martes, septiembre 02, 2014

Carmelo loves jazz - Who is Don Pedro?


Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

To Louise Maher-Johnson

(A Spanish language version of this article was published in Claridad on February 12 2004. An English language version was published on this blog on November 22 2011)

Back in the 1980's I used to walk often through Esteban González street in the neighborhood of Santa Rita in the urban heart of Río Piedras, very near the University of Puerto Rico campus. Inevitably, that meant passing by the Taller de Jazz Don Pedro (Don Pedro Jazz Workshop). It was located in a basement in a building near the Burger King at the end of the street, across the street from the Guatíbiri art gallery, and next door to where today stands the Centro Para Puerto Rico, headquarters of the Sila María Calderón Foundation.

Back in those years, the Taller emitted phenomenal sounds into the street, a hi-hat doing swing, a saxophonist inventing a new tonal vocabulary, and other equally fascinating fragments of music. Before the decade ended a hurricane flooded the basement and the locale was closed, but the Taller as an institution has lived on. Now, what is the Taller and just who is Don Pedro? The answers to those questions would have to wait until the 21st century.

Jazz is the music of the uncomprehended. Lovers of this musical genre live in a world of endless fascination, moving from one exciting sonic discovery to the next, often finding themselves in a gray, jaded world which does not share their enthusiasm. These unrepentant audiophiles collect records and interesting facts about this music and its performers with the same passion that sports fans collect and memorize statistics of their favorite teams and players.

After discovering jazz, other popular music genres do not sound quite the same anymore. They begin to seem stale and flavorless by comparison. By overthrowing the tyranny of the written score, jazz musicians create personal topographies with their instruments, geographies that are as unique and unrepeatable as an individual fingerprint. Without the element of improvisation, which is what makes jazz unique, there is no topography to speak of, for without it the music is as flat as the paper it is transcribed on.

Almost two decades passed by without learning exactly what the Taller de Jazz was, until one evening in 2004, by pure chance, I learned the answer in El Boricua, a refuge for insomniac intellectuals barely three blocks away from the Taller's old basement locale. El Boricua, where I have been a faithful patron since the late 1990's, is precisely the right place for this type of unpredictable, unexpected and nonlinear social interaction, like the one that took place that evening.

I was there talking to a friend about my brother Milton's work as a sound engineer for musical heavyweights like Cuba's Paquito D'Rivera, Colombia's Marta Gómez, Brazil's Rosa Passos and Badi Assad, Argentina's Carlos Franzetti, and American greats like Ron Carter, Mike Stern, Lenny White, The Persuasions, David Johansen, Larry Coryell and John Abercrombie. It was my mention of the last two names that made a man within listening distance invite himself into our conversation and pour out to us his love and sheer enthusiasm for jazz. He introduced himself as Ramón Soto-Vélez, director of the Taller de Jazz Don Pedro.

"Enthusiasm" is the word that best describes Ramón. After decades of fomenting, celebrating and promoting jazz music, he keeps intact the original fascination and joy he felt when he first heard it. So deeply ingrained is this music in his persona that I find it impossible to imagine what path his life would have taken if he had never discovered it. And it's the same with all jazz lovers and performers. Were it not for jazz, this world definitely would be a less interesting and joyful place. It's just another cultural debt we owe to Africa. I quote Uruguay's great writer and social critic Eduardo Galeano:

The rhythms of African origin are saving the world from death by sadness or yawn. What would it be of us without the music that came from Africa and generated new magics in Brazil, the United States, and the coasts of the Caribbean Sea?

The Taller was born as an initiative not of Ramón but of his mother, Ana Vélez. There is hardly anyone in Puerto Rico who knows more about jazz than Doña Ana, author of the two-volume book En Torno Al Jazz. Her first encounter with this music was purely casual. In the mid 1960's she found some jazz LP's in a clearance sale at a drug store, selling for 69 cents each, and bought several. As she listened to them her long romance with jazz began. This romance spread like contagion to her late husband Samuel, and their children Ramón and Ivonne (who is nowadays one of Puerto Rico's top filmmakers), and continues to run in the family to this day.

Doña Ana undertook a profound study of jazz music from a sociological perspective, a scholarly effort of epic proportions which spanned years and took her all the way to New York City's Arturo Schomburg library and culminated with the publication of En Torno Al Jazz.

I visited her in her house in the La Cumbre suburb of Río Piedras. Ramón was there that evening, and so was his friend Ricky Encarnación, former Menudo bassist nowadays playing with his jazz band Heaven Report. They were listening to records from the vast collection of LP`s that began with that small cache of records that sold for 69 cents each three decades earlier.

So, what are you guys listening to?”, I asked. “It's the Phil Woods Quintet”, said Ramón. All popular music lovers of my generation have heard Woods. He played the sax solo in Billy Joel's unforgettable 1977 ballad “Just The Way You Are”. Later on we listen to music by a trumpeter, which Ramón tells me has been constantly walking in and out of psychiatric institutions. The jazz anecdotarium is replete with stories like these, of talented musicians that have made the most awesome music under the most adverse and overwhelming personal circumstances.

Jazz is Africa's classical music, created by the descendants of slaves”, affirms Doña Ana at the start of the interview. Upon hearing her say that, I cannot help but think about all those local pseudo-intellectuals who claim in their idiocy that jazz is música de blanquitos (whitey music). “The jazzista, unlike performers of other musical genres, can depart from the written score, and upon doing so produces the most exciting elements of this musical genre”.

While we talk I notice on the wall in front of me a huge black and white framed photo of a man playing three wind instruments at once. It's none other than Rahsaan Roland Kirk, legendary jazzista, blind almost from birth, who indeed could play three saxophones at once. He kept on carrying out this musical feat, even after a stroke paralyzed one side of his body, until his death at the age of 42. It turns out that Kirk referred to jazz as “black classical music”, and much of his music had no discernible European influence at all.

While jazz arrived in Puerto Rico from the United States, it is no less true that Puerto Ricans have made significant contributions to the genre. Doña Ana mentions various Boricuas that left their imprint in the history of jazz, like percussionists Manuel Tió and Ray Barreto, the late great pianist Hilton Ruiz, bassist Eddie Gómez, flutist Dave Valentín, the immortal Tito Puente, Noro Morales- whose niece Alicia Torres was my neighbor and music teacher and who has been to me like a second mother since the 1970's- and Ram Ramírez, an organ player from the city of Mayagüez who in 1941 co-wrote “Lover Man” for Billie Holiday, a song that has since been performed also by Barbara Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston, Norah Jones, Linda Ronstadt, Stan Getz, and many more.

But, she tells me, one of the most important and yet underrated Puerto Ricans in jazz was trombonist Juan Tizol, from the town of Vega Baja, who wrote some of Duke Ellington's most memorable tunes, like “Caravan", “Perdido”, “Pyramid” and “Moonlight Siesta”.

Ramón started to organize and promote jazz concerts, which led to his mother hosting in her house in La Cumbre jazz giants like Dexter Gordon, Frank Foster, George Benson and the great Miles Davis, among others. “What impressed me the most about them all was their thoughtful demeanor, their desire to please and to make people feel good”, she tells me. “I could then see how unjust society is towards them, because they are always associated in the public mind with vice and degeneration.”

The Taller de Jazz Don Pedro was born as an outgrowth of these concerts. It brought to Puerto Rico, apart from the already mentioned artists who came over to Doña Ana's house, bassist Buster Williams, drummer Billy Higgins, singer Betty Carter, Tito Puente, the Heath brothers, sax virtuoso Gato Barbieri- of “Last Tango in Paris” fame-, and many more. The artists that work with the Taller make a commitment to give educational clinics for young music students, which have taken place not only in San Juan but also in San Germán, Ponce and Lares.

The Taller produced several radio shows hosted by Ramón. The last one, which I listened to regularly in the 1990's, was En Tiempo de Jazz, on Ponce's catholic WEUC- a fine station until Catholic University president Beto Morales and the Opus Dei destroyed it in 1999, but that's another story. Ramón would refer to great musicians as cronopios, which sometimes provoked calls from listeners who would pretend to correct him, telling him that it was nonsense, an incorrect use of the word invented by Argentina's dean of writers, Julio Cortázar. Ramón explained to me that he uses the word cronopio as a Spanish language translation of the term “eulypions”, mythical creatures endowed with supernatural musical powers invented by Roland Kirk.

And then there was the Taller's locale in Santa Rita. It was a record store, a rehearsal space for musicians and students, and a meeting place for all lovers of jazz. In the 1980's it was visited by a woman with her 14 year-old son. She told Ramón that the kid was a sax player and that he wanted to learn jazz. He was welcomed and so began his amazing musical journey. As a matter of fact, the first Taller de Jazz Don Pedro concert I ever went to was in the mid 1980's in the Colegio de Abogados (Puerto Rico Bar Association) in Santurce, it was also the very first time I ever set foot in that place- where I am now a regular visitor. The star of that night's event was precisely that sax-playing kid. His name: David Sánchez, who years later went on to become an internationally acclaimed jazzista, playing with Dizzy Gillespie's United Nations Orchestra, Miriam Makeba, Hilton Ruiz, Paquito D'Rivera, Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Haden, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and McCoy Tyner, among many others.

The Taller also had El Museo del Jazz (The Jazz Museum), which in the 1980's was located in San José street in Old San Juan. In that very same street was a book store that was called Cronopios, owned by a cranky, fastidious Americano that was loved by some and hated by others. Now, the book store's name had nothing to do with Ramon's usage of the word, it wasn't called that in the eighties, and it wasn't called that in 1990 when I worked there under the tender mercies of that crazy gringo. Until the mid 1990's it went by the dull and unimaginative name of The Book Store.

So, who is or was Don Pedro? I cannot finish the interview without asking her. That question had been gnawing at me since the twentieth century. In answering, Doña Ana confirmed to me something I had heard years ago but did not believe at first, that Don Pedro is indeed Pedro Albizu-Campos, leading figure of the 20th century Puerto Rico independence movement. Doña Ana tells me, enjoyed jazz during his days as a Harvard law student. Don Pedro spent the latter half of his life enduring persecution and incarceration by the US government. With every fiber of his patriotic being, he fought against the intrusion of American Anglo-Saxon culture into our Latin American and Caribbean identity. But if there was one facet of American society and culture that he liked, it was jazz. 

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