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Remembering ‘The Champ’ - Northwest jazz legend Harold Champeness | MEANDERLINE
Harold Alden Champeness, 90, beloved legendary Pacific Northwest upright jazz bassist, singer and humorist died April 10 in Poulsbo. He lived most of his life in Seabold on Bainbridge Island and also in Ballard, Poulsbo and Bergen, Norway.
Hal was born Aug. 9, 1923, and raised with his sister, Solveig, in Seabold, children of Esther and Bernard Champeness - Norwegian immigrants Esther Kalsett and Bernt Kjaempenes.
Hal went to first grade in 1929 at Olympic School on Day Road in Manzanita. When Island school districts consolidated, he bused to Winslow’s Lincoln School.
In the Great Depression, Hal, 10, joined mother and sister to live with a grandmother in Norway. He learned Norwegian.
Hal loved music, played violin in Bainbridge High School’s orchestra and sang in the glee club. He was chosen for senior boys quartet with Silven Moench, Jim Johansson and Carl Ness. They sang for 20th and 40th class reunions and throughout the years. Hal was also vocal on yell squad, student council, barking signals and calling plays as a shifty, 5-foot-3 short, 140-pound quarterback - 1940 football squad’s Inspirational Award recipient!
“In 1940, an Island band needed a bass player,” Hal recalled. “I found one and joined them.” The bass was over a foot taller than Hal. He played the upright bass for the next 71 years!
Hal graduated BHS in ’41 and served as U.S. Navy radio operator in the Pacific during World War II. He acquired another bass from a sailor who was shipping out. It was in pieces when Hal mustered out in July 1945. A Seattle craftsman put it back together.
In 1946, Hal joined the Musician’s Association and was a member for the rest of his life.
After the war, Hal toured the “Deep South.” He returned to Seattle, married Ruth Ekanger, had a son, lived in Ballard and worked days at J.K. Gills-Lowman & Hanford. Nights and weekends were for family and performing with upbeat regional bands. His musicianship, spirit and Scandinavian roots soon led him to play with Stan Boreson’s Band. Seabold guitarist Chuck Bennett was also a member.
Barbara Boreson echoes, “Hal was about as sweet a guy as ever there was. Hal sings “Oh, Danny Boy” on one of our CDs – my favorite.”
Through the union hall, Hal played with touring jazz greats and became one himself. His Seabold birthdays were popular with musicians and classmates.
“Champ,” Eve (Nygard) Vollers Bourns and John Rudolph were among founding stalwarts of the Island’s The Intensely Vigorous, Revolutionary, Volunteer Dixieland Jazz Band. They set the tone for Grand Old Fourth Parades. In 1989, they were featured on National Public Radio’s “Washington State Centennial Music Fest” broadcast from Island Center Hall.
Hal married three times. His wives all died of cancer. His second wife (1972-1984) was Leila “Lee” Bailey and in 1985 he married Ruby Wells. After Ruby’s passing, he moved to Poulsbo, enjoyed fellowship at The Sons of Norway and weekly reunions with BHS 1941 classmates: Moench, Johansson, Jerry Nakata, Earl Hansen, Carmen Berry and others at Central Market.
Hal’s BHS class experienced “one of the worst days of our lives” when their classmates, friends and neighbors on the close knit Island were uprooted by WW II. Hal was a spokesman in Sakai School programs and efforts that created the “Nidoto Nai Yoni – Never Let It Happen Again” Memorial, part of the National Park Service’s Minidoka Historical Site to the WW II Exclusion of Americans of Japanese ancestry.
Music – hauling that bass around – helped keep Hal young. He played throughout the region after 2003 with No Inhibitions Jazz Band. Locally, he played with masterful “Don Alverson & Friends” and had a large following at Keyport’s Whiskey Creek Steak House and The Bistro in Silverdale. Hal’s 88th birthday celebration at Keyport was standing room only. He set down his bass in 2011, and continued music as a vocalist. In 2010, Hal recorded “The Champ,” a CD of love songs and ballads with his No Inhibitions Jazz Band friends. In the song, “Always”, a careful ear finds Hal recalling his BHS friends as he begins: “I’ll be loving you in the hallways...”
The weekend before Hal died, he attended a concert at Island Center Hall with legendary international W. C. Handy Award recipient blues and jazz guitarist, T. J. Wheeler. They thrilled audiences a decade before when the two musical giants shared that stage. He attended the Sons of Norway pancake breakfast the next day and then joined hundreds of old friends at the celebration of the life of Dr. Frank Kitamoto, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community.
On April 10, a house fire took “Champ’s” breath away. Don Alverson & Friends dedicated their next evening of music to Hal. There was silence as 92-year-old jazz trumpeter Yvonne McAllister played “Taps.”
Family and friends will celebrate Hal’s life from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 24, at The Old Town Bistro, 3388 Byron St. NW in Silverdale. Musicians may bring instruments, bakers cookies, singers songs, and always stories.