Some musicians serve as the glue that holds a scene together, maintaining a number of vital roles throughout their careers. At the core of their personalities, they are incredible players that consistently display outstanding musicianship. Their passion for music drives them to be fervent researchers, learning all that they can about unfamiliar musical worlds. They often act as composers and arranger, forging new musical directions while helping other artists solidify their own ideas. They almost always double as educators in some capacity, taking a serious part in passing tradition onto another generation. They eventually become bandleaders, expressing their own thoughts and sharing their experience with a new group of musicians. Sometimes these artists gain wide spread notoriety and other times they don’t, but their contributions always push their musical scene into an exciting and meaningful direction.
For many years, flautist, composer, educator, and bandleader John Calloway has served as the essential glue for the San Francisco Bay Area Latin music scene. His early interest in the music saw beyond the “San Francisco Sound” and looked towards New York and Cuba. He eventually spent significant time in these areas, bringing a wealth of real life knowledge back to the Bay Area. Calloway worked as the backbone behind many influential Latin dance and jazz groups such as Tipica Cienfuegos and The Machete Ensemble. His time with The Machete Ensemble served as a particularly influential era, as the group shaped the modern Bay Area Latin Jazz sound. Calloway has worked tirelessly as a music educator, teaching countless young people and adults about Latin music and more. Now a bandleader, Calloway leads his own group Diaspora and has recorded two very interesting Latin Jazz albums. He continues to explore new territory with The Flute Odyssey, a collection of diverse flautists presenting an intriguing evening of jazz Monday September 14 at Yoshi’s. Calloway has driven the Bay Area Latin Jazz scene for many years and continues to serve as a leader and role model.
In the first piece of a three-part interview with Calloway, we’ll look at the early years of his musical development. As Calloway provides insight about his early years, he also paints a picture about San Francisco’s Latin music scene in the 1970s. Calloway discusses some of the clubs, groups, and musicians that made this scene alive, as well as his impressions of New York. It’s an interesting discussion filled with vital history and insights.
LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You grew up in San Francisco at a time when there was a very different music scene. How did you get into Latin music?
JOHN CALLOWAY: Well back in the seventies, it was the Latin Rock era. I had played in Top 40 bands, but in terms of Latin music, I first got into Latin Rock. From there, I liked the appeal of what they were calling “roots music” or “salsa music” at the time. That really struck me musically, maybe because I thought it was more advanced in some ways. Certainly not a better music, but there were more challenges for me, more to learn. So I kind of just drifted to that. And it was a dance music . . . it was just one of the things that struck me as very powerful.
LJC: Was that Fania era stuff at the time?
JC: Yea, basically the New York sound. But very quickly around the mid-seventies I also began to realize that this wasn’t everything in the music. I realized that the music really came from Cuba and that stuff was happenin’. So that was another way to discover it. In the late seventies I went to New York for the first time and I was mind-blown. I said, “I think I have to move here!” So I moved there in 1980.
LJC: While you were still in the Bay Area, you had a group Tipica Cienfuegos with John Santos. . .
JC: Yea, that was formed in the mid-seventies and it lasted from about ’74 to about 1980, it lasted about six years. Santos wasn’t in the original band, but he was the one that actually kind of led it afterwards. We were playing traditional charanga music and stuff like that. That was a very popular band at the time until people started to move away and branch off. The band kind of dissipated and then it reformed as Batachanga.
LJC: At that time, were there places to work, was there a scene in San Francisco?
JC: In the seventies, there was much more of a scene than there is today. There were probably three or four clubs between 30th and Mission, and more between 22nd and Mission. There were clubs down on Union Street. There were a bunch of clubs and they were mostly in San Francisco. It certainly wasn’t the golden era, I guess that would still be the fifties. Latin music was big in the fifties here . . . but it was sort of like a revival from the fifties in the form of salsa music. In fact, there were three clubs – Señor Real, La Fonda, and The Elegante Club; that was between 30th and Army. Then there was Cesar’s Latin Palace when it moved in 1978. There were a lot of clubs.
LJC: So you could work pretty regularly and make a living?
JC: Well, we were all young. Could you pay rent then? A lot of musician sort of were, like today. The gigs weren’t great paying, but it was the seventies. Forty or fifty bucks back then seemed like a lot of money, and rent was low. So, yea, I guess you could. Put it this way, within a stretch of a four or five blocks, there were numerous clubs.
LJC: So, were there a lot more bands than Tipica Cienfuegos?
JC: I think there are a lot of bands in the Bay Area today, but back then I think there were a lot too. That’s not to say that there wasn’t Latin music going on anywhere else in the Bay Area, but at least in San Francisco, there were a bunch of bands. There was Ritmo ’74, Salsa Caliente, Orquesta Mestizo – there were tons of bands. I think there are more bands today quite honestly, but it’s hard to say. It’s a different era.
LJC: You went out to New York in 1980, and moved there.
JC: That’s right, I first went there to play, which I did. Then a couple years after playing, I decided that I needed to finish school. So I finished school in New York, and I stayed there about four and a half years before I moved back to California. I did a good amount of playing – I actually made a living playing in New York City, which is amazing just being a flute player.
Then I came back, and the Latin scene was still strong here. It was different. Musicians became more into Latin Jazz, although there was still a strong salsa scene. But things were changing.
LJC: Where did you go to school in New York and who were some of the people that you played with when you were out there?
JC: I went to City University in New York. I played with Libre and I played Charanga ’76 – those were the two main groups that I played with. I played with Charlie Rodriguez and basically I played with straight Latin bands. That’s what was making money. There really weren’t a lot of places to play Latin Jazz at that time. The only groups that were consistently playing that music at that time were Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band. There were others that were playing Latin Jazz, but not to that level, and not to that extent. I think the modern version of Latin Jazz blossomed ten years later in the nineties when you see David Sanchez, Charlie Sepulveda, and then the Cubans came over, as well as all these people from Latin America. It’s hard to frame it – there was always Latin Jazz going on, and there were always people playing it – but in terms of contemporary Latin Jazz you see it blossoming in the nineties. In the eighties, for me, it was such strong focus on Latin dance music – there were a lot of clubs in New York doing that, and you were able to make a living at it.
LJC: You said that things were different when you came back to the Bay Area – what was different about it – musicians, clubs, styles?
JC: I think in the eighties that it was an outgrowth of musicians wanting to do be able to do more than just play dance music. And while certainly there were dance clubs, there was a blossoming of musicians that just wanted to play Latin Jazz, and they were playing it in jazz clubs. There was always Latin Jazz there, but the way I see it, the people that I grew up with, we were wanting to stretch out more and play non-dance music so that we could express ourselves in a different way.
Don’t miss Part 2 of our interview, when we look at Calloway’s time as a member of John Santos’ Machete Ensemble, where he served as a musician, composer, arranger, and director. Check it out HERE
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