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Latin Jazz Conversations: Hilario Duran (Part 1)

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Hilario Duran Sometimes an activity grabs our passions so completely that it becomes an obsession, capturing every last ounce of our attention. Regardless of our previous priorities and commitments, once we discover that all encompassing passion, we head out onto an unstoppable path. All of our time and energy goes into that one activity, as we constantly seek a stronger connection and a greater understanding. In some cases, our intense interest turns out to be a passing fad, and it soon becomes a thing of the past. When we really find that special something though, it resonates deeply within our souls and it forms an unbreakable bond with our greater life goals.

Pianist Hilario Durán found his passion in the piano and musical performance, a love that grew into a lifelong obsession. Durán's father played a large part in his early connection with music—a vocalist during the filin movement of the forties, the elder Durán himself was intimately immersed in music. His large record collection exposed Hilario to a wide spectrum of music at a young age. Once his parents bought a piano for his sister, Durán found his calling and spent endless hours with the instrument. Lessons pushed Durán even further, leading him to the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory of Music. The school supplied Durán with a thorough training in classical music, building his technique and greater musical knowledge. Outside of school, Durán spent countless hours “lifting" solos from classic jazz albums, as the pianist learned the inner workings of jazz improvisation from major role models. In 1970, Cuba called upon Durán to do his mandatory military service, and the rising young musician found a spot in the army band. He moved between different military bands in Cuba, spending time performing, but also trying his hand at writing music for the different groups. Once the army released Durán, he headed straight for Havana's bustling music scene, hoping to build upon his love of jazz. Unfortunately, the political climate in Cuba sent cold feeling towards jazz, leaving little opportunities to play the music. Durán's burning passion for the music would eventually connect him with jazz, as the tides slowly turned in Cuba.

Durán diligently moved his love for music forward through any obstacles, keeping his focus on his connection to the piano. Years later, Durán would grow into one of the most important Cuban piano players on the island and beyond, supporting the work of Arturo Sandoval and others, as well as making a serious mark as a bandleader. In Part One of our extensive interview with Durán, we discuss his early love for music, his studies both in and out of school, his military service, and much more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You were born in Havana in 1953. Your father was involved in the filin movement of the forties; what was it like growing up around so much music?

HILARIO DURÁN: There was so much music there; I had so much music in my home. My grandfather was a huge record collector, so my father used to be fond of a lot of music. My parents had a big collection of old records. I was listening to jazz and classical music, soundtracks of famous movies, and also the great Cuban classics like Ernesto Lecuona and Bola De Nieve. I was listening to American Jazz like Stan Kenton, Errol Garner, and Harry James—those were the first jazz records that I heard in my life. They were playing a lot of music everyday in my home. A

My father was really involved in music; he was part of the musical movement of the late forties called filin. My mom used to play piano when she was young but she had to quit for economical problems. My grandparents couldn't buy a piano for her when she was a kid so she quit. My parents bought a piano for my sister; at that time it was in fashion to put the girls to a piano teacher. They bought a wide upright piano to my home and it was love at first sight. I remember sitting all day making sounds on the piano. My mom had to hide the key to the piano from me! I didn't want to play baseball or anything; I just wanted to play piano all day. That was it.

After that, my sister and I started attending piano lessons in the neighborhood. I remember that I had two or three piano teachers. One of them I really remember with a lot of fondness—Caridad Mezquda; she was the aunt of the great guitarist Leo Brower. She started teaching me piano. Then in 1958, I went to the Amadeo Roldan National Conservatory Of Music and got into that school. From 1968 until the 1970s, I had piano lessons there as well as other assignments like sight-reading, ear training, music history, and all this other stuff.

After that I started working with local bands in Havana. The first one that I worked with as a professional musician Los Papa Cun Cun. It was a folkloric group with piano, bass, three singers, and three percussionists. It was a very original band. The leader of the band was Evaristo Aparicio.

LJC: Who were some of the musicians that your father was involved with during the filin movement of the forties?

HD: He was involved with a great musical movement at that time. There was a few young musicians and composers involved, doing a kind of troubadour thing. Those people, they used to work painting houses and work in construction; they had music as a hobby . . . but they really loved music. They used to reunite in a place called Callejón de Hamel. They were great composers. I can name a few—José Antonio Méndez, Angel Diaz, Cesar Portillo de la Luz, and Ñico Rojas. There were also great singers like Omara Portuondo and Elena Burke. Actually my father brought Elena Burke to this group.

They would play every weekend at the Callejón de Hamel. They had a quartet. They used to sing in four voices, like gospel music. They sang by ear and they had their voices in harmony. The quartet was Cesar Portillo de la Luz, Angel Diaz, José Antonio Méndez, and my father was the lower voice.

LJC: Did you hear any of that growing up?

HD: I wasn't alive at that time—I was born in 1953. My father was playing music just a few years before I was born. After I was born, my father had to quit music. The economic situation in the country was really bad. So he quit—he had to start working doing other stuff, trying to make a living in another way.

But those other guys, they kept it moving forward. They kept composing and doing stuff. José Antonio Méndez went to Mexico and he got very famous there. He started composing there, and he got a few hits there. Other guys like Benny Moré moved to Mexico; he ended up singing with Perez Prado. So it was a whole musical movement around in Havana.

LJC: When you were studying in the conservatory in the late sixties, what type of music were you studying?

HD: Do you know what happened? When I got into the Conservatory of Amadeo Roldan, I had to take a test to get into the school. It was a very hard test, so I failed the piano test the first time. So I went one year just doing the other stuff like ear training, sight-reading, and music theory. But I was one year without instrumental training. So in that year, I prepared very hard to do another test. The next year, I got the approval.

LJC: Were you playing classical music there?

HD: Yes, just classical music—classical Cuban music and European classical music. But no jazz.

LJC: How did you get into jazz?

HD: I was very interested. I loved jazz since the beginning because my father used to play the records. I'd been listening since I was a kid. That's what all the jazz players in Havana and other parts of the country do. They borrow albums from each other and they copy them. They keep lifting the solos and the style of music. But there is no jazz school in Cuba.

After the revolution, there were no more music stores. So we learned jazz in this way. It was the same for Paquito D'Rivera, Chucho Valdes, and Arturo Sandoval. We all learned jazz lifting, doing really hard lifting of records.

LJC: What were some of the records that really inspired you during that time?

HD: There was not much to choose from. We got the records when someone went out of the country and bought some records. We borrowed from each other and we copied. I got some good records in that way from Eastern Europe at this time, from places like Poland and Czechoslovakia. That doesn't exist anymore, but I got very good albums from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia, the former Soviet Union. Also some records from the Jazz Messengers, Stan Kenton, Yusef Latef, Ahmad Jamal . . . I used to listen to all this.

For me, lifting was an obsession. I didn't just do lifting of piano solos. I also lifted saxophone solos, trumpet solos, and that was all the repertoire that I had in my head. It was really an obsession, doing this.

LJC: In 1970, you did your military service; you said you were playing clarinet in the band. Was that a good musical experience?

HD: All the young people in Cuba have to go the military, so I went to the musical band of the army in Havana. It was an experience for me, that's where I started playing my other instrument, clarinet. I was playing clarinet in the band and also I was playing piano. I was just playing clarinet about six months. I didn't play much. I don't play anymore—you give me a clarinet now and I'll sound terrible! But I used to play. The thing that I used to do all the time was try to improvise on the clarinet while I was playing the piano. It was so hard!

I was in the military band in Havana for one year, and after that, they transferred me to another military unit. It was in the military hospital in the neighborhood of Marianao. They had a big band orchestra there, and they had to support it. That's where I started working with a big band orchestra and I started attempting to write my first big band charts.

It was a band with three trumpets, three saxophones, piano, guitar, drums, and percussion. They were all amateurs. They used to be hospital workers, and they had music as a hobby. They transferred me to that place to work in the hospital in the morning and rehearse in the evening with that band. That's how I did my military service. It was fine, because I started attempting to write my first charts. I started writing for this orchestra and I also started playing all these military clubs in Havana. I was in there until 1973 when I was released from the army.

LJC: In 1973, you left the military, and you played with groups in Havana. What was the music scene like in Havana—was it possible to do jazz or was that not accepted?

HD: It was not accepted. We used to play jazz, but the government at this time; they said that jazz was the music of the enemy. From the sixties to the seventies, they used to say that. They wouldn't allow us to play jazz in the military band. If they caught you playing jazz, they wouldn't give you free time. They put you in jails. That was because all those guys that were in command that that time, they were so stupid, they didn't know about music. They only knew about politics and stuff. So they were obsessed with the imperialismo. They didn't want to smell nothing about the United States, so they said that jazz was the music of the enemy. That was the first eighteen years of the revolution; the whole time, jazz was treated like that. It wasn't until 1968 that they changed their mind and they reunited all the great musicians that were working in the musical theater, like Paquito D'Rivera, Carlos Emilio Morales, Enrique Pla, and Guillermo Barretto. They reunited all those musicians and they put together the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna. After that, jazz was a little more accepted; you could listen to more jazz after that. They opened a little bit. It wasn't until the beginning of the eighties that they did the first jazz festival in Havana, organized by the singer Bobby Carcasses.


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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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