been one of the lucky ones. Her husband supported the family, and she admits to have "retired" at least once because he didn't want her to work. She continues to work two or three nights a week when she's in town.
"I've kinda had the best of both worlds. I wanted to be a housewife and a mother, and still be a musician, so I've had both. I've retired several times, but like Judy Garland I keep coming out of retirement."
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