Riffs in the rafters
“No public announcements of any kind about our private gatherings please. No website, Facebook, Twitter, flyers, nothing with public access. Private invitations only.”
It’s the most “public” of private invitations one can get via email. It’s rather tersely written and, with the advent of social media, it sounds positively ancient and downright fussy. But this isn’t so much about entry into an exclusive club, but about an ongoing event that’s been dutifully held for nearly 22 years in a charming, old three-story home hidden in the hills of upper Kaimukī.
Welcome to Ward’s Rafters, and it really is a welcoming place. Once you climb the stairs to the top floor with its vaulted ceiling and expansive feel, any number of patrons between 20 and 120 can, on any given Sunday afternoon, enjoy listening to live jazz played by local and visiting musicians. Fridays and Saturdays are optional for any type of performance including theater and poetry.
“I would call what we do more inspired by the European salon,” says Larry Ward, the son of the woman he affectionately called his “Yiddish mommy” and the woman who was responsible for what Ward’s Rafters has become. That woman is the late Jackie Ward, who died on Oct. 29, 2014, at the age of 96. (Even though her spirit was indomitable, after she broke her arm due to a fall in the kitchen, she said that was it for her and she passed away peacefully at home two days later.)
The reason for the email disclaimer is that the weekend concerts are held in a private residence in a residential area. There has been, over the years, the occasional run-in with displeased neighbors and one fine levied against Jackie Ward, but Ward’s Rafters has become such an established “secret” place for fine music and attentive, discriminating audiences that it is likely to continue operating for the foreseeable future.
And, over the years, the place has had special guests—both national and international—come in to play thanks to word-of-mouth and an active mailing list. Larry remembers classical guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima as the first big musician to play at the house. He remembers the room was crowded with people.
“And everyone comes here and listens, which all of the musicians greatly appreciate,” he adds. That feeling is echoed by Alika Lyman and Stephen Inglis, who have both played at Ward’s Rafters numerous times.
“It’s great,” says Lyman. “The space is cool, the vibe is great, and Jackie was always super supportive of us. To have that kind of support is validating to me as a musician. It’s fulfilling to have the people who come there focus on the music. It’s not like they’re going out for drinks and talking amongst themselves. When people listen, we play better.”
Inglis cut a live album there back in 2009. “I’m a believer in magical rooms, like The Barns at Wolf Trap. It’s the accumulation—the building of mana—at Ward’s Rafters, and the attentive, warm crowd there,” he says. “And it amazes me, considering how much I gig there, to always see new faces. It’s always great to go there, tune in, and leave the outside world behind.
“The first time I met Jackie—and even when her health was in decline—she was always so warm and genuine for the love of the music,” adds Inglis. “I know of a network of house concerts throughout the world, and Ward’s is the only one I know that can have up to three nights a week. That’s amazing.”
It’s a widely held feeling that Larry wants to perpetuate as long as he can.
The Wards arrived in Honolulu in the summer of 1966, after Herb Ward, himself a fine musician, met the then-musical director of the Honolulu Symphony while auditioning for different symphonies in New York City. “[He] was standing in Times Square with his bass when then conductor George Barati walked up to him and asked if he would be interested in auditioning for principal bass player in the Honolulu Symphony. He auditioned and was hired on the spot,” recalls Larry.
But let’s back up a bit to see how the Wards ended up in Hawai‘i, because that in itself is a fascinating tale. Jackie was born March 6, 1919, in Jewish Harlem into a prominent family: her father, a patent attorney, an inventor and an Early Bird who built and flew his own plane back in 1910; her mother, the daughter of a prominent suffragette leader in New York City. She died when Jackie was nine months old, so Jackie was mostly raised by her loving nannies. The family would move back-and-forth between America and Germany, and Jackie grew to have a generous, creative spirit about her and become a true believer in cultural diversity.
Dancing became her outlet, which she found as a young adult. She became a trained performer, a contract dancer and a choreographer in Los Angeles for the Universal and Disney movie studios.
After her marriage to Herb, the couple moved to Greenwich Village in the 1940s and became part of the beginning of the American folk music movement. Pete Seeger took guitar lessons from Herb, and Ronnie Gilbert, another member of the Weavers, actually lived with the Wards for a while. This was also when their first son, Laurence, was born.
Cold War tensions, baited by fears of Communist subversion in the 1950s, would be the impetus for the family’s move out of the U.S. and into Europe. For the first two years, the Wards lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, where Herb studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and Jackie found work with a Danish radio station and taught master classes at the Royal Danish Ballet. Next followed two more years in Vienna, Austria, where Herb studied at the Vienna Academy of Music and Jackie worked at the Blue Danube Network as part of the Voice of America Radio Network.
Unfortunately, what Larry describes as “the long shadow of McCarthyism” forced the family to move to Prague, Czechoslovakia, where his father played with the Prague City Orchestra, as well as local jazz musicians. He and Jackie created a touring “history of jazz show” that featured Jackie dancing.
It was at this time that Jackie, in her 30s, blossomed into the person her Hawai‘i friends would recognize. “She was an endless fount of creativity,” says Larry. His childhood memories include watching her backstage as she danced and acted in a pantomime theater group she founded. “Her energy was boundless, radiating joy and passion.”
Fifteen years later, the Wards returned to the United States to briefly live in Connecticut, which is when the aforementioned fateful meeting with the musical director of the Honolulu Symphony, George Beratti, would lead to the westward move to the islands.
The family first lived on Kewalo Street in Makiki—Larry remembers spending his last year in high school at Roosevelt—before buying their Kaimukī home for a then-hefty price of $32,000.
From the summer of 1966 on, Jackie was a whirlwind of activity, working as a recreation specialist for the city’s parks and recreation department, organizing family events like Art in the Park and summer zoo shows, as well as establishing another pantomime group, Theater Without Words. She also helped create the Ensemble Players Guild and Hawaii Chamber Orchestra Society and, in 1976, founded the Hawaiian Islands Public Radio, becoming its first chairwoman and obtaining its first operating grant with the help of then Hawai‘i State House Representative Neil Abercrombie. Four years later, in 1980, Hawai‘i Public Radio went on the air for the first time. Today, it consists of two stations reaching the entire state.
But it was the attempts trying to find a steady home for the chamber music group that led to the creation of what would become Ward’s Rafters. “There were years of humbug and hassle dealing with the restrictions of the various places the group would play in that resulted in the decision of building something upstairs in our house,” Larry says.
That was up to Herb, and it seems it was only right and poetic that, on the day he declared he was done with the work—Feb. 20, 1994—he died of a heart attack. The performance space would later be soundproofed and a central air conditioning system installed.
From 1997–2005, Jackie organized what was called the Great Hawaii Jazz Blowout Festival, an annual jazz festival, the first of which was organized as a fundraiser to help pay a fine from the city against Jackie for operating a business in a private residence without proper licensing.
The most recent fundraiser was last year, 2014, at Hawaiian Brian’s. Larry Ward figures it costs around $4,000 a year to operate Ward’s Rafters so, with no admission charged, Ward’s guests have helped a great deal over the years with outside events.
“Costs add up operating this home,” Larry says, “costs for toilet paper, electricity, coffee, wear and tear on the furniture and the home itself, and tuning the piano.”
The remarkable thing is that, despite Jackie’s death, Larry considers the regular scheduling of Ward’s Rafters to be sacrosanct. “Unless Sunday falls on Christmas or New Year’s Eve in any given year, we always have jazz on that day,” he says.
Larry and Rogorio Carlos put together a short video that was shown at Jackie’s memorial that both plan to expand into a half-hour documentary. Originally from Brazil, and a musician himself, Carlos first met Jackie as a volunteer board member for the Great Hawaii Jazz Blowout Festivals. With this documentary-in-the-making, both men hope to finally give Jackie Ward her due for all the work that she did during her lifetime, keeping the memory of this remarkable woman alive and as a testament to her passion for the arts.
But maybe not too loudly, mind you. There’s a concert on Sunday, and every Sunday after that.