Jesse Kalima was born in Honolulu in 1920, at a time when the `ukulele was just becoming recognized for its capability to be played as a solo instrument. At age 15, Kalima burst into the public music scene, and established himself as the man credited with accelerating the development of the solo `ukulele, when he won the Hawaii amateur `ukulele championship by playing the march "Stars and Stripes Forever". This march became an instant hit, and has for many years been a goal of young ukulele players developing their solo skills.
Kalima, a self-taught musician, developed innovative techniques for his solo style. As a result of his quest for a more full deep sound, he popularized the tenor `ukulele, as well as a modified tuning where the first string is lowered by one octave. He was also one of the earliest musicians to play an amplified `ukulele.
Kalima was a devoted performer, from frequent gatherings with family and friends under the banyon tree at Kuhio Beach to years of public performances. In 1938, he organized the Kalima Brothers band with three members of his family, who became known in later years as "A Thousand Pounds of Melody". During World War II and the immediate post-war period, the Kalimas played at USO shows and at clubs all over the islands. At this time, Kalima was the biggest name in `ukulele. Some of the band's recordings, such as "Dark Eyes", "Gone With the Wind", and "Only Ashes Remain", became best-sellers. Many friends and family members were part of the band over the years, including Kalima's sons Jesse, Jr. and Dana.
Hawaii's `ukulele virtuoso, Jesse Kalima, left the gift of a lifetime devoted to the uke when he died in 1980. The Hawai`i House of Representatives passed a House Resolution in 1981 honoring his memory and artistic achievements.