Whenever one thinks of Hawaii, images of sun-drenched beaches and swaying palm trees invariably come to mind. Yet, although few musicians would view Honolulu as a major music center, some very fine jazz can be heard in the Islands. Propelling much of that music is drummer Noel Okimoto.
At 28, Okimoto is a seasoned veteran of the Honolulu music scene. From 1977 to 1982, he was a member of ex-Stan Kenton band lead altoist Gabe Baltazar’s quintet. During this period, he also earned a Bachelor of Music Performance degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In recent years, Okimoto has accumulated an impressive list of credits including performances with Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Richie Cole, Bill Watrous, Bud Shank, Lew Tabackin, and Wynton Marsalis.
In addition to being a virtuoso at the drumset, Okimoto is also an accomplished orchestral percussionist, jazz vibist, and composer. Recently, just prior to an engagement with Freddie Hubbard, MD spoke to Noel about the Hawaii jazz scene, Noel’s musical influences, and his goals for the future.
IW: How did you get involved with the drums?
NO: When I was ten years old, my dad, George Okimoto, who was playing drums full-time, went into the hospital for back surgery. While he was in the hospital, there was a talent show at my elementary school and, although I don’t know for what reason, I signed up. After I had signed up, I thought to myself, “Now what am I going to do?” I decided that I was going to play the drums.
My dad had his drums set up at home, and he had told us not to mess with them. But while he wasn’t at home, I would sit down and play. I developed to the point where I could play enough for the show.
Then I asked my mom to ask my dad if I could use the drumset for the talent show. When she did, he nearly had a heart attack, [laughs] But he said okay.
My older brother took me and the drums to school. I didn’t even know how to set the kit up; I just sort of pieced it together. I played with a Young Rascals record and with a bossa nova record that my dad had recorded with Herb Ohta, the ukulele player. And that was that; it was the start.
When my dad got out of the hospital, he asked me to play for him. I played the bossa nova, and he asked me, “How did you learn that?” I told him I learned from listening to him. I guess he saw that a kid who could learn something like that on his own might have potential. He asked me if I wanted to learn, and I said yes, not really knowing what I was getting into—especially from a parent. I mean, some parents can’t even teach their kids how to drive, so learning how to play a musical instrument that way can really be treacherous. But I learned fast. I had to, for my life!
IW: What types of things did your dad cover with you at that early age?
NO: Functional things: How to play various different rhythms, a certain amount of technique, and musical form—like when to fill after four- or eight-bar phrases. It was really good training in the beginning. He would actually sing the melody of tunes while playing a particular beat he was showing me, and then do a drum fill. So I got into the habit of hearing musical drumming in the sense of phrases.
IW: Did drumming seem to come easy for you?
NO: I guess it did come a little easy, although I wasn’t really conscious of it. What didn’t come easy for me was reading. My dad tried to teach me how to read music in a systematic way by breaking it down mathematically. But I guess at that point, I was just into playing the drums, so he sort of gave up on teaching me how to read.
I learned how to read out of necessity when I got into intermediate school. I had auditioned for the 7th grade band. But I guess the band director realized that I could play a little better than most of the other kids, because he put me in the 8th grade concert band. I was really happy, but when I went to class I realized, “Wow, what did I get myself into?” I didn’t even read music.
However, I did meet two guys who, besides being good readers, turned out to be excellent concert percussionists. They played all the different instruments, whereas I basically just played the drumset. So they would take me to the back room and show me rudiments. It was really nice because they had a more formal background, which they offered to me. They didn’t play drumset, so that’s what I had to offer them.
Since I couldn’t read at that point, they would teach me the songs. I would look at a piece of snare drum music while one of the guys played it, and memorize the part. I would look at a figure and visually associate that figure with what he played. After a while, I started relating how certain figures looked to how they sounded. Eventually, the two came together, and that’s how I learned how to read in the beginning.
IW: How did your first gig come about?
NO: After three months of instruction from my dad, he went back to work with his casual band, and I went with him. He would even let me sit in and play a couple of tunes. Within a month after I started going to the gigs, the bandleader hired me to replace my dad, who was going to play with another band. These were musicians my dad’s age, while I was only 11. I had to join the union, get a child labor permit and a liquor commission permit for each job I played. They went through a lot of hassles to have me in the band.
IW: What kind of things did you practice back then?
NO: When I had just started playing, I got to see Roy Burns in a clinic. Roy is not only one of the great drummers, but also one of the great clinicians. His approach is very clear and practical, especially from a developmental standpoint. My dad had taken some lessons from Roy, so he had some of Roy’s teachings in mind. I concentrated on relaxation and getting good wrist turns. When I got into intermediate school, I started working on rudiments and reading rudimental drum solos. As far as drumset goes, I just played, because it’s a real jazz instrument and that’s what you do. I’d listen to my favorite drummers and try to play what they played. Very early on, my dad, who liked drum solos, encouraged me to listen to them and try to work them out. Of course, the primary concern was playing with the band. But he also told me to work on soloing, because he felt that, if you become a good soloist and a good team player, then you have both going for you. Some people just don’t develop solo style and technique, whereas some people develop it very naturally. It came naturally for me, but it was a conscious thing; I liked drum solos and listened to a lot of them.
IW: How did you get interested in jazz?
NO: I was always attracted to things that were different or a little more involved. So that just led me to listen to my dad’s jazz records.
IW: What jazz drummers did you listen to?
NO: Buddy Rich was the first, and to this day, he is a major influence on me. My dad also had a big Dave Brubeck collection, so I eventually got into Joe Morello. Both of these drummers are phenomenal technicians who play with a lot of clarity, and the music they were playing was accessible. Then it became a process of evolution. Music that I didn’t appreciate then, I appreciate now, and that also goes for certain drummers. I remember buying my first Miles Davis album, when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, because I had read about Tony Williams. It was E.S.P., which I think was the first quintet album with Wayne Shorter. I put that album on, and it was like, “Wow, what is this?”
So it was a progressive thing. As I matured, I began to appreciate drummers who had more depth. Not that other drummers didn’t; it’s just where you’re at at the time.
IW: So you would say that Buddy Rich, Joe Morello, and Tony Williams were your primary influences?
NO: I would say primary, but there were a lot more—especially recently. I go through periods where I’ll listen to one drummer a lot. After I listened to that Miles Davis album, I read that Alan Dawson had taught Tony Williams. So I went out and looked for Alan Dawson records. He was recording with Brubeck at that time, so I bought those albums. I was very much impressed. Then I started buying other albums with Alan on them, like some Booker Ervin albums that leaned more towards Coltrane-type music. Again, it was phenomenal drumming. So for a while, I just listened to Alan. When the fusion movement hit in the ’70s, I was influenced by all the fusion drummers. Billy Cobham, especially, was a major influence.
It’s funny, but as you progress in your musical development, you go back to find out why drummers played a certain way at a certain time. So even though I was into fusion, I started going back. I started to listen to the things that Tony Williams did with Miles, and to Miles’ group before that, with Philly Joe Jones.
I also listened to Roy Haynes and Max Roach. All of them were incredible stylists who really typified the playing of the bebop period. If you’re talking about that type of drumming, you have to listen to those guys. There’s no getting around it. And I went even further back than that.
Then you pick up little things from drummers that you might only hear once or twice. For the most part, if the player is good, there is something that you can use. Sometimes I’ll remember just one little thing after hearing a drummer perform, and not necessarily because I focused in on it at the time.
I remember seeing Woody Shaw’s band in San Francisco with Victor Lewis playing drums. I knew who Victor was through records, but when I saw him live, it was one of the most moving experiences. He’s just a phenomenal jazz drummer. What I picked up from him was basically more of a conceptual thing. To see that style of playing is sometimes more revealing than listening to records.
I remember hearing Bobby Hutcherson here, with Eddie Moore on drums. There was a certain thing that he did with the bass drum and hi-hat that I picked up—just a specific thing that I use now in my playing. It’s those little things that you pick up here and there that broaden your musical vocabulary.
IW: I hear a lot of Gadd in your playing.
NO: Well, you can’t deny his influence. He works in basically a studio or commercial setting where you’re at the service of other people and trying to please them, which he does. Yet, he is still able to do things that nobody else has done before. He’s just an incredible player on the instrument.
IW: How about the jazz scene in Hawaii? Is there much happening here?
NO: The jazz scene here, like in many cities, exists around a small number of people that play the music, and an even smaller number of people that want to give the music a chance to be heard. That doesn’t sound real positive, so it’s really not a thriving thing.
Back in 1977, I started playing with Gabe Baltazar, who I consider to be one of the greatest jazz musicians ever. We were playing three nights a week at Kats-O, a small club in Honolulu. I was just out of high school, and it was a thrill for me to be playing with a musician like Gabe—just an incredible learning experience. In 1978, we started at the Cavalier, playing six nights a week, and it took off. It was just about that time that jazz became really popular in Hawaii. We had three or four radio stations playing jazz and jazz concerts week after week. It was great.
But after a while, all of that died down, which sort of shows that it was a faddish kind of thing: People jumped on the bandwagon because it was hip to do it. But it was good though, because at least some people were exposed to the music.
So now it’s down to the hardcore people who really love it—fans or musicians. That’s the extent of it.
IW: So why do you choose to stay in Hawaii?
NO: From when I first started playing, I always knew that eventually I would have to leave, and I still hold that feeling. Initially, when I finished high school, I planned to go off to a mainland college. But when that time came around, I wasn’t ready personally to leave, so I went to school here. I have no regrets, because I learned things that I didn’t know. If you learn, then it’s a positive thing. I was able to go to school full-time and play full-time with one of the world’s great jazz musicians.
My association with Gabe ended in 1982, and for about three years, I had to learn about the business. When I left Gabe’s group, it was like being thrown out on the streets. For a moment, I was paranoid. I was living on my own, I had my degree, and I was thinking, “What am I going to do now?” Then the phone started ringing. When people find out that you’re available and that you can do a good job, they will call. Of course, since then I haven’t done a real full-time jazz gig. But what I did learn was how to broaden my playing and my possibilities. I’ve learned how to survive in this business. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to make a living as a drummer in a place like Hawaii, which is pretty difficult.
IW: What kind of kit are you using?
NO: I have a Gretsch power-tom set, which I got basically to round out my equipment. It goes without saying that Gretsch has always been associated with jazz drumming, but it’s really a great set for anything. I also have a Yamaha Recording Custom set, which is also a beautiful set.
IW: What about cymbals?
NO: When Zildjian came out with the new K line, I kind of fell in love with that sound, and that’s what I’ve been playing recently.
IW: What do you consider to be some of the greatest musical moments you’ve ever had?
NO: I guess playing in the most challenging situations. I remember once playing in an orchestra with two other percussionists for a presentation of Abel Gance’s 1927 silent film Napoleon. Carmine Coppola had written a score for it, which also, included excerpts from Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He was also conducting. We had one rehearsal, and Coppola, being who he is, expected only the very best from the orchestra. He’s not the most patient man in the world and wanted things right. So that was a big challenge, and it turned out well.
A different kind of challenge would be playing with the jazz greats. But to me, that’s easy because it’s the music that I grew up listening to and always wanted to play. So playing with people like Lew Tabackin, Richie Cole, Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, or Bobby Hutcherson were all great moments that were easy for me; it was fun.
IW: Considering your facility on all of the percussion instruments, did you ever consider orchestral percussion work as a possible career?
NO: I think I was more serious about that possibility in high school, when, due to the influence of my band director, Henry Miyamura—who is now with the Honolulu Symphony—I wanted to become a timpanist. When I got into college, I really got seriously into mallets. I studied jazz vibes and classical marimba, and actually performed on both. And though today I realize that my dreams of being a concert marimbist were delusions of grandeur, I don’t think I’ll ever let my mallet playing go. But as I got into the business, I realized that what I was really best at was playing the drums, so that determined my path.
IW: What are your plans for the future?
NO: Well, I’m definitely going to the mainland. Since this is such a small musical community, after a while you just sort of recycle. You end up doing the same thing with the same people—which is not bad if that’s what you want; there are fine players here. It’s home, and, to me, the most beautiful place in the world. But as far as my career is concerned, I have to move on. And I feel more than ready. I have enough experience, and I know a lot more about the business part—which is something you really have to be aware of. I have sort of an idea of where that’s at, and I’ve played with enough world-class artists to know where I’m at.
What I’d like to do is try to go after those challenges that I mentioned that make me feel good as a player—whether it’s the challenge of a studio situation, or just burning with jazz artists and playing very creative music. I hope to encompass all of that.