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Dec 01st
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One Busy Slacker

music_KenEmersonjazzThe Santa Cruz Jazz Festival will run 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, March 26-27, at Cabrillo College

Ken Emerson brings the islands to this year’s Santa Cruz Jazz Festival

The last time Ken Emerson performed in town, it was the ‘70s and he was sharing an informal public stage with a historical figure. Back then he was studying art history and psychology at Cabrillo College and frequenting Pacific Avenue for busking sessions with some other notable locals—including one saw player, Tom Scribner. Yes, the saw player now immortalized with a statue in front of Bookshop Santa Cruz.

“In the mid-‘70s [the Pacific Avenue mall] was incredible and Santa Cruz was so happening!” Emerson remembers, his voice blown out from a Bay Area gig the night before our chat. “I played out there on guitar, Tom played saw, and another guy played plectrum guitar. Tom knew all these Hawaiian songs from the 1915 period so I learned quite a bit of Hawaiian music from him. I owe a lot to that guy.”

Whether he owes a lot to Scribner or his own mother who first introduced him to the ukulele at the age of 7 (“my hands were really small so I was only able to play the ukulele—I call the ukulele the perfect introduction to playing guitar”), Emerson has since spent his life globe trotting with the kind of slack key guitar skills that have added a Grammy to his ever-changing mantle. In 2005, Emerson’s original compositions on Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2 won him the first Grammy Award for Hawaiian music. Two years later he appeared on Donald Fagen’s Grammy-winning Morph the Cat album.

Now, four decades since his start on the streets of Santa Cruz, the 57-year-old is returning to his alma mater to present a Master Class on Hawaiian jazz at Cabrillo College during this year’s Santa Cruz Jazz Festival on Friday and Saturday, March 26-27.

Hold up, Hawaiian music at an annual jazz affair that’s luring 63 jazz big bands, 23 combos and 16 jazz vocal ensembles? While naysayers may question the pairing, Emerson understands how the inclusion of some colorful aloha spirit is only natural.

“A lot of people think Hawaiian music is just tourist stuff, and then they discover how so many great genres infiltrated it,” he begins. “In the late 1800s it was classical music, then early blues and ragtime—there wasn’t a steel guitar player that didn’t play St. Louis blues in the early 1920s period. Then it was jazz in the 1920s and swing in the ‘30s. Everything that was happening popular-wise influenced Hawaiian music.” And Emerson’s own cross-bred resume reflects such a musical mish mash.

Having lived in New Orleans in the early ‘80s, Emerson studied jazz with some original old-timers, playing with trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine and hitting the road with pianist David Paquette. Before long he went on to tackle the blues with Charlie Musselwhite in California. He’s played festivals with Tahitians in France, where he’s collaborated with Freddie Roulette in Paris, is part of a nine-piece world music band when in Austria, tours solo up and down the West Coast performing Hawaiian blues, and has an outfit on Kauai with members of Taj Mahal’s band. Out of breath yet?

Through it all, it was the Hawaiian slack key and steel guitar that Emerson returned to and that he infused in all his musical incarnations. At one point, he even got a taste of his era playing Hawaiian music in Santa Cruz in the unlikeliest of places: Slovakia. Running into an old friend from his days back with Tom Scribner, the guitarist reunited with Santa Cruz multi-instrumental whiz Bob Brozman (who performs with David Lindley on Saturday, April 3, at the Rio). After jamming together in the ‘70s, Emerson says he and Brozman “went in different directions and were both ping-ponging all over the planet.” They ultimately found themselves at a dobro festival in Slovakia a few years ago, where they finally played together again.

“There’s a great link between Hawaiian and jazz but it’s a style that’s not really perpetuated,” he says. “But there’s always Bob Brozman—he’s quite the worldly guy.”

So how long does Emerson see himself using his National steel guitar to pioneer a contemporary link between jazz, blues and Hawaiian music? “As long as my hands work.”


Ken Emerson’s Hawaiian Jazz Master Class takes place at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 27, at Cabrillo College VAPA 1001. The Santa Cruz Jazz Festival will run 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 26-27, at Cabrillo College VAPA, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. Tickets are $10 for both days. For more information on the class or the Santa Cruz Jazz Festival, go to
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