Photo by Joel Sackett
Hal Champeness in his original class sweater at 2009 all-class Bainbridge HS Reunion.

Harold Alden Champeness: 'The Champ' and NW Jazz legend

Memorial celebration held Saturday May 24

By Gerald Elfendahl

Harold Alden Champeness, 90, beloved Pacific NW upright jazz bassist, singer and humorist – including 45 years with Stan Boreson Band - died April 10 in Poulsbo. He lived his life in Seabold on Bainbridge Island, Ballard, Poulsbo and Bergen, Norway.

Hal was born August 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 in Manzanita on the Island 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 HS’s orchestra and sang in glee club. He was chosen for senior boys’ quartet with Silven Moench, Jim Johansson, and Carl Ness. They sang class reunions and throughout the years. Hal was also vocal on yell squad, student council, barking signals and calling plays as a shifty, 5’-3” short, 140 lb. 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’s BHS 1941 class experienced “one of the worst days of our lives” when classmates, friends and neighbors on the close knit Island were uprooted by WW II. Hal served as US Navy radio operator in the Pacific. Some of his Japanese classmates helped there, too, as interpreters and in military intelligence.

Hal 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. In1946, 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. 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 was popular with musicians and classmates.

“Champ” was among founding stalwarts of the Island’s 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, and others at Poulsbo’s Central Market.

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 and in Kitsap County with masterful “Don Alverson & Friends”. Hal’s 88th birthday celebration at Keyport’s Whiskey Creek Steak House was standing room only. He set down his bass in 2011, and continued music as a vocalist. Hal recorded “The Champ”, a CD of love songs and ballads with No Inhibitions Jazz Band. 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 B. Is. Japanese American Community.

On April 10, a house fire that 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 celebrated Hal’s life at The Old Town Bistro in Silverdale and on May 24 . . .and “Always”!

A memorial celebration of Hal's Champeness's life will be held Saturday, May 24, from 1 to 4 p.m. at The Old Town Bistro *(see below for directions).Musicians may bring musical instruments. Singers may bring voices. Bakers may bring cookies. Everyone may bring favorite Hal stories. Remember the man, the myth, the legend.

3388 NW Byron St., Suite 100
Silverdale, WA 98383

From Seattle - Bainbridge Island ferry :
Recommend 11:25 AM ferry. Follow Hwy. 305 to Poulsbo and merge onto Hwy 3 south to Exit 45 toward Silverdale / E. Bremerton. Follow signs to Silverdale and turn right onto Silverdale Way NW and go south 0.8 mile to NW Byron St. Turn left to 3388 NW Byron. There is lots of parking!

From Tacoma - Bremerton ferry:
(Alternate 11:10 AM Seattle-Bremerton ferry.) Follow Hwy. 16 to Bremerton and Hwy. 3 north to Newberry Hill Road Exit. Turn right and go to Silverdale Way NW. Turn left and go north to NW Byron St. Turn right to 3388 NW Byron.

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