Star-Bulletin Features

Arthur Lyman and his band took to the ice outside Las Vegas to promote a show at Vegas' Thunderbird Hotel in the 1970s. Skating with a couple of ice show dancers are, from left, bandsmen Harold Chang, Lyman, John Kramer and Alan Soares.

Good vibes

Carrying a tiki torch for band
leader Arthur Lyman

By Nate Chinen
Special to the Star-Bulletin

He stands with his back to the ocean. Wraparound sunglasses obscure his eyes. He bends ever so slightly at the waist, hands fanning out over the grid of a vibraphone. Felt-covered mallets brush against the bars gently, almost tenderly. And amid the quiet bustle of bellhops, a dozen listeners seem transported. At their applause, he nods appreciatively and reaches for his drink. Then it's on to the next tune.

This was the Arthur Lyman I knew. Affable and ageless, he played every Friday afternoon in the open-air lobby of the New Otani Hotel, then rolled his vibes down the sidewalk for storage at the Elks Club. His audience was small but loyal, mostly transplanted mainlanders who remembered the Lyman of yore. Perhaps appropriately, I had joined their ranks only after leaving Honolulu for college on the East Coast. I'd come home for the holidays and invariably spend a lazy afternoon listening to Lyman before a sunset swim at Kaimana Beach.

Of course, I was late in coming to this music and caught the Lyman of later years. The vibraphonist had his incredible heyday in the late 1950s and early '60s -- before I was born -- and his contributions were nearly forgotten by subsequent generations. The '90s did see a significant resurgence, with the CD reissue of Lyman's best albums and a thirst for all things exotically hip. But the deeper cultural resonance of his music often goes unnoted. To Americans of a certain age and disposition, it was -- and still is -- the sound of Hawaii.

Art TALKING STORY after a gig in January 2000, Lyman reminisced about "the old, old days" of his childhood, first on Kauai and then in Honolulu. "I wanted to be a fireman," he recalled. "I used to hang around the fire station in Makiki."

But his father, who was blind, insisted that young Arthur pursue a life in music. At age 8, he made his public debut playing marimba on KGMB radio's "Listerine Amateur Hour." This was around the time that he joined his father and brother in playing USO shows on the bases at Kaneohe and Pearl Harbor.

"In fact," he said, "we played on the aircraft carrier (USS) Hornet when it came into Pearl Harbor. We used to do things like 'Rose Room,' 'Honeysuckle Rose' -- you know, the old songs."

In his teens, Lyman joined a group called the Gadabouts, playing vibes in the cool-jazz style then in vogue. "I was working at Leroy's, a little nightclub down by Kakaako. I was making about $60 a week, working Monday to Saturday, from 9 to 2 in the morning, and then I'd go to school. So it was kind of tough."

After graduating from McKinley High School in 1951, he put music on hold to work as a desk clerk at the Halekulani Hotel. It was there that he met pianist Martin Denny, who offered him a spot in his band. Initially wary, Lyman was persuaded by the numbers: He was making $280 a month as a clerk, and Denny promised more than $100 a week.

LYMAN PLAYED an integral part in the Martin Denny sound, a sort of instrumental pop seasoned with ethnic instruments and jungle noises (birdcalls were a Lyman specialty). The group won quick renown in the islands.

"We started at Don the Beachcomber," Lyman said. "Then when Henry Kaiser built the (Hilton) Hawaiian Village, we played at the Shell Bar." That same year, 1957, saw the smash success of Denny's album "Exotica" -- and Lyman's resignation from the band. He was striking out on his own.

Otto von Stroheim, co-editor of Tiki News, has observed: "If Martin Denny was the haole link to Hawaiian exotica, Arthur Lyman was the Hawaiian link between Pacific Rim exotica and American jazz."

Although an oversimplification, the statement does explain a fundamental difference between the two musicians. Lyman's group -- featuring bassist John Kramer, pianist Alan Soares and percussionist Harold Chang -- heeded a jazz impulse more intently, aspiring to create music that transcended merely exotic appeal. And they received almost immediate attention for it; mere months after the group's inception, producer-engineer Richard Vaughn heard about Lyman's eclectic sound and flew to Honolulu to make an album, using his revolutionary new high-fidelity ("Hi-fi") recording technique.

Vaughn recorded Lyman's group onstage in the Henry J. Kaiser Aluminum Dome, the space-age auditorium near the Hilton's entrance. Hi-fi, a crude precursor to stereo sound, required the musicians to run across the stage midsong to switch microphones for a stereo effect. This made for some frantic moments. And Lyman described another hassle: having to record in the early morning hours, when traffic outside was light.

"Alan had a solo on 'Miserlou,'" he recalled. "Oh, man! We did 20 takes, and on one he played it perfect. But at the end, this milk truck went going by: Brrrrrrraaaaugggh! Richard Vaughn said, 'We've got to cut that out.' I said, 'Leave it in.' So if you listen carefully, you can hear one milk truck in the background."

"TABOO," LYMAN'S debut, was released on Vaughn's HiFi label early in 1958 and immediately became an international hit, spending 62 weeks on the Billboard charts and peaking at No. 4. The album's innovative pseudo-stereo sound was a contributing factor to its early success, as was its provocative cover art. I'll never forget seeing it at age 12, during my first drum lesson with Harold Chang at Harry's Music in Kaimuki. Harold had decorated the soundproofed walls of his practice studio with posters and magazine articles, and I learned my first bossa nova with my eyes glued to the "Taboo" album cover: lava flowing in fluorescent rivulets.

But the most important thing was the music, as Lyman and company proved repeatedly during many subsequent tours, television appearances and albums. While the group's core repertoire consisted of songs associated with the islands -- "Sweet Leilani," "Mapuana," "Akaka Falls" -- it also encompassed ethnic material from around the Pacific Rim (a highlight of "Taboo" is the Filipino folk song "Dahil Sayo"). In this regard the group could be considered a precursor to what we now call world music. And Lyman's jazz sensibilities were no joke; listen to a lightly swinging "Song of the Islands," from the "Hawaiian Sunset" album, and it's hard not to think of the George Shearing Quintet.

"Taboo" and "Hawaiian Sunset" are two of a handful of albums originally recorded on HiFi and reissued on the Rykodisc label, and many younger listeners have rediscovered Lyman on CD. This is great news, but it doesn't mitigate the fact that the Arthur Lyman experience was really something to behold in person.

"It all had to be done live," said Chang, who bore the brunt of the percussive busywork. "The stage looked like part of Harry's Music Store: We had huge chimes, we had huge gongs; everything was on stage."

And the fast pace of the show was musically and physically demanding. "My right hand was doing one thing, and my left was doing another," Chang said. "Each of us played about six instruments, and in the course of a tune, we would change instruments every two or three beats -- that's why I couldn't ever sit down."

Add to this hectic pace the demands of a frequently changing repertoire; the show never stayed the same for very long. Lyman recalled how they would occasionally augment the Hawaiian songs with "heavy" pieces, such as Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," interpreted in their unmistakable style.

LYMAN'S PERFORMANCE schedule in recent years had been purposely light. He received occasional offers for big reunion tours, especially in Japan, but chose to stay close to home, playing his weekly gigs at the New Otani and the Oahu Country Club. I worried last July when I called the New Otani and was told that he hadn't played in a while.

His passing last Sunday -- he died at St. Francis' Hospice after a long struggle with throat cancer -- comes as no surprise but leaves a hole in the heart nonetheless. Lyman was one of the few remaining windows to another era, just before and after statehood: the golden age of tourism, when Hawaii was just finding a place in a larger world. Much has disappeared from that era, and Lyman now joins that list. There's no question that I'll miss his good humor and friendly smile the next time I come home. Fortunately, he left us some remarkable music to remember him by.

Arthur Lyman with daughter Kapiolani, left, and another dancer in the 1970s.

A fond aloha to a local music legend

Hundreds of Arthur Lyman's friends, family members and fans crowded the Honolulu Elks Lodge yesterday morning to pay their respects to the musician, who died Feb. 24 at the age of 70.

Lyman's music was used in last year's remake of "Ocean's Eleven." The soundtrack includes his quartet's swinging jazz-lounge version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan."

Lloyd Kandell of the lounge collective Don Tiki said the group plans to honor Lyman during its shows at 9 and 11 p.m. March 15 and 16 at the Hawaiian Hut. Tickets are $20 and will be available starting tomorrow at all Borders Books and Music, Tower Records, and Cheapo Books and Music stores, and at the University of Hawaii-Manoa Campus Center. They will also be sold at the door. Call 941-5205.

Nate Chinen, who grew up in Honolulu, is a music writer for the Philadelphia City Paper. His features have also appeared in Down Beat, JazzTimes and the Pennsylvania Gazette. He lives in New York City.

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