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If It Swings, It's Music

The Autobiography of Hawai‘i’s Gabe Baltazar Jr.

Gabe Baltazar with Theo Garneau

Publication Year: 2012

Hawai‘i’s legendary jazz musician Gabe Baltazar Jr. has thrilled audiences since the late 1940s with his powerful and passionate playing. In this, the first book on his life and career, Gabe takes readers through the highs, lows, and in-betweens on the long road to becoming one of the very few Asian Americans who has achieved national and international acclaim as a jazz artist. 

Born in 1929 to a Japanese mother and Filipino father, Gabe was largely raised by his maternal grandparents, but at a young age his father, an accomplished musician, encouraged his son to take up the clarinet and saxophone. As a teenager during World War II, Gabe performed with the Royal Hawaiian Band and played weekend dances with Filipino swing bands. By the mid-1950s, he had established himself in the West Coast jazz scene, and in 1960 he became the lead alto saxophonist of the influential Stan Kenton Orchestra. Following a four-year stint with Kenton, Gabe worked as a valued studio musician in Los Angeles, where he recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Oliver Nelson, James Moody, and countless others. In 1969 he returned to Honolulu as assistant director for the Royal Hawaiian Band while taking center stage as Hawaiʻi’s premier jazz artist, a role he admirably fulfilled for over forty years. At 83, Gabe remains active in jazz education and continued to perform at home and abroad until 2010.

Gabe is one of a legion of Hawai‘i musicians who migrated to the Mainland after the war, yet his is the only detailed, firsthand account of that experience. As the quintessential musician’s musician, his reminiscences of working as a valued sideman and studio musician in the years when big bands were disappearing and studio orchestras were being replaced by synthesizers comprise a singular account of jazz in the last half of the twentieth century. His memorable encounters with some of the greatest names in jazz and popular entertainment will delight music fans, while readers of Hawai‘i and Asian-American life-writing will find in this work a fond record of days past told with humor and heart.

12 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Front Cover

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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xviii

This is the story of a child who dreamed of becoming a cartoonist but became a musician; of a musician who started on a clarinet but first performed on a tenor sax; of a young tenor player who became a legendary alto player; and of a passionate combo player who became internationally known for his work in a big band. Perhaps, then, it’s part of a larger pattern that this “autobiography” of...


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pp. xix-xxii

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Chapter 1 Early Years

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pp. 1-41

I was born in Hilo. Wait, but first, I gotta say it. My name is Gabriel Ruiz Baltazar Junior. And sometimes I have a little middle Japanese name which is not on my birth certificate, but they call me Hiroshi, because prior to World War II, I used to go to Japanese school. After American school. These are just some of...

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Chapter 2 Music Becomes a Profession, Gabe a Pro

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pp. 42-68

Well, when I won the contest I was surprised. I never expected to. I don’t expect anything, anyway. And I was in shock, I guess. Then, later on, I just realized, hey, you know, you’re going to the mainland. You’re going to Michigan, to the famous Interlochen music camp where young aspiring musicians go in the summer. And they still do. I got my things together and went to the airport...

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Chapter 3 Blowing Alto in the City of the Angels

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pp. 69-89

Fall semester, 1956, I enrolled with my GI Bill of Rights as a music major at LACC, Los Angeles City College. I signed up to take all kind of stuff— history, psychology, biology, and so on—but I was there for the music.
I went—I think my brother Norman told me about it first—because they had a stage band program, a jazz program. See, in addition to preparing you for a regular four-year degree in music, they had a commercial curriculum where...

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Chapter 4 1961—An Incredible Year

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pp. 90-119

Now, 1961 was an incredible year. From the time we started to record with the new mellophonium section in February, till late in December, when we recorded three albums for Stan’s Adventures series and called it a day, we did so much traveling and recording, so much was going on, that it was like we never stopped moving. Or playing. Or slept...

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Chapter 5 Scrambling ’64–’65

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pp. 120-145

Well, I got off the road, end of 1963. I wasn’t doing anything, and some guy asked me if I’d like to go to Phoenix and do some Broadway shows, so I say, yeah, okay. So, back on the road, I took the job because I could play clarinet, flute, piccolo, and, like always, I wanted to work on my doubles. Plus, it paid okay, union gig and all. So I spent ten weeks, two weeks for every show, five different...

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Chapter 6 Back Home

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pp. 146-175

I played my last gig for CBS and Glen Campbell on February 23, 1969, and I played my first gig for the Royal Hawaiian Band on March 1, 1969: one week to change gears, clear out, fly to Hawai‘i, and start playing with the folks back home.
Now don’t forget I played in the band in the ’40s and ’50s, so I had all kind of memories. Good memories, like my dad finally getting a steady job with that band, and Domenico Moro helping me win the Interlochen contest in 1947. Of...

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Chapter 7 Retire? Hah!

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pp. 176-200

And when I retired, I told a writer for one of the newspapers that I was going to spend the rest of my days playing jazz, and that’s pretty much been the story. I probably should have mentioned that I’d be playing golf, too, because that’s still a sport I love, even if I keep my handicap pretty high...

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Outtakes: Gabe on Music, Playing, Practicing, and Stan Kenton

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pp. 201-208

Of all the solos I’ve recorded, I don’t have a favorite. Everybody asks me if I have a favorite, and I say not really. I’m very critical of my playing. I’m never satisfied. Well, there were some that I’d listen to. Maybe some of the things from Birdology. I kind of like some of those things. They felt pretty good. “The Wind”...

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pp. 209-210

Works Consulted

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pp. 211-216


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pp. 217-224

About the Authors, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780824865702
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835590

Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 809317572
MUSE Marc Record: Download for If It Swings, It's Music

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Subject Headings

  • Jazz musicians -- Biography.
  • Saxophonists -- Hawaii -- Biography.
  • Baltazar, Gabe.
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