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Gabe Baltazar, alto saxophonist and flutist who carved a path for Asian-American jazz, is dead at 92

Gabe Baltazar on flute, performing in Honolulu, Hawaii during the early 1980s.
Ron Hudson
Courtesy of Wayne de Silva
Gabe Baltazar on flute, performing in Honolulu, Hawaii during the early 1980s.

Gabe Baltazar, a saxophonist, flutist and woodwind specialist who blazed a postwar trail for Asian-American musicians, enjoying a decades-long tenure as the most accomplished jazz artist from Hawaii, died on June 12 at his home in Waialua.

He was 92. His brother, Ronald, said he died of natural causes.

During a musical career that spanned seven decades, Baltazar exemplified the brisk articulacy and dartlike phrasing of modern jazz, principally as an alto saxophonist fluent in the dialect of Charlie Parker. His sterling capabilities as both a lead player and a soloist earned him a prominent role in the Stan Kenton Orchestra of the 1960s.

Baltazar appears on roughly a dozen Kenton albums from that era, including Cuban Fire! (in its expanded edition, featuring a choice solo on "Wagon") and Kenton’s West Side Story, which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance – Large Group in 1962.

Adventures in Jazz, which took the same award in ’63, includes a version of “Stairway to the Stars” that Kenton commissioned expressly to feature Baltazar as a soloist. The arrangement, by Bill Holman, gives him an opportunity to shine first as an expressive balladeer and then, after the tempo doubles at 2:40, as a bebop thoroughbred.

Among Baltazar’s other mainland credits were a stretch with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, and section work on albums by the composer-arrangers Oliver Nelson and Gil Fuller. He made his debut as a leader in 1979, with Stan Kenton Presents Gabe Baltazar, recorded months before Kenton’s death; it features a big band conducted by Don Menza, with Baltazar spotlighted in a saxophone section alongside Bud Shank and Bob Cooper, among others.

By that time, Baltazar had returned to Hawaii, becoming assistant director of the venerable Royal Hawaiian Band, and establishing a preeminent role within a small but robust local jazz scene. In addition to playing with musicians of his immediate peer group, he served as a mentor to the next generation, notably when he formed a quartet with three players just out of high school. Those musicians — pianist Carl Wakeland, bassist Benny Rietveld and drummer Noel Okimoto — all went on to notable careers. (Full disclosure: for several years in the early ‘90s, I studied privately with Okimoto.)

In the islands, Baltazar cut a familiar figure in his trademark flat cap, glasses and goatee, exuding a cosmopolitan air even as he remained distinctly local. “Jazz is American music, it’s democratic,” he told Honolulu magazine in 2006. “It’s always combined all the different ethnic musical genres of America, so it can take in Hawaiian and Japanese and whatever else... You’ll hear some Okinawan scales in my music, and some Japanese pentatonic scales and traditional blues scales — everything!”

Gabriel Ruiz Hiroshi Baltazar, Jr. was born in Hilo, Hawaii on Nov. 1, 1929. His father, Gabriel Sr., was a Filipino multi-reedist who had moved to Hawaii from Manila with a musical group, and worked in dance halls. His mother, Chiyoko Haraga, was born on the ʻOlaʻa sugar plantation, where her family had toiled since their immigration from Kumamoto, Japan near the turn of the century.

Baltazar, the oldest of four children, took after his father musically, starting out on an E-flat clarinet before picking up the saxophone. He was in middle school when the bombing of Pearl Harbor kicked off the United States’ involvement in the Second World War, which ended up bringing a number of bands through the islands on USO tours.

One that still stood out years later was the Artie Shaw Orchestra. “They were stationed in Pearl Harbor, and they performed in Waikiki Beach," Baltazar told Heidi Chang, for a 2013 profile on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. “And there [was] barbed wire fence on the beach at that time, because this was World War II. And I used to crawl under the barbed wire, crawl under the sand and listen to the band.”

Growing up in the Kalihi-Palama neighborhood of Honolulu, Baltazar attended Washington Intermediate and McKinley High School. Then he enrolled at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Md., where he studied for two years before dropping out. During a visit to New York during this time, after the war, Baltazar met Charlie Parker at the Royal Roost, finding inspiration at the source. His heroes on alto saxophone up to that point had been Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges, but Parker’s genius proved irresistible to him, as it was to many in his generation.

An undated photo of Gabe Baltazar with the Stan Kenton Orchestra
UNT Music Library
An undated photo of Gabe Baltazar with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, part of the Stan Kenton Collection at UNT.

Baltazar served in the United States Army for several years during the Korean War. Among the fellow soldiers he befriended was another Asian-American musician interested in jazz, a drummer named Paul Togawa. After the war, when Baltazar moved to Los Angeles, he joined a band led by Togawa, playing at spots like the El Sereno Club. In 1957, Togawa made an album for Mode Records titled Paul Togawa Quartet Featuring Gabe Baltazar — the saxophonist’s auspicious debut on record, and a landmark statement for Asian-American jazz at the time.

Soon Baltazar was referred to Kenton, whose lead alto chair had previously been occupied by the likes of Lee Konitz, Bud Shank, Art Pepper, and Lennie Niehaus. His tenure in the band was highly productive, its success fueled not only by Baltazar’s savvy as a soloist but also his strength as a section leader, bolstered by technical facility on an array of reeds and flutes.

That same set of skills made Baltazar a valuable player on the Los Angeles recording scene, and in various television studio orchestras. And when Elvis Presley performed a major concert live via satellite from Honolulu in 1973, Baltazar was in the band — and in tight closeup, during his flute solo on “An American Trilogy” (just before the three-minute mark in this clip).

Baltazar received a welcome flurry of attention with the 2012 publication of an autobiography, If It Swings, It’s Music, written with Theo Garneau. Filled with more scholarly detail than a conventional as-told-to memoir, it’s a vivid portrait of a musician as well as the culture he inhabited, for better and for worse. “Gabe's one of the pioneers of Asian-Americans in jazz,” Garneau told Chang, for Weekend Morning Edition. “Sometimes people say, ‘What difference does it make if he's Asian-American or not?’ And I think it’s important to remember that there was a lot of exclusion going on in Los Angeles and across the mainland.”

Besides his brother Ronald, Baltazar is survived only by an adopted son, Scott Baltazar, and a number of nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by another brother, Norman, and a sister, Doris Choy.

Declining health removed Baltazar from active circulation within the last decade. “Five years ago, he was already in a long-term care hospital, the Wahiawa General Hospital,” says Ronald. “He was playing flute for people coming in, to provide entertainment. They had a piano there, so he was playing the piano, too. He really loved to play, until he just couldn’t blow anymore.”

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.