Music is the Bassist/Vocalist’s Passion
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“The very thought of you, makes my heart sing, like an April breeze on the wings of spring . . .”
It is dinner hour at “53 by the Sea,” the upscale bistro overlooking Waikïkï, and Bruce Hamada’s voice is floating ethereally across the dining room as elegant, well-heeled customers hover over their meals.
“I give myself in sweet surrender, my one and only love . . .”
Hamada’s palette is the great American songbook and he sings of heartbreak, loss, the unforgettable optimism of youth and the gentle knowing of growing older. Tucked away in the corner of the restaurant, Hamada and his longtime musical collaborator, pianist Jim Howard, weave together the melodies of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern while his audience savors the last fading glimpses of Diamond Head at sunset.
“It’s hard when nobody is listening or when only a few people are in the room, but I have a passion for what I do and it’s the best part of me,” says the bassist/vocalist.
The son of a professional jazz musician who made ends meet by playing with the Royal Hawaiian Band, Hamada was raised on the furious bebop improvisations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as the timeless music of Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Nat King Cole.
“My dad was a drummer who played with jazz acts who passed through Hawai‘i and he would take me along to gigs.”
Through his father, Hamada met local jazz greats like Buddy Rich and Rene Paulo, who changed his life forever by allowing him to imagine a possible future if he dreamed big enough.
“The music business was not tied to any corporate roots back then, so it was vibrant and alive,” remembers Hamada. “All the big shows required bands, so all the musicians were working.”
As a teenager, Hamada studied under Wayne DeMello, a progressive jazz mentor who had been trained at Northwestern University. “He entered our high school band in the Reno International Jazz Festival and introduced us to a much bigger world: That was when the fire was really lit for me.”
Hamada, who began as a trombonist, taught himself the electric bass and entered the University of Hawai‘i, where he at first aspired to study medicine. In no time, however, he found himself drawn to jazz-flavored rock bands such as Chicago and Tower of Power, who were dominating the record charts with a heady blend of music that featured powerful horn sections and unforgettable melodies.
After two years, Hamada left UH and began getting gigs through his father in Waikïkï. “I couldn’t sit still. Too much was happening and it was difficult to sit in a classroom when there was so much I wanted to do.”
Hamada started his own Waikïkï disco band and toured the West Coast and Canada, all before he was 20. “I thought we were going to make it, but, unlike me, most of the guys saw this as a temporary thing before they moved on to ‘real life.’”
Within two years the band broke up and Hamada was again looking for work. He landed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and worked steadily through the ’80s and up to the present in studios, clubs, showrooms and concert halls throughout the world.
Hamada succeeded, even though as an Asian American jazz musician he had to fight a particularly tough uphill battle in order to survive.
“To be an Asian, you are on the third rung. You are not accepted as a true artist by either the whites or the blacks,” says Hamada. “I learned how visual the music business is. You don’t see people who look like me in the industry and, as a result, Asians are relegated to the sidelines.”
Despite these obstacles, Hamada forged a reputation as an extraordinary musician and the quintessential accompanist when major acts passing through Hawai‘i were in need of a first-rate bass player.
By the 1990s, the music scene had begun to change, however, and the opportunities that were once so prevalent began to disappear. Today, jazz is the lowest-selling category, even below classical music. The reasons are complicated: The music isn’t being promoted, and with the internet, people don’t have to pay for music. To Hamada, this is a sacrilege that troubles him about the future of America’s true cultural past.
“Jazz is America’s classical music because it is our only original contribution to the musical world. Jazz was invented by blacks, and people don’t respect it because of this. The best guys are black because they say so much more because of what they went through,” says the 60-year-old yonsei. “All the greats had something to say. Their music is still standing, but it’s not being supported.” As a result, Hamada believes the musical tree of jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong is dying.
“The musical language is going because the stories are going. In jazz, the best lessons can only be learned on the bandstand, because the music is fleeting and spontaneous and can only be passed down person to person.”
In order to survive, Hamada realized he had to become a singer in order to add value to what he had to offer as a musician. “My model was Sinatra, because when he sang, he sounded like he was singing just to you. The lyrics and the music of the song sounded like they were written just for you, even though the room was filled with other people.”
Hamada’s own voice is filled with the subtleties and craftsmanship of a storyteller. Encumbered with a limited vocal range, he understands the importance of pacing, phrasing, timing and inflection. As a result, his audience is treated to a master class in a style of singing of a bygone era, when appreciating the lyrics was just as important as hearing the melody. “If you are a professional, you have to be able to do the same thing twice, because you are only as good as your last bad performance.”
The dinner crowd begins to stir as Hamada’s set comes to an end. Patrons begin to leave quietly, moving on to their next party or simply leaving for home. “I have to feel like I have said something every time I play,” says Hamada as he begins to pack up. “If I’m not moved, then no one else in the room will be affected, either.”
This past August marked 43 years since Hamada became a professional musician and he sees no end to his journey in the near future.
“I have to surprise myself every night. If you’re phoning it in, how is anyone else going to understand what you’re feeling?” concludes Hamada. “I can listen to certain songs till the day I die, and music can take me to the best place I can be, and I can’t turn it off. I don’t have a choice.”
Hamada is ready to leave after a long night. He has a 14-year-old daughter at home, so he has a day job that starts in the early morning that he must prepare for later that evening.
“Very few musicians make it out of this business unscathed, so it’s a double-edged sword. But if you play it safe, your music will be meaningless. Great music comes out of great suffering or great joy. If you want to play it safe, you shouldn’t be playing jazz.”
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.