Latin Jazz Conversations: Mark Weinstein (Part 1)

by chip on March 3, 2010

For many young musicians, the future lies ahead like a foggy mist, filled with uncertainty but packed with the inevitable reality that it will arrive. At the early stages of their careers, musicians can only move towards the mist, embracing the unknown in a quest for clarity. Each experience along the way provides a bit more definition to their future, paving the wave towards an musical focus and a burning artistic passion. As the musicians wind through the twists and turns of paying their dues, the highs and lows of early gigs sometimes give an uneven perspective on the future, but each performance leaves a memorable mark upon the artist’s consciousness. Sometimes musicians garner clarity through the associations that they make during the early stages of their career, building relationships that effect both their personal and professional lives. They create these associations with mentor figures that provide leadership and inspiration, but also with their musical peers who work in the trenches alongside them. Regardless of the relationship’s foundation, the time shared with each contact provides important insights that help the musician form their artistic vision. Along the way, the musician develops ideas and focus that open a clear road into the future, leading them towards a defined future. The path may change direction over time, and their musical focus may evolve over time – one thing becomes certain though, the foggy mist rises and the musician sees future possibilities. At that point, its up to the musician to take action, move ahead and develop the future possibilities.

Now a major voice in Latin Jazz through important recordings such as Cuban Roots and Con Alma, Mark Weinstein spent the early part of his career finding his way into a larger future. Following a natural inclination for music, Weinstein moved through several different instruments before finding his voice on the trombone. He developed strong technical and musicianship skills quickly and began working professionally in his mid-teens. Doubling on trombone and bass, Weinstein built a firm understanding of Latin music while working with an early version of pianist Larry Harlow’s group. Through a chance sub gig, Weinstein earned a spot in one of the early incarnations of pianist Eddie Palmieri’s now legendary La Perfecta band. Weinstein’s musical abilities were a perfect match for Palmieri’s combustable spontaneity and endless energetic drive. During his time in La Perfecta, Weinstein also worked alongside one of the most recognizable voices in Latin music, Barry Rogers. An amazing soloist, a powerful performer, and a musician with a defined artistic vision, Rogers served as a mentor and friend to Weinstein, providing valuable lessons about music. All of these early experiences set the stage for some amazing music that Weinstein would develop in the near future.

Weinstein participated in some important moments in Latin music history during his early days as a musician before he turned around and created major musical milestones himself. With Cuban Roots ahead of him, an unsuspecting switch to the flute imminent, and a mind-boggling musical output late in life, these early days were just the start of an amazing career. In the first part of our extensive interview with Mark Weinstein, we dig into his early musical development, his time with Palmieri, and his relationship with Barry Rogers.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You started playing piano at age six and then moved onto clarinet and drums; where you raised in a musical environment and what was it that got you into playing music at an early age?

MARK WEINSTEIN: My brother, who is 16 years older than me, was a sailor during World War II, and I worshiped him. He was a trombone player . . . my family is full of trombone players. My nephew Dan Weinstein is a working trombone player out in Los Angeles. He actually played trombone in part because of me – his father wanted him to play violin, but he sort of looked up to me. Anyway, my brother was a trombone player and we had a piano in the house since my brother was a musician. So that was basically what started it. My sister played flute and bassoon. My father, although he was a laborer, played violin when he was a boy; later in his life, he always used to play harmonica. My mother’s brother was a klezmer trumpet player in Poland and my mother claimed that her grandfather played bass in the orchestra of the Czar . . . that may be a family legend or it may be true! So I have musicians on both sides of the family.

LJC: So was it your brother that inspired you to move onto trombone when you were 14?

MW: My father had died and we went out to visit my brother the summer when I turned 14 – that was right before I started high school. He started me on trombone and the high school bands always want trombone players. So they were perfectly happy to give me the instrument of my choice. I started to play trombone at a high school called Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. By the time I was fifteen I was gigging. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was a ringer in the Brooklyn College Jazz Stage Band that was being run by Larry Harlow – that’s how I met him. In those days there were very few jazz bands at colleges, but he was co-leading that band. There was only one trombone player, and that was me. I ended up actually being a featured soloist in the band even though I was just a high school student.

The summer that I graduated, I got a gig in the Catskill Mountains. In those days, trombone players had to double on bass. So I bought a bass – that was the only way that I could get the gig – and I learned how to play it. Then I started working with Latin bands – I worked with a band led by Randy Carlos and another band led by a guy who called himself Arvito; he was actually Harvey Averne, the producer of some great Latin records – he produced Eddie Palmieri’s The Sun of Latin Music. Larry Harlow was the piano player in those bands. Then Larry started to work with a trio and I was playing bass in the trio. There’s a funny story about that – I used to practice trombone out in the back of the club that faced out onto a big swamp – it was in the back part of Brooklyn that wasn’t developed at all. One day I’m practicing and this guy comes over to me, this real slim guy, and he asks me if I’m the trombone player in the show band. I said, “No, I’m the bass player in the Latin trio.” He said, “Too bad.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I’m the star of the show and one of my main numbers needs a trombone player.” It turns out that this show was a female impersonator show, and this guy did a take on Pearl Bailey. He did a song called “I’m Tired,” which is actually the song in Blazing Saddles that the lady sings. I got the gig. In the middle of the song, the trombone player had to play an attitude filled loud note and then he called me out onto the stage holding my music to practice the part. Then he would come out in front and run from me, and then I would chase him around, hitting him in the ass with the slide. The amazing thing is that because of that, at the age of 18 or 19, I ended up playing a class A show gig on trombone, making great money. So I dropped bass and started to work on trombone.

LJC: So those early gigs before you were working with Harlow, was that all on bass?

MW: Yea. One summer Larry had a gig in the Catskills Mountains with a conjunto – two trumpets, and I was playing bass. One of the trumpet players played bass, so he would let me do a feature number on trombone. It was a novelty – in those days, no one was using trombone. I don’t even know if Larry knew about Eddie at this point. So I would play some features on trombone. A couple of years later when Larry formed his own quintet – again in the Catskills Mountains – he used me as the only horn. It was trombone and rhythm section. And that’s when Larry decided to put a band together with trumpets and trombones. I wrote a great many of his first arrangements. His second album was pretty much all my arrangements. Then I had this association with Larry on and off through my entire career. Even after I stopped playing, I wrote some charts for Larry.

LJC: When you joined Eddie Palmieri’s band, that was on the early edge of La Perfecta, right?

MW: Barry Rogers, who was playing with Eddie Palmieri, had a very high paying gig, and he needed a sub for Palmieri. They were based in the Bronx and I was from Brooklyn. That was like East and West, you know, it was like a wall, so we hadn’t met. He heard about this trombone player in Brooklyn who could read and play Latin bass, so he called me to do a sub for him with Eddie’s band. I did the gig and Eddie hired me on the spot as a second trombone. That’s how I started being a Latin trombone player.

I was with his first La Perfecta band. He had recorded the album that has that famous picture with the car and me holding the trombone. I wasn’t on that album – João Donato, the Brazilian pianist who is also a trombone player was the other trombone player. He living in New York in those days, but he had gone back to Brazil. When Eddie took the picture for the album, he wanted the picture to show his working band. That’s the graphical record of me playing with the band.

I worked with Eddie until 1963, about two years. Then I went to Europe – I wanted to be a jazz musician. That didn’t work out. When I came back about eight months later, trombone had become the hottest thing, but there were no trombone players around. Barry was locked in with Eddie and Jose Rodriguez by this time was the main second trombone player. I ended up working with just about every other Latin band in the city. I worked a lot with Charlie Palmieri, Eddie’s brother. Charlie had a charanga band, and when Eddie’s band hit, he switched to horns. He had a three trumpet and two trombone band. Again, I wrote some of his early charts. I played with Charlie, and I did club dates with just about every band that had a trombone player. Barry, Jose, and myself became the trombone players for recordings. I did a whole bunch of recordings with Tito Puente during that period, when he used trombones.

LJC: When you were playing with Palmieri, you worked alongside Barry Rogers, a figure that is really admired in the Latin music community, but there’s not a whole lot out there about him. Could you let us know what Barry was like as a person and a musician – what was it like working with him at that time?

MW: This is complicated – I always had this love/hate relationship with Barry. He was my best friend . . . literally. He was my best friend, our wives were best friends; we were very, very close. But Barry or Eddie would never let me take solos. Barry was a musical perfectionist. The band had to be run exactly the way he wanted it run. So it was very frustrating to me because I always wanted to be a soloist. I would stand there just playing the vamp over and over and over and over again while Barry would be playing these magnificent improvisations which was really what made La Perfecta. It’s something that you don’t hear on the recordings. What would happen was during the montuno, Barry would sing coro. When Ismael Quintano was doing his pregon, Barry would call me over and sing a riff in my ear very softly, moving his arm to show me how to play it on the slide, where the smears were, and how to get it just the way he wanted it. I would have two shots, and after two shots, I had to have it down. And that was one of the reasons why I hung onto the gig – because I could do that with Barry. I would play the riff while the singers were still singing. Then Barry would start to double the riff and then he would play the riff in harmony. Then he would start to improvise almost dixieland style over what I was playing. This would go on sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes. People would go crazy because Barry would be playing all this great stuff. But all that I was doing was playing this original vamp. Barry made it very, very clear that I was not allowed to move off the vamp.

The trombones stood right in the front of the band, and the drums were in the back, Cuban conjunto style. I always felt that everyone was staring at me, wondering why I wasn’t playing any of the solos. It didn’t turn out that way; no one made that distinction – the trombones were just playing. But to me, every night on the band was more of a put-down. Eddie knew that, so he would let me take a solo on a merengue or a bolero, but he would never let me do the real thing. What I was learning at that point – I didn’t realize it myself, being an egotistical, young, arrogant guy who was feeling slighted – but what I was doing was learning more about playing music by listening to Barry’s solos than you could ever learn anywhere in the world. Like I said, Barry was a perfectionist and everything he played was musically flawless. I really learned an awful lot listening to Barry. Although I never really sounded like Barry, he influenced my playing enormously. On some of my early records with Harlow, where I was the featured soloist, you can hear the tremendous influence that Barry had on my playing. I was always more of a technical player and an avant-garde player than Barry, but I really didn’t come into my own until I joined Herbie’s band. Playing with Chick and playing with a jazz band, I really started to extend my playing, like I did in Cuban Roots. My playing by that point is harmonically more advanced than a lot of guys were playing at that time, even more advanced than my Latin band recordings.

Also, neither Barry nor Eddie ever gave me what I really felt I needed from them in terms of acceptance because of Cuban Roots. When Eddie heard Cuban Roots, the only thing he ever said to me was, “How come you didn’t use Charlie?” I think what he really meant was “How come you didn’t use me?” But that was all he ever said. When Barry heard Cuban Roots, we had a little party in my house – not a CD release party, but just a party to celebrate the CD coming out. Barry loved my wife’s cooking, but I dragged him into a back room and made him listen to Cuban Roots. After he listened to it all the way through, he said, “I’m going to go eat.” That was it. I had all this resentment because I really felt that Cuban Roots was a good album, but the two musicians that I respected the most – Eddie and Barry – never really gave my any type of positive response.

In a funny way – I know this sounds crazy – but that helped me out of the music business. I felt that I had done the best thing that I could do and I still wasn’t getting the kind of response that I wanted from the musicians that I worshiped. So I said the hell with it, and I went and got a PhD – if Barry Rogers didn’t like my record, then I’m going to become a doctor of Philosophy! That gives you a sense of how much I thought of him. For Barry to have liked that record would have been the most important thing in the world to me. Then I really didn’t run into him actually until I made the Orisha Suites. I played the Orisha Suites for him and he responded by saying, “Why don’t you let me produce your next record?” And again, nothing else.

It wasn’t that he was mean spirited . . . let me put it in perspective. When I started to join Eddie’s band, Barry brought me over to his house and he only played two records for me – as if those were the only two records that I should listen to if I wanted to learn how to play Latin music. One was Chappotin’s Sabor Tropical with Miguelito Cuni – that was probably one of the greatest conjunto records of all time. The other was the Carnival In Havana record – a pre-Castro recording of rumbas and congas with a trumpet player called La Florecita playing with the drummers. This guy was like the Louie Armstrong of Cuban music. I worked a lot with Chocolate in Harlow’s band; if you mentioned La Florecita to Chocolate, he would fall on the floor and worship. This guy was the most amazing trumpet player. The record was actually re-released on CD some years later, and Andy Gonzalez wrote the liner notes for the re-release, saying that this is the greatest recording of rumba and congas ever made. He mentions the fact that the album was so influential because I recorded four or five of the tunes from it on Cuban Roots. Those two records, which are amazing records, were the only two records that Barry wanted me to listen to. Barry’s idea of music was that if it wasn’t the absolute best, it didn’t count.

The result was that Barry himself was very unhappy about music most of his life. He never met his own standard. An indicator of that, when he recorded the album with The Brecker Brothers, also a very, very rare album from the sixties, and album called Dreams, where he did a lot of the horn arranging, he never takes a solo. He never takes a solo on the entire album. I’m convinced that the reason he wouldn’t take a solo is that he was in a band with Michael and Randy Brecker, and his soloing wasn’t up to it. Barry, for a guy who’s probably one of the major voices in the 1960s, he has no solos recorded to speak of. He has eight bar solos with Eddie here and there, and he has some solos on the Alegre All-Stars album. He never recorded an album of his own. He could have gotten a record album just by calling any producer in the world and asking them if they would produce him. He had the absolute respect of every single musician that played with him. There was nobody who didn’t respect Barry, except maybe Barry himself, who always felt that his playing was inadequate.

He always had chop trouble. When we would record with Tito, with three trombones, I’d always play lead, and he’d always play third trombone – I mean, he had a beautiful, beautiful low register – but he’d always play third trombone and Jose would play second. Barry would never play lead – he would always ask me to play lead because he was always afraid that he would crack a high note. He never had the security on the trombone that even I had. A lot of it was this total perfectionism.

One of the influences that he had on my development as a musician, was that I sort of internalized that standard. Now, it’s not that I think that my playing is in that category, but that’s what you strive for. You don’t strive to just play, you strive to model yourself against the absolute best musicians. You just hold that Holy Grail up in front of you as a beacon to what you’re trying to achieve as a musician. And that’s really what I got from Barry. Barry was one of the greatest musicians that I’ve ever played with in my entire life – I put him up there with Chick Corea in terms of natural ability, musicality. He had incredible musicality, plus, he was a lunatic. He was always fixing things. He was always fixing amps; during the set, he would be adjusting things. He would be bossing people around – things had to be perfect with Barry.

Make sure that you check out Part 2 of our conversation with Mark Weinstein as we look into the development and recording of Cuban Roots, as well as Weinstein’s movement towards the flute. Check it out HERE.

You can find the info about Weinstein’s career as a flautist and his initial recordings in Part 3 of our discussion. It brings us up to Weinstein’s current recording career – check it out HERE.

Don’t miss Part 4 of our interview with Weinstein where we talk about two incredible recordings, Tales From The Earth and Timbasa. Lot’s of great stuff in this chapter – check it out HERE.

Check Out These Related Posts:
Latin Jazz Conversations: Poncho Sanchez (Part 1)
Latin Jazz Conversations: John Calloway (Part 1)
Latin Jazz Conversations: Jose Madera (Part 1)
Latin Jazz Conversations: Mitch Frohman (Part 1)

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