Latin Jazz Heats Up Symphony Space
Percussionist/educator John Santos made a bold remark during the historic East Meets West summit of sizzling and sophisticated Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican jazz that took place Feb. 1–2 at Symphony Space.
“Everyone in the world recognizes New York City as the mecca of Latin jazz,” Santos said. “We have learned so much from the players here.”
Hosted by forward-thinking pianist Arturo O’Farrill and his power-packed 18-piece Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, the New York concerts focused on Santos compositions that he and the big band co-arranged. O’Farrill introduced Santos by saying, “We are here tonight to experience Latin jazz at its highest pinnacle by getting deeper into the tradition. John will be our spiritual guide as he takes us on a sanctified journey.”
The first show opened with Santos, dressed in a pork pie hat, blazer, white shirt and tie, delivering a round of solo polyrhythms before O’Farrill and the band joined onstage for a rousing tune buoyed by shekere percussion, spirited horns and the leader’s sweeping pianistic runs. At one point, Santos led the band in his relaxed, rumba-driven “SF Bay” (co-written by his Oakland band mate John Callaway), which he recorded in 2001 with his long-term Machete Ensemble for the Grammy-nominated album of the same name.
To the best of O’Farrill’s and Santos’ knowledge, this is the first time both communities have come together to not only collaborate but also to challenge the perceived notion of a bicoastal Latin jazz rivalry. Writing in the program notes, O’Farrill noted, “Latin Jazz from the West Coast is newer than its East Coast rival, but its music is just as complex and profound, and its artists just as remarkable.”
An East Coast team honoring a West Coast contribution to the genre? A few years ago, it was unheard of. Even Grammy Award-winning Poncho Sanchez, a Los Angeles-based Mexican-American conguero and bandleader, experienced for many years Latinos in New York shouting heresy for his recognition as a bona fide Latin jazz artist.
But the climate has changed thanks to some in the Latin jazz community. “John is such a quiet spokesperson and gentle authority for Latin jazz,” said O’Farrill, who established the New York-based nonprofit Afro Latin Jazz Alliance in 2007 to promote the genre. “Inviting him to New York to work together destroys the notion of rivalry. There’s such a rich vein of knowledge and openness about Latin jazz in the Bay Area. We all want to create history by embracing possibilities. We want to embrace musicians like John and share in the openness.”
After the opening-night performance, Santos—who was recently pegged as one of SFJAZZ’s inaugural resident artistic directors along with Regina Carter, Bill Frisell, Jason Moran and Miguel Zenón to help launch the festival’s 30th anniversary and celebrate the new SFJAZZ Center—clarified his appreciation of O’Farrill, affording him the opportunity to showcase his music. “On the West Coast, we always looked up to New York as the big bro,” he said. “There’s so much of the music’s tradition here that you’d be a fool to compare yourself to and compete with the super creativity that has taken place. We do have a creative community in San Francisco, but it’s minuscule compared to the number of cats in New York.”
More than merely being dismissed, Santos believes the West Coasters were removed from the Latin jazz equation. “The West Coast wasn’t even on the map,” he said. “Even when we did come into contact, the New Yorkers would say, ‘Good job,’ but it felt like they were patting us on the head and wanting us to just go away.”
O’Farrill agrees. After a concert he performed in Los Angeles a few years ago, he had lunch with Jose Rizo, a Mexican-American radio DJ who began hosting the long-running weekly “Jazz on the Latin Side” program in 1990 (first on KLON, which became KJazz 88.1), which spawned the Jazz on the Latin Side All-Stars big band in 2000. “Jose told me that he saw the East Coast Latin jazz players as being dismissive of the West Coast,” O’Farrill said. “I said that’s insane. I didn’t feel superior. Anyone from New York who feels that way is wrong. But I knew that my New York compatriots didn’t know the long, storied history of the music that was being developed on the West Coast.”
That conversation planted the seeds for the Santos shows. “I met John first when he introduced my dad, Chico, at the San Francisco Jazz Festival many years ago,” O’Farrill said. “Then I started listening to his Machete Ensemble albums, saw him again in San Francisco when he came to one of my shows at the Yerba Buena Center, and then he wrote me a poem that he sent me on Facebook when I was taking the orchestra to Cuba. John was not a grandstander. He was genuine, touching. I saw him as a musician reaching out to a fellow musician. I also knew how curatorial John was. He was perfect for what we’re doing with the ALJA.”
Santos said he was “pleasantly surprised” to be invited to New York to share his compositions. “I tip my hat to Arturo and respect where he’s coming from,” he said, then added, “There shouldn’t be a separation because of the coasts. Music doesn’t recognize borders.”
Setting aside the parochial contentions, O’Farrill has been committed to taking Latin jazz and its possibilities further forward. “What we’re doing can be a game-changer,” he said, noting the orchestral collaborations the big band has been doing with such jazz stars as Vijay Iyer and Miguel Zenón. “We’re going beyond the mambo/Cubop stereotype, which is only a small slice of Latin jazz. Art is not static, and there are many worlds of Latin jazz such as cumbia, bomba and plena. This concert, where John offered his deep understanding of the Afro folkloric roots, grew out of a desire to embrace the possibilities of creating the next stage of Latin jazz history.”