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STREET CRED: During his Cabrillo days, Ken Emerson would play with saw player Tom Scribner on the Pacific Garden Mall.

Jazz in the Key of Aloha

Grammy winner Ken Emerson brings the spirit of the islands to the Santa Cruz Jazz Festival

By Andrew Gilbert

KEN Emerson remembers a time when Hawaiian music was largely unknown in Santa Cruz.

These days, of course, it's easy to mistake Surf City for the 50th state's easternmost outpost, but in the mid-1970s the ukulele was a novelty for lucky Santa Cruz tots rather than a highly expressive instrument embraced by hundreds of musicians around the county.

As an aspiring guitarist studying at Cabrillo College, Emerson started his career playing downtown on Pacific Avenue. But with his deep family ties to Hawaii, he maintained his uke chops even as he became a highly sought-after blues guitarist with a dazzling array of collaborations ranging from Todd Rundgren, Taj Mahal and Boz Scaggs to Jackson Browne, Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop and the Pablo Cruise Band. 

"My first gig was at Lulu Carpenter's, and I just found out it's still there," says Emerson, who returns to Cabrillo College on Friday as a featured artist at the 24th Annual Santa Cruz Jazz Festival. He'll also teach a workshop titled "Hawaiian Jazz: The Art of the Lap Steel, Slack Key Guitar and Ukulele."

Featured on Palm Records' Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2, Emerson's beautiful guitar work and Hawaiian tunes helped Hawaiian music garner its first-ever Grammy Award in 2005 (he contributed to another Grammy-winning album with Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat).

"In my Santa Cruz days, the coolest gig I did was with Tom Scribner, the saw player," he recalls. "I learned a lot of Hawaiian songs from him. He knew all these tunes, and between the saw and steel guitar we had a lot of fun playing on the mall across from the Cooper House. It's wild that today Santa Cruz is the uke capital."

In many ways Hawaiian music runs through Emerson's blood. His family set down roots on the islands when his mandolin-playing grandfather moved to the territory in 1917. His grand-uncle played jazz saxophone on the Matson Liner Malolo in the 1930s, and his mother played ukulele with her twin sister in a featured act at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

Emerson started playing his mother's uke at the age of 7, which led to his fascination with fingerstyle guitar; later he became an expert picker and slide guitarist with a repertoire of folk tunes and country blues. When his family relocated to Hawaii in 1968, Emerson immersed himself in indigenous culture, studying the Hawaiian language and music. Eventually he formed tight bonds with the veteran masters from the golden age of the 1920s and 30s like Gabby Pahinui, Moe Keale, Genoa Keawe, Raymond Kane, Auntie Alice Namakelua, Sol K. Bright and George Ka'ainapau.

"The musicians I admired were still in Hawaii, so I went back for a mecca thing, to find these guys," Emerson said. "And I found a lot of them who were on these 78s that I learned the music from. They would say, 'Where did you learn how to play like that?' 'From your records.'"

The aloha spirit runs through the Santa Cruz Jazz Festival, which features high school and college bands from throughout California at Cabrillo's new state-of-the-art music facility. Where many student jazz festivals are built around competitions, Santa Cruz is designed to test student ensembles against themselves, with adjudicators who offer pointers on how to improve.

"These kids are as good as any pro bands you'll hear," says festival director Don Young, a veteran ska musician who leads the Pleasure Point Horns. "They make you want to give up your horn. It's a wild scene. We'll have about 2,500 students with 63 big bands, 23 combos and 16 jazz vocal groups, so it's music, music, music for 48 hours."

THE SANTA CRUZ JAZZ FESTIVAL runs Friday–Saturday, March 26–27, 8am–9pm daily. Two-day passes are $10. Ken Emerson's master class in Hawaiian jazz is Saturday at 2pm. Performances Friday at 7pm (featuring Allen Vizzutti) and Saturday at 6:30pm (vocal and middle school big bands) and 8:30pm (high school and college big bands). Visual and Performing Arts Center, 6500 Soquel Dr., Aptos. (831.662.3368;

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