Michael Paulo was awarded Hawaii’s Global Contemporary Music Lifetime Achievement Award in November. (Photo: Courtesy Michael Paulo)
Acclaimed musician Michael Paulo’s melodies have always involved the audience, who play a vital part in every performance.
By Kristen Taketa, Contributor
Saxophone man Michael Paulo had two paths to choose from after finishing high school.
He could’ve chosen to take a North Texas State University scholarship he was offered and go to college, as many would expect a young adult to do. Or, he could’ve chosen to join Kalapana, a popular Hawaiian pop-and-rock band, as their saxophonist, and hit the road. He chose the road — to learn from real experiences.
“My education, to be honest with you, was live learning, and it wasn’t so much being in college,” said Paulo, now 61. “I learned from experience.”
That road has taken Paulo far, from his hometown on Oahu, Hawaii, to places all over the world that have wanted to hear him breathe melodies into a piece of brass.
Paulo, who is considered to be one of the country’s leading Asian American jazz musicians, was awarded Hawaii’s Global Contemporary Music Lifetime Achievement Award in November and has played with jazz greats such as singer Al Jarreau and pianist David Benoit. Paulo also has 10 solo records to his name, and he has either played in or produced several music festivals, including numerous years as an artist-in-residence at the world-renowned Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has also produced the Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival and the first-ever Asian American Music Festival, which was held in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo in May.
Part of his drive, Paulo says, is to break stereotypes that Asian Americans don’t, or can’t, do jazz.
For Paulo, the audience is a necessary part of every performance.
“It’s all about communicating with the audience — communicating with them and making them feel happy and good,” Paulo said. “At the end of the night, it doesn’t matter how professional I was or if I made mistakes. What matters is if people enjoyed themselves.”
To Paulo, music is not about giving a perfect performance or being technically or musically correct. It’s about what he can make the audience feel.
“The essence of what I do is to try to enrich people’s lives,” Paulo said. “When I play in concerts, the reaction you get — it’s uplifting for people. That’s very rewarding for not only myself but also for most entertainers.”
He describes music as a break in people’s daily working lives that reminds them that they are human, and thus have emotional needs.
“We’re all emotional beings. Human beings are emotional people. We need that in our lives,” Paulo said. “It’s very important. Everybody works, everybody has things that they do. But when they come out and they hear entertainment, they hear music — it kind of heals them.”
A Rising Career
Paulo’s path to a four-decades-long career began when he was 15 years old in high school. He didn’t feel like taking a PE class, so instead, he joined the high school band and picked up a saxophone.
“I just enjoyed it,” he said of the sax. “It felt great.”
Music was already woven into his life. He was born into a family of entertainers: Paulo’s mother was a singer, his father an acclaimed pianist and all of his other siblings played instruments as well. It used to be that when his family performed together at parties, Paulo would dance while his family sang.
Starting an instrument at 15 years old could be considered late compared to other performing musicians. But Paulo proved it didn’t take him long in his rise to musical success.
After about a year of playing the saxophone in high school, he was already playing professionally, he said. By the time he graduated high school, he was performing across Waikiki and Honolulu and was already one of Hawaii’s most-noted young saxophonists.
His first big break came when he was asked to tour with Kalapana after high school, a pop-and-rock group that, to Paulo, was Hawaii’s No. 1 band. He turned down the North Texas State scholarship and spent four years with the group.
“They were already doing what I was going to go to school for, to study how to play and then try to go get a job and go make records. I got an opportunity to do it right there,” Paulo said.
But perhaps no other opportunity shaped Paulo as much as when he was hired to play with Jarreau, the seven-time, Grammy Award-winning musician. Jarreau showed Paulo how to put emotion into every performance, Paulo said.
“Every single performance — he put his heart and soul into it,” Paulo said of Jarreau. “He was never insecure about himself, so he was always able to highlight and showcase his band, so on stage, we all played, we all got featured. There are a lot of artists out there who don’t do that, and they feel insecure, like somebody’s stealing the spotlight.”
He says Jarreau is one of the biggest influences on his own work, and his time with Jarreau became a major launching pad for his career by connecting him to other big players in the music business.
Throughout his career, Paulo has traveled the world many times over. He’s performed in Japan, Russia, South Africa, Thailand and more. But he says performing in one country wasn’t any different than performing in another. To Paulo, music is a universal joy that traverses the boundaries of nations.
“Music is universal. People appreciate music everywhere,” Paulo said. “The biggest kick I get is, if I fly 6,000 miles and play for somebody in Asia, it’s like ‘Wow, these people flew me all the way to their country and paid me to come and play for them.’ That’s like a gift. I never take that for granted.”
At the heart of Paulo’s music is a joy that spills over even into his conversations. When he talks with somebody, he laughs in a big way in almost every other sentence.
“I guess I would call it Hawaiian soul,” he said while describing his playing style. “It’s just being happy and being upbeat and positive, ‘cause you know, growing up in Hawaii, it’s such a beautiful place. Whenever you go to Hawaii, everyone seems to be happy all the time. That’s where I came from. That’s part of my nature.”
Born of Filipino and Japanese parents, Paulo has worked to break the assumptions of many who don’t think Asian Americans play jazz music.
Both now and in the early days of his career, Paulo says people have given him odd looks at seeing a single Asian American man up onstage, playing with jazz musicians who are overwhelmingly African-American or Caucasian.
“I’d get these looks like, ‘Where’d this guy come from?’” Paulo said. “When I was on the road with Al back then, I was basically the only Asian musician onstage. When I travel around the world, people look at me and say, ‘What’s that guy doing up there?’”
Most people don’t exactly peg Hawaii as a hotbed of jazz either, Paulo said, but he’s proud to tell people that’s where he’s from.
“People are like, ‘Wow, you’re from Hawaii?’ And I’m always proud of that,” he said.
Paulo laughs when he talks about these stares and stereotypes. He responds to such gestures with a powerful greeting.
“Anytime somebody looks at me funny, I just say aloooha!” Paulo said loudly and with joy.
Once, Paulo was asked to perform at an event in Nebraska. He walked into the venue, which was filled with many people who hadn’t seen a jazz performance before. The venue was playing country music before him. Paulo hollered, “Aloooha!” to the audience, and “they loved me,” he said. By the end of the night, people were asking him to perform for their weddings.
“It kind of shows you that music can bridge the gap with anybody,” Paulo said.
Paulo’s experiences confronting these looks and preconceived notions are the motivation behind one music festival he has produced, the Asian American Music Festival.
He started the festival — which was originally called the Asian American Jazz Festival — because, as Asian American musicians, “we don’t get recognized too much because we’re not too much in the mainstream in America,” he said.
Paulo said he wanted to highlight talent of fellow Asian American musicians he knew, but who seemed to be overlooked or underestimated by the larger American public. He started the festival because he knows, for example, female Asian American musician colleagues who were asked, “Where’s your violin?” or, “Where’s your flute?”
Paulo also uses the festival as a way to cultivate young talent and encourage more Asian Americans to pursue dreams of performing music.
For the past two decades, much of Paulo’s time has swiveled to the business side of music, such as producing and promoting festivals. It’s been about seven years since his last recording.
But he said he wishes he could spend more time performing music for the sake of playing music and making audiences happy. He’s wary when a career starts to become more about money and business than about joy and love for music.
“The hardest part is trying to stay creative. When you’re dealing with business things every day and setting things up, that’s a challenge trying to make a record,” he said. “When I was younger, I could stay up all night until the sun comes up. Now that I’m 61, I can’t do that anymore.”
Now, he’s trying to get back into performing, the thing he enjoys the most. Paulo is currently working on a new record, a project he’s undertaking largely on his own. It’s a project and an idea he’s been wanting to complete for 10 years.
But, he says, it’s not an easy dream to chase, even for someone with as long a résumé as him. Record companies, he says, pay less and less for musicians to record their songs, which pressures musicians to raise money on their own, especially through crowdfunding. He’s currently working to raise $18,000 for his recording project.
But despite the pressures of the music business, Paulo said he’s been happy with his career.
“In retrospect, I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “I learned a lot, and I’ve had a great career.”