Hawaii’s celebrity ambassador: Jimmy Borges’ star-studded events treat jazz right

Photo courtesy of Michi Moore

(Jimmy Borges passed away May 30, 2016 from cancer. I interviewed him in 2009, three years before he was diagnosed with and beat liver cancer, only to have the cells move up to his lungs. I’m reposting my Oct. 5, 2009 Jazz Examiner interview here.)

Hawaii’s premier jazz performer Jimmy Borges, 74, has done more, seen more, and lived more than most. He also knows more people on this planet– the famous, the infamous, great musicians, singers, even the local mob – than the average person.

Celebrity friends came about quite naturally during his regular Waikiki club gigs in the 1970s through the 1990s. A born entertainer with a special gift for rearranging standards and putting his audience of tourists, locals, and celebrities at ease, Borges cut his teeth at two primary hotspots: Keone’s on Lewers Street and Trappers at the Hyatt Regency on Kalakaua Avenue. This was back when live music was embraced, appreciated, and attracted the big crowds and the big money, before karaoke, before one-man synth bands, before DJs spinning techno-bad house music and cost the average tax-payer an arm and a leg.

Back in the good, old days of the early ‘70s, Borges held court at a happening place called Keone’s. Backed by a solid band, especially pianist Betty Loo Taylor, Borges did his thing every night except Sundays, 9:30 p.m. till 4 a.m. After 3 a.m., Borges and band really let loose with variations on “Lush Life,” “Wee Small Hours,” and other standards that lent well to improvisation.

The 2008 and 2007 Hoku Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Borges described the scene, night after blessed night: “I was there for four years. It was one of my very favorite places: black-leather, recessed booths, black walls and ceilings, cocktail waitresses dressed in Playboy-bunny outfits, all stunners… smoke hanging in the air like wispy clouds that would rain if you seeded it. It became ‘the place to go.’ I’ve had everyone from Frank Sinatra (who complained because it was ‘too crowded’), Diana Ross, Mel Brooks, Joe Sample, Average White Band, Jose Feliciano, Mel Torme, Mamas and Papas, and Joe Williams to Don Ho (almost every night!), plus every local entertainer and musician who came to sit in or came to learn.”

It was then that Borges earned his reputation as a singer who loved to play with the standards, making it his own, while maintaining each song’s melodic integrity. He’d also get together with the band twice a week to bone up on the new pop songs of the time period, and “jazzify” them. He got so good at this, that even actress Liza Minnelli tried to buy one of his arrangements (James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”) from him; he let her have it for free.

Whatever Borges was doing, he was doing it right, because the crowds jam-packed Keone’s every time they performed. Soon, everybody who was anybody headed down there: visiting sports stars and coaches, flight attendants and, yes, the local syndicate.

Members of the powerful, underground, local syndicate were also fans who now and then conveniently took care of the heckling riff-raffs for Borges and the band, but otherwise left the entertainer alone. “They liked me and my music, so I never had a bit of trouble,” Borges explained.

One night, a famous actor named Jack Lord from a famous TV show called Hawaii Five-O came by to check out Borges and his band. Borges’ innate charm, infectious energy, winning, local-kine personality, and ability to riff conversationally with the patrons in between songs and sets won him over with Lord, who came with a novel acting proposal. “I had never acted before (on film) so I asked him, ‘Why me?’” Borges said. “He replied that he would save the production money, since I could think on my feet and not be flustered by dialogue flubs and would continue on until I fed the cue line to the next actor, consequently less cuts by the director, saving shoot time.”

Subsequent acting gigs followed on nearly every TV show based or filmed in Hawaii, from The Jeffersons, Charlie’s Angels, and The Rockford Files, to Magnum P.I., Jake And The Fatman, and The Islander. And he did commercials for United Airlines, Sunkist Orange Juice, and many other products/services.

Keeping up an acting and music schedule was hairy for the multi-talented Hawaii star. “I’d get off my gig at 4 a.m. and head directly to the studio, where they would put make-up on me and I slept until I was called on the set. Did this for many years,” he said. “With all the side stuff going on, music was always at the core of my creative soul. If I had to choose between a great music gig or a film shoot, I always picked the music. For some unbalanced reason, I think that made the producers want me more, who knows?!”

After four years headlining at Keone’s, Jimmy Borges moved on to Captain Nemo’s down the street, which then became the Jazz Cellar. After six months there, developer Chris Hemmeter came to him with the perfect gig. Hemmeter had completed work on a new hotel, the Hyatt Waikiki and added a special nightclub just for Borges to perform in. That was the birth of the legendary Trappers.

On the strength of Borges’ name and reputation alone, he and the band (Betty Loo Taylor on piano, Steve Jones/Gerry Roush/Bruce Hamada/Lyle Ritz on bass, Noel Okimoto on drums, Sam Ahia or Jimmy Funai on guitar, David Choi on sax or his brother Junior on trumpet) earned a real salary, complete with vacation, sick days, full medical coverage and paid union dues/fees.

From 1977 to New Year’s Eve-1986, Borges and his band jammed with an implausible array of VIP big shots: The Count Basie Band, Wynton Marsalis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Jarreau, Mel Torme, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, Mavis Rivers, Anita O’Day, Smokey Robinson, Joe Williams, Joe Feliciano, Kay Starr, Connie Haines, Ginny Simms, Robert Goulet…

What would usually happen is, a big-name artist would come to Hawaii to do a concert, then afterwards go to Borges’ gig to unwind. Eventually, they’d be coaxed up onstage to perform with and/or in place of Borges. It happened a lot. Sometimes, they’d stick around and just hang out with Borges and the band during their off hours. Marsalis spent a week longer than he’d planned once, to enjoy Hawaii like a local and shoot some hoops with Borges’ drummer and trumpeter.

In 1984, Borges made sure to include a one-week-a-month Jazz Stars program, which turned the crowd out even more, so they could catch the likes of Bill Watrous, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddy Hubbard and Joe Sample for two whole sets nightly, with no cover charge. “One night, the Beach Boys came in and put on an impromptu concert for all of us,” Borges recalled. “Those were great times for music.”

When it was time to go — management cluelessly thought turning Trappers into a rock ‘n roll venue — Tony Bennett joined Borges up on stage to ring in the new year, 1987, and bid loyal customers goodbye. Trappers was never the same since.

Trappers and Keone’s are long gone. Gone by way of passing fads and misguided attempts at keeping up with the youth demographic, while trying in vain to draw in the coveted big-money of the Japanese tourists. Meanwhile, live music in Hawaii has suffered tremendously. Borges agreed, “Times have changed in Waikiki. Most hotels employ single guitarists/pianists/singers and music is treated like a semi-necessary evil. Very little respect for the art form. Consequently, the locals don’t come into Waikiki, and the ‘Hawaiian Experience’ for the visitor mingling with the local doesn’t come to fruition.”

But despite the passing fads and trends, Jimmy Borges remains a classic constant, the standard crossing all musical genres – standing the test of time and wavering musical trends – still out there doing occasional gigs, benefits and concerts, when he’s not traveling with his wife Vicki, winning golf tournaments, and mentoring up-and-coming singers.

He may have retired from the regular nightclub gigs that used to last till 2 a.m. past, but he still performs.

His next gig is coming up this Wednesday at Gordon Biersch-Aloha Tower Marketplace (6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.), in fact, featuring his Jazz All-Stars – Dan Del Negro, Darryl Pellegrini, Steve Jones, DeShannon Higa, Robert Shinoda, and super New York sax man, George Young. The following week, the man Honolulu Advertiser’s entertainment writer Wayne Harada named “one of the 50 notable islanders who’ve influenced the entertainment world since Statehood” will attend a St. Louis School soiree at the Sheraton Waikiki, where he will receive the Distinguished Achiever Award.

Next month, Borges and actor/singer Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle) will perform a Christmas show at downtown Honolulu’s Hawaii Theatre for three nights, November 27-29. Then, there are commitments to do some small, local concerts December through January, his Sinatra Music Tribute with the New Mexico Symphony March 6, 2010 in Albuquerque, another similar tribute with the Honolulu Symphony April 31/May 1 at the Concert Hall, a CD of his work, a documentary about his life, his autobiography (“Confessions Of A Saloon Singer”)…

Knowing Jimmy Borges, that autobiography is sure to become an instant bestseller.