Thanksgiving is an American holiday, so today doesn’t hold significance for all the LJC readers. I grew up spending every Thanksgiving with family; we ate, celebrated, and enjoyed each other’s company. It served as a day that we could all look back and appreciate our role in each other’s life. Funny that everyday couldn’t be like that – it’s such a nice way to spend time. Yet American tradition places this event on one day. Many of us try to show our appreciation daily, but it arises fully on the fourth Thursday in November.
Outside of the American tradition, I do appreciate the opportunity to reflect upon people that have impacted our lives. I’ve spent many years investing my time in Latin Jazz, so I do keep in mind the individuals that have affected me over time. Some of them started me on my journey, others met me along the way, and still others are recent inspirations. All of these artists probably don’t realize that they changed me, but they have, and I’d like to take the opportunity to show my thanks.
When I began playing Latin Jazz as a bassist, everyone I encountered steered me towards one player – Israel “Cachao” Lopéz. At the time, recordings were somewhat difficult to find (at least for me!), and honestly, my musical interests were still spread across several genres. I also found it hard to believe that one player could embody such a major piece of the music – I brought an unnecessary cynicism to the situation that downplayed everything I heard. So despite the fact that I repeatedly got advice about listening to Cachao, it was quite a while before I actually got around to it.
Then I found Cuban Jam Session, Vol. 2 and my life changed. I distinctly remember letting that CD run from the top and listening intently to every note. It all seemed so fresh and exciting – I could feel a new inspiration running through my veins. Once the CD got to “Descarga Cubana” I was hooked. Cachao’s addictive bass line and classic solo made me repeat that track several times . . . and then run straight to my bass.
Once Cachao experienced a resurgence in popularity, I got the opportunity to hear him live and collect many more albums. I’ve listened to his recordings more times than I can remember, and I can still learn something every time I hear them. When I see recent videos of Cachao’s performances, I’m constantly amazed at the man in his 80s grooving harder than I ever will. I’ve transcribed a good number of Cachao’s recordings, and I’m always amazed at how his playing relates to many musical situations. Gracias Maestro, you join me every time I pick up my bass.
2. John Santos
When people think about San Francisco and music, they talk about psychedelic rock first and everything else second. The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and hippies live on in people’s minds as the “San Francisco Scene.” After that, Carlos Santana, Huey Lewis, and even Sammy Hagar arise as major Bay Area musical icons. These artists did cement their place in history through important recordings and events. Still, San Francisco (and the greater Bay Area) contains a thriving and diverse musical scene that often gets overlooked due to these widely known artists.
John Santos has worked extremely hard for decades to ensure that Latin Jazz takes its rightful place among the legendary genres of the Bay Area music scene. His group The Machete Ensemble spent over twenty years performing and recording artistically challenging Latin Jazz in the Bay Area and beyond. Santos’ current group, The John Santos Quintet, continues that trend with classy small group Latin Jazz. He has worked as an educator – teaching classes, giving clinics, and lecturing large groups – all to spread the word about the depth of the Latin tradition. Santos has traveled the world performing with some of the major names in Latin Jazz – Cachao, Dizzy Gillespie, Giovanni Hidalgo, and more. He always represents the Bay Area with style and depth.
Thank you Mr. Santos – without you, the Bay Area probably would not have the thriving Latin music scene that currently exists – which would have meant a different musical path for me. I’m quite happy to be neck deep in Latin Jazz, and I appreciate the fact that you nurtured that here.
3. Rebeca Mauleón
For a cultural outsider with a limited understanding of Cuban culture, learning this music was a constant struggle in my early years. I didn’t know many people involved in the music, and I was unsure where to look. Recordings were not readily available in my local music store, and I wasn’t aware of mail order catalogs like Descarga. Performances were happening in San Francisco, but I lived about an hour away. Even if I had driven up there, I wouldn’t have known where to attend concerts. I don’t think that I even knew where Cuba was in relationship to myself. I did play in a Latin Jazz group at college and owned a few recordings – that just wasn’t getting me very far.
Then Rebeca Mauleón created The Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble, an in-depth look at the inner workings of Latin music. The book contained notated examples of rhythmic styles for the percussion, bass, and piano – just the information that I needed. It not only introduced patterns, but it showed relationships between the different instruments. Mauleón wrote about Salsa form, pointing out the rhythmic changes that happen in each different section. The back of the book contained an extensive appendix that listed important musicians on each instrument, recommended listening, and information about where to buy recordings. This was just the type of information that I lacked, and I read that book from front to back many times. My original copy sits on my bookshelf, tattered and worn . . . and I still refer to it from time to time.
Thank you Ms. Mauleón for your guidance and direction that allowed me to pursue this music to a much higher level. I haven’t even mentioned your inspiring recordings and important presence and the Bay Area Latin Jazz scene, but know that I appreciate you for those reasons as well!
4. Paquito D’Rivera
Every musician remembers the moment that they feel so deeply in love with an artistic approach and on the spot, they committed themselves fully to that music. These turning points range from a performance experience, a concert they attended, a recording they heard, to even a piece of advice. The event just forces them so deeply into the music that there was no turning back – from that moment on, they were intimately tied to that musical expression. Regardless of what happens, the result remains the same – the musician knows their chosen musical path and they dive into it with a new passion.
That moment happened for me in the summer of 1993 when I saw Paquito D’Rivera’s quintet perform live at the Kuumba Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, California. I had spent months listening to 40 Years of Cuban Jam Sessions non-stop; there was something contagious in that album that I’d never experienced. When I saw the group playing live, I understood the elements that drew me to the music. D’Rivera’s fluent improvising skills expressed a thorough knowledge of jazz and Latin music, but at the same time floated with a good-natured humor. The interaction between the band members sharply contrasted the stiff rhythmic interpretation of Cuban rhythms that I’d experienced with my college peers. It seemed spontaneous and conversational, more akin to the Miles Davis recordings that I’d studied. Amidst all this, the band played with a serious dedication to Latin music – Cuban and beyond. It was a unique artistic experience, both meaningful and fun. I left that concert wanting to be a part of Latin Jazz in a much bigger way than ever before . . . and I’ve never turned back.
Thank you Mr. D’Rivera for that night that sent me on a path that has become such a major part of my life. I could continue to list countless other times that you’ve inspired me in so many different ways – your artistic integrity sets a model that we should all aspire to.
Which Latin Jazz Artists Have Inspired You?
Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, I’m sure that we all have an artist that has affected us. I’d love to hear about the Latin Jazz artists that you appreciate – please comment below with your list of artists and how they inspired you!