The man plays on

  • Danny Hashimoto / Special to The Garden Island

    Ed Villaruel plays the saxophone at Trees Lounge in Waipouli.

When he was in high school in Honolulu, Ed Villaruel wanted to play football. He could run, he could catch, and he had passion.

But at 5 feet, 2 inches, and about 120 pounds, the coach looked at him when he turned out for practice, and Villaruel remembers well what he said: “Get out of here.”

So Villaruel did.

But he didn’t quit. Instead, he joined the high school band because he knew the band played at football games, and many of his bigger buddies were on the football team.

“They knew I wanted to play with them, but I couldn’t,” he said.

That rejection by the coach was the start of something new for Villaruel that would last a lifetime — a love of music and performing on the stage.

And nearly 75 years later, at age 92, the Kalaheo man still takes up his saxophone and often takes the stage at Trees Lounge in Waipouli on Monday nights.

“Somebody told me there was a jazz thing, they were playing jazz music, so I just went over there to listen,” he said during an interview with The Garden Island.

And he liked what he heard — contemporary jazz mixed with sounds from his era, too.

Soon, he was invited to join the other musicians. At first, he was tentative, as he hadn’t picked up the horn in years.

But he did. He was pleased.

“I found out I could do it a little bit,” Villaruel said. “I gotta build the chops up. It takes awhile.”

He plays about 45 minutes, as he and his stage friends come to know each other’s styles.

“It’s a learning process. It’s coming along. It’s like a jazz session,” he said. “I’m finding out those guys are younger, they didn’t know the tunes I knew from way back when. Contemporary jazz is like Greek to me. I’m from the old school, way back when.”

After graduating with the Class of ‘45 from Farrington High School, Villaruel joined the U.S. Army, served 25 years and saw duty in the Korean War. While in the service, he performed in the Army band, and for five years, was part of a marksmanship program traveling for matches and winning his share of them.

Yes, the man born and raised in Honolulu could shoot well, and it took his focus from music. The military took him to Georgia, Ohio, California and Alaska.

When he left the Army as a master sergeant, he figured he would return to a music career, perhaps join a band.

“When I got out, nobody wanted big bands anymore. They couldn’t afford it,” he said.

And sax players, he found, were a rare breed.

“The only people that were working were either a guitar player or a drummer, and maybe a piano player. The horn, the trumpet player, nobody wanted you,” Villaruel said.

When he returned home to Honolulu in 1970, he worked in sales in the retail business, including stints at Sears and JC Penney and C.S. Wo &Sons.

“When I quit music, I shut myself off completely trying to learn the retail business,” he said.

About three years ago, he moved to the Kalaheo area to live with family. He enjoys Monday treks to Trees Lounge for jazz night to join Kauai Island Jazz, which includes Mike Latif and Kat Mobley, for an impromptu performance, and sometimes to listen.

“I appreciate the fact that they let me play,” he said.

He admits some are surprised to see a man of his experience on stage, and approach him afterward.

“I love what you’re doing,” one person told him. “It sounded good.”

Villaruel appreciates the compliments, but chuckles, too, about the style of music today.

“In my time, when you sang a song to a girl, you whispered it in her ear,” he said. “Today, you’ve got to scream it into her ear.”

Villaruel still drives and is vigilant about staying in shape, physically and mentally. He maintains a trim, solid frame and moves easily, powered by morning push ups and walking. He traces his discipline to his time in the military.

“I gotta thank the Army for that,” he said.

When he was a first sergeant of a company, he recalls the words of one of his commanders: “If you tell these guys to do something and you can’t do it, what are you telling them?”

“So I had to stay in shape,” Villaruel said.

He reads often, and works on crossword puzzles and board games.

“Keep my mind sharp,” he said.

His diet, too, is strict.

“I don’t overeat like I used to,” he said.

He does enjoy two cups of coffee, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

“I haven’t used a salt shaker or sugar in I don’t know how long,” he said.

Years back, he used to play golf with buddies, but then they got into computers and began staying home, so he lost his partners on the links and soon gave up the game.

He doesn’t consider technology among his friends.

“I don’t even want one of those new phones,” he said. “You call me when you need me and I’ll answer your questions or I’ll call you.”

“In my time, you wrote a letter,” he added.


Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or

  1. Eli January 10, 2020 8:32 am Reply


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