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Latin Jazz Conversations: Benny Velarde (Part 3)

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Benny Velarde For better or worse, musicians that stay in the business over several decades experience a number of changes. In some cases, they get to experience the wide variety of talent that emerges and develops within their area and all over the world. They hear musical evolution and push their musicianship to follow the developments with artistic integrity. They become mentors, teachers, role models, and experienced veterans that help push the music into the next generation. At the same time, they see clubs close and opportunities fall by the wayside. Finances get better and worse, rarely remaining steady over the course of time. Sustenance through decades of musical work is peppered with the ups and downs of the music business; this type of perseverance needs to be recognized and admired.

Percussionist and bandleader Benny Velarde spent sixty years on the Bay Area's Latin music scene, feeling the effect of many changes. Born in Panama City in 1929, Velarde developed a love for music, fueled by the extensive presence of Cuban recordings and bands around him. When his family moved to the United States in 1945, Velarde discovered Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodriguez, inspiring him to play percussion with a local group. Velarde's growing skills garnered a wide spread reputation and soon a number of local bands were hiring him, ranging from Salvador Guerrero to Alonzo Polio. He connected with Manny and Carlos Duran, forming a popular group before leaving for a year in New York. Once Velarde returned from the big apple, pianist Manny Duran recommended him to rising jazz star Cal Tjader. Forming the core of Tjader's new Latin Jazz combo, Velarde performed extensively with the vibraphonist and recorded several classic albums, including Mambo With Tjader and Latin Kick. When Tjader restructured his group, Velarde, Duran, and the rest of Tjader's former group found a regular gig at San Francisco's Copacabana club. As Duran moved onto other opportunities, the gig evolved into Velarde's first moment as a bandleader. The resultant group, Benny Velarde Y Sus Pachangueros was a popular mainstay throughout the sixties, complemented by a full performance schedule as a sideman and periodical recording sessions. In 1970, Velarde formed a larger group, his Super Combo, for a regular gig at The Boogaloo, setting the configuration that would carry him throughout the rest of his career. Many of the Bay Area's best musicians would play in the Super Combo over the next thirty years, including John Calloway, Mark Levine, John Santos, and many more. In 2003, the Super Combo released it's single recording, the must-hear release Viva Velarde, an exciting mixture of salsa and jazz. The scene thrived at times and withered at others, but Velarde's expertise kept the Super Combo working regularly until Velarde's retirement in 2008.

Sixty years of performance is a massive contribution to a scene, and the San Francisco Latin music scene has been lucky to have Velarde for so many years. His iconic presence insured quality and knowledge in countless performances throughout the Bay Area. Although Velarde has been in retirement for a few years, he still emerges for occasional performances, including a special tribute at Yoshi's on June 29th, 2011. In Part One of our interview with Velarde, we discussed his love for music in Panama, his step into music in San Francisco, and his first connection with Cal Tjader. We continued in Part Two, digging into Velarde's time with Tjader, the busy nature of San Francisco's music scene in the fifties and sixties, as well as his emergence as a bandleader. Today, we finish our conversation with Velarde, coming up to the present with the Super Combo, Viva Velarde, and more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You had the Super Combo going and kept it going for over twenty years . . .

BENNY VELARDE: I started the Super Combo in 1970 and I had it going for a while. I just retired, but I had it until 2008 . . . well, I still have it.

LJC: The band must have changed quite bit over the years, but who were some of the mainstays that played with you over the years?

BV: I had Mark Levine play with me, and so many guys that I can't remember all of them. I remember Mark because we became pretty good friends. Chico Ochoa played with me. A Panamanian pianist that developed a little bit of a name after that played with me too—Carlos Frederico. I really can't remember too many of the guy's names, but there were a lot of changes over the years.

LJC: I know that the Bay Area music scene changed quite a bit over those years; was there ever a struggle to find work?

BV: Like any other band, sometimes you get a lot of gigs and sometimes you don't get that many. The band started getting a little well known and I started getting some gigs for the band. That's how I kept it up. In the seventies and the eighties, there was more work than there is now. After the nineties, the clubs on Broadway, they changed it around. There used to be music all over but then they came out with the topless bars and that was it. All the clubs with music started going down. That's when the Copacabana was also sold, in the late sixties. I kept working with the band for quite a while, all the time. I was pretty lucky about having gigs on the weekends. I had the good fortune of keeping it up until 2008.

LJC: That band released one album, Viva Velarde, in 2003; how did that album come together?

BV: One of the guys that played with me was working in a recording studio, Disher Music and Sound. Ross Wilson worked at this studio—he played with me for a long time . . . he still plays with me. He talked to the owner, and I met the owner; we got along pretty good. He told Ross that we could use the studio whenever the studio wasn't booked. So we started to record this album. We did it little by little; it took us about a year to get it out. He didn't charge us or anything. He told us that once the recording was released, Ross could pay for the studio time little by little. So that's what we did, that's how we put the album out.

LJC: You retired in 2008, but you were in the Bay Area Latin music scene for a long time, what are your thoughts about working in the Bay Area?

BV: I was living here and I got used to the area. I knew that I had to stay here once I came back from New York. I formed a band—first the sextet and then starting in the seventies, I had the Super Combo. That's how I started playing here. Then I got the opportunity to travel a few times with the band. I was just living here, and people started calling me to play gigs. I wasn't going anywhere once I started playing with my band.

LJC: How would you compare San Francisco's Latin music scene now with the fifties or sixties?

BV: In those times, during the seventies, eighties, and the beginning of the nineties, there were a lot of clubs that were hiring Latin bands. Then all of a sudden, the change came over. Some other bands started forming and these bands would play for almost no payment at all. They weren't getting the money that we were used to getting. I kept going, and the clubs had to keep paying me the money that they were paying me. But a lot of bands that were starting at that time, they were playing for nothing. That's why a lot of other bands that were coming around, that were good bands, they disbanded. All these other bands were taking over, and they were playing for less money than we were making. That made it difficult to play sometimes, because clubs didn't want to pay me—I had my price and when they called me, they had to pay my price. The ones that ruined the business are the bands that are playing now that play almost for nothing.

LJC: You've got this gig at Yoshi's on the 29th—can you tell us a little bit about it?

BV: The guy that started this thing was Chuy Varela, the DJ at KCSM. He came over to talk to me and he said that he wanted to do this concert in honor of me, for sixty years that I've played music in the Bay Area. He was the one that started all this. He should get all the credit, I didn't even know that they gig was going to happen until he came over to talk to me and ask me if I was O.K. with it. That's why this gig is going to happen, because of Chuy Varela.

It's going to be my band, The Super Combo; I'm going to be playing with the band. The guys that play in my band—we still get together sometimes when something like this comes up. Also, Al Bent, who used to play with me, is going to be forming another group with some musicians that used to play with me. I believe quite a few more guys that I've known and that have played with me are going to be there.


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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

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