Charlie Sepúlveda’s Conservation Work Swings … Both Ways


Charlie Sepúlveda is planning to restart the Luquillo Beach Jazz Festival on a larger scale.

(Photo: Gulnara Khamatova)

The morning after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, trumpeter Charlie Sepúlveda looked around his town of Luquillo and saw mostly destruction. His reflections on that disaster come through on “Estampas,” which brings together jazz and his island’s danza, aiming to preserve what may become lost as the song’s title, translated as “Pictures,” denotes. The track appears on Sepúlveda’s 2021 album This Is Latin Jazz (HighNote), but his musical conservation work includes more than composition.

This album is part of Sepúlveda’s preservation efforts. Last autumn, he completed building the C-Note, a multipurpose jazz club in his hometown. Sepúlveda is also restarting the Luquillo Beach Jazz Festival for Memorial Day weekend. These were all undertaken while he promoted This Is Latin Jazz, which was recorded at New York’s Dizzy’s Club just before the 2020 pandemic shutdown. So Sepúlveda knows all about urgent response.

“I’m just a trumpet player and bandleader, but never handled this aspect of the business,” Sepúlveda said from his car while heading to one more business meeting. “But I have a great crew, and I’m eager. I just want to play.”

The C-Note is a three-floor building overlooking the ocean. Currently, the music room can fit about 50 people, but Sepúlveda is knocking down walls for more performance space and constructing a recording studio as well as a restaurant. His goal is build to a place that’s similar to where he worked when he lived in New York during the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as the Blue Note. He added that organizations like Jazz at Lincoln Center serve as a model for his club’s educational mission.

“I’m planning to start with a trumpet workshop, then saxophones,” said Sepúlveda, an experienced educator who taught at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico for 16 years. “We would get a group of students to see music for free, and that would be for children of the town.”

While Sepúlveda is making room for bigger audiences at the C-Note, his plan for restarting the Luquillo Beach Jazz Festival means organizing on a larger scale. The event started in 2013 and typically brought in about 5,000 people. The hurricane curtailed the festival and COVID struck just as he was hoping to bring it back. None of which is blocking his determination this year as he speaks with potential performers and sponsors.

This Is Latin Jazz brought vital guests to join Sepúlveda’s sextet, The Turnaround. Randy Brecker, Steve Turre and Miguel Zenón appear on a few tracks and lift his robust tone. Throughout, the bandleader reinforces the ties between core Cuban and Puerto Rican idioms — danza, plena, bomba — and jazz. He also adapts a vamp from his cousin Eddie Palmieri’s “La Libertad Logico” for the melody to his “Liberty.”

“What I try to do is combine the two musics without losing elements of hard-bop and not losing the element of Latin music,” Sepúlveda said. “If you play Latin and then change to play hard-bop or bebop it has to swing both ways.”

Sepúlveda knows that now’s the time to carry that message forward.

“Almost everybody’s gone — Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaría,” Sepúlveda said. “We have to maintain this music, that’s the purpose. Even though it’s a little more modern — with modern harmonies — it has the essential roots of the music. And we have to pass it on to other generations.” DB

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