Bill Bryner may be 90, but he’s as spry as any 40-year-old. Maybe it’s his commitment to music that’s kept him so young at heart. Bryner has played brass instruments since he was a child and currently is a member of Kaua‘i’s beloved group, The Starlighters Big Band.
Music always has played a pivotal role in his life. Bryner grew up in a small Illinois town with a community that embraced music. One of his fondest memories was a concert held in the town square every Wednesday evening during the summer months.
“Everybody wanted to be in the band,” he says.
Bryner has led an enriching life, not only serving in the U.S. Army during World War II as part of the last increment of the horse cavalry, but also entering into all kinds of fascinating fields as a music teacher, engineer and writer for television. The one thing that’s remained constant, however, is his love for music. His devotion to the trombone, in particular, has withstood time, as well as his passion for the jazz-oriented, big band music he grew up with. He even helped form Yachats Big Band while living in Oregon during the 1990s. So, when a member of The Starlighters Big Band asked him to join the group a couple of years ago, it was a no-brainer.
Led by Danny Hamada of Waimea, the outfit meets once a week at Kaua‘i Veterans Center to practice, and performs every third Friday of the month at Kukui Grove Center for “Aloha Friday Night” from 7 to 8 p.m.
Bryner is proud to be a part of a group that, decades later, is as vivacious in spirit as he is. The Starlighters Big Band has been in the Garden Island’s musical circuit since the 1950s.
“We were the biggest band on the island,” says Danny Hamada, an original member who plays the saxophone.
Initially called The Jokers, the westside quartet was formed by his brother, Dickie, when rock and roll was becoming more mainstream. They played all kinds of popular hits, especially by the top big band musicians at the time like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, for events around the island such as high school proms. The group continues to play the same swing-era music and remains strong after all these years because of members like Bryner. Their tenacity also is due to Danny Hamada’s pledge to carry on the band’s legacy after Dickie Hamada, who played the trumpet, passed away in 2006.
“I told him I’d take over the band as long as I’m capable,” says Danny Hamada.
He leads the group of about a dozen musicians who range in age but who all have an affinity for classic melodies.
“We’re hobby musicians, and we just love playing this type of music,” says Danny Hamada.
He constantly reminds them not to be so hard on themselves, even if they are professionals like Bryner, and to loosen up and just have fun.
“I don’t care if you don’t play it right or you don’t play it loud, that’s how I want this band to be,” says Danny Hamada. “You can get really critical, but then it’s no fun.”
Having a good time and a genuine appreciation for the music is a must for band members, especially because they neither receive nor charge a single cent for playing.
“This is just for the love of the music,” says Ray Domingo, master of ceremonies and lead singer for the group.
Having affection for the audience, many of whom are kūpuna, is also a prerequisite for band members. Until you’ve been to one of their concerts at the mall, it’s hard to believe just how many people The Starlighters Big Band draws out every month. And they’re not just sitting there tapping their toes — they are so inspired by the harmonies, they get up and dance.
“They love the oldies and goodies,” says Domingo.
Mark Goodman, trumpet player for the band, says many of the same people have been following the group for decades. And while other local big bands have sprung up on Kaua‘i throughout the years, The Starlighters is the only one that’s persevered.
“This is a very special band,” says Goodman. “It’s like a fixture on the island.”
Bryner is just one of the dedicated members of the group that continue to make that possible. The bonus is that playing the music allows him, as well as his fellow band members, and their audiences, to step back in time and put that extra spring in their step.
“It’s just what I really like to do,” says Bryner, who plans to continue playing as long as he can.
Visit kukuigrovecenter.com/events for upcoming concerts.