Latin Jazz Conversations: Bobby Matos (Part 2)


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Bobby Matos
Musical growth never occurs instantaneously, it's an evolutionary process that happens through incremental learning. Every musician starts somewhere, whether it's through contact with an instrument, hearing an inspirational recording, or getting words of wisdom from a mentor. Moving forward, their task is to piece together an understanding of music bit by bit, through a number of different experiences. The might further their technical abilities through the advice of a fellow artist or take the time to study a specific methodology on paper. They might attend classes on music theory or find an advanced instructor that will push them into another level of musicianship. In most cases, the movement towards artistry happens through a number of these experiences—the growth curve happens step by step.

Percussionist and bandleader Bobby Matos dedicated himself to a series of meaningful musical experiences that helped him grow into the important Latin Jazz artist of today. Growing up in New York, Matos didn't have any professional musicians in his family, but he did have a close-knit family of music lovers. They exposed the young Matos to fantastic recordings by artists such as Nat King Cole, Tito Puente, and more, leading him to sing, dance, and tap out rhythms. As his interest in Latin music grew, he attended live performances by Machito And His Afro-Cuban, leading to a lifelong friendship with Machito and Graciela, as well as backstage lessons with Carlos “Patato" Valdes. Out of high school, Matos started collegiate studies in commercial art, but he soon found himself playing in a traditional Afro-Cuban band in Greenwich Village. He dropped out of school, got a day job, and dedicated himself to becoming a performing musician. He learned the fundamentals of the conga in this group, but soon found himself leaning towards the timbales. As he began developing his timbale skills and earning work as a sideman, his career was sidelined by the draft. Matos found himself stationed in Washington D.C., where he took every possible leave from the army to play with local groups. He found a local mentor in percussionist Paul Hawkins, who helped him solidify his percussion chops. Upon his release from the army, Matos used the G.I. Bill to fund an education in music theory at The New School and The Manhattan School Of Music. He took his first steps into writing and arranging; through diligent hard work, he began to develop a well-rounded set of skills that would enable him to become a strong Latin Jazz bandleader.

Matos took every opportunity available and turned it into a chance to become a better musician, with each step helping him evolve into a skilled professional. Years later, the hard work would pay off, as he would become one of the West Coast's most respected and admired Latin Jazz band leaders. In Part One of our interview with Matos, we looked at his early exposure to music, his relationships with Latin Jazz legends, and his first leap into Afro-Cuban music. Today, we delve into his move to timbales, his time in the army, some influential musicians that helped him along the way, and his immersion in musical studies.

BOBBY MATOS: I started studying timbales around this time. I got past the tumbadora and I learned how to play the second drum, the segunda. Then I learned a little bit about the quinto, and a little bit about cascara. I was always very, very attracted to timbales. Rather than move from congas to bongo, I moved from conga to timbales. I think that conga is the foundation for both bongo and timbales. A lot of conga players move to bongo right away, but I moved to timbales.

I was starting to play with different dance companies. At that time, there were a lot of dance companies that would use live drummers. I remember playing with one company; we would play mostly Afro-Cuban rhythms—rumbas, 6/8, and stuff like that, but also sometimes Haitian rhythms.

I was also starting to get work playing with different jazz groups. One time we played opposite Ray Barretto and I remember what a thrill it was for me. Ray was like a hero; he was one of the most visible conga players after Candido. Chano Pozo had been gone for some time at this point—he was just a whisper. You'd hear him on records, but you couldn't go see him live. But Ray Barretto . . . he was playing with Red Garland, Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis, and guys like that. You'd go spend your money and go see Ray Barretto play somewhere.

It was a continuing education. Sometimes you'd meet someone that was a little bit further along than you and they'd invite you to their house. You'd sit and play for a couple of hours. The guy would say, “Hey, let me show you this pattern that I learned for Columbia, let me show you this pattern that I learned for Mozambique." You'd exchange information. I still remember who taught me which pattern and who taught me which way to play that pattern. You learn all the different styles so you don't get stuck doing things one way. I remember playing clave in a rumba group and the guy said, “No, no, no, don't play it New York style, play it Cuban style." I didn't know what he meant at the time. Every playing experience was an education.

I had been doing this for a little while, working in and around the music industry, but then I was drafted. While I was in the army, I felt terribly frustrated that I wasn't playing. I would use all my spare time to go any place where I could go hear music, maybe sit in or something like that. I was stationed outside of Washington D.C., and I met some people through my journeys in the city, sitting in with different bands.

I met this one guy, while we were both sitting in with this one band. He took me aside and he said, “Listen, I just come here on my night off to play with these guys because I really want to play. But you know the way that these guys play. They let you sit in because you play better than their percussionist! You make them sound better. Why don't you come and sit in with my group—you'll feel a different level of comfort. You won't be working so hard, you'll be grooving more." He gave me this open invitation, and I said, “Yea, O.K." This guy saved my sanity. He said, “You can always come to my house, you can always come to my club, you'll never have to pay admission at the door, you can come where ever I'm working."

His name was Paul Hawkins—he was a conga player and a timbale player. He was very, very tight with Patato—one time I went over to his house in Washington and there was Patato in the kitchen cooking. He was a great mambo dancer and a great percussionist. When Patato was with Herbie Mann, they didn't have a timbale player; if they played Washington D.C., Paul would go on the gig as the timbale player. He was Patato's first choice in Washington—so you know what kind of level he was at. He nurtured me and he gave me what I needed in terms of always being able to sit in with somebody and always being able to hang out with somebody who knew the music. He was the next step.

I was learning a lot about percussion and the roots of the music, but I had all these melodies in my head and I had no way of expressing them. I didn't know how to write music. I decided that when I got out of the army, I was going to use the G.I. Bill to go to school and learn how to read and write music. When I got out of the army, I took the G.I. Bill, I went to the New School, and I went to Manhattan School Of Music—this was all at night while I was working days. In between, I was rehearsing these tunes that I was learning to write.

I started a group at that time. I was working as a sideman with a lot of different groups, but I was trying to be a leader because I had all these tunes in my head. We'd go and audition—we got a little bit of work here and a little bit of work there. Once we started getting some work, some of the guys that I was rehearsing with got cold feet. I remember, we'd be rehearsing for months and all these guys were learning the repertoire; then I got a real gig and half of them dropped out. So I wound up calling professionals—guys that can play no matter what is happening; they're not nervous, you call a tune and they know it. If they don't know it and you've got the music, they'll play it. Then I realized, “Oh, this is another level."

I didn't care about leading a band, but I wanted to play the music that I was hearing. I wanted to play it a certain way. At that time, the music that we were listening to besides Machito and Tito Puente, was Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, and Willie Bobo. At one time in New York, there was a very hot record, although the band didn't work live too much Sabu's Jazz Espagnole. It was the forerunner of a lot of things that Marty Sheller did later with Mongo. They were all die-hard New York players on that album. That was the kind of sound that I was hearing. I was saying, “How do I get that sound?"

They didn't teach me how to write for a jazz ensemble in school; they taught me how to read quarter notes, eighth notes, and such. I had to figure out what was happening with the intonation, the harmonies, and stuff like that. It wasn't the kind of harmony or counterpoint that I was learning in school. But I had to learn that in order to express it

At first I didn't even have a piano so that I could hear that stuff. At home, I had a little set of orchestral bells so that I could hear what the notes were. I would go to school early and use the practice piano so I could do my exercises and actually hear what those notes were instead of just figuring it out mathematically. Then I remember I go an upright piano and things started to accelerate. I think that those years were the years that accelerated my education. They were the beginning of it.

When I started to work and started to call professionals in to play with me, one of the guys that I connected with was an older trombone player named Steve Pullum. Steve had been a veteran of Buddy and Ella Johnson, which was like a swing/R 'n B band in the fifties. At that time, he was working with Mon Rivera in the trombone section and he was also working with Kako's after hours band. He would invite me to come by and sit in with these bands. That also helped accelerate my learning process.

We would do these gigs and I didn't have any thing written. I had been rehearsing these tunes by ear for months. He would say, “Bobby, you've got to have some charts." I said, “Well, O.K., how do I do that?" I would write the melodies, the chords, and stuff like that, but I didn't know how to write arrangements. He said, “I'll do a few for you, but I'll do the score and you copy out the parts." I didn't even have an idea of what he was talking about until he showed me what he was doing. He said, “This top line is the alto line, copy this on one page so it's all alto. Then you go to the next one, that's the trombone part, so copy that." I started to see what these parts looked like and what work was involved in.

I started to do some of my first arrangements at that time. They were not Chico O'Farrill, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones type arrangements—I was writing for two horns and I was writing a lot of stuff in unison. It was kind of a hip sound, but it wasn't as difficult as writing harmonies and figuring out the harmonies. In that sense, it was simpler harmonically. I remember writing some of those charts and playing some of those charts and they didn't sound half bad. So I said, “This is what I have to do."

I was in my twenties, I was out of the army, and I was moving towards thirty rapidly. I said, “I've really got to start accelerating this, because some of these people have been doing this since they were twelve. I'm starting really late in life to compete with these cats." So I found a book called The Professional Arranger And Composerr by Russell Garcia. It was like a workbook—you studied something and then you wrote in the book. It was a working textbook. I went through that book, I did every exercise in that book, sometimes more than once—instead of doing them in the book, I'd complete them again on some manuscript paper. That was a revelation to me, learning the different things in that book. At first you just accept it—write this using all thirds and sixths, write this using harmonies in fourths—you have no clue what it's going to sound like until you hear it back. That book was an eye opener; I still recommend that book.

Another great book for teaching the structure of pop tunes, jazz tunes, and blues tunes, was a book by Jerry Coker called Improvising Jazz. The book itself wasn't as valuable as the appendices. It had examples of every type of pop tune written in chord symbols—not written by spelling the chord, but writing what chord it was in the key. Then you could transpose it into any key. I would use that as experimentation to see how tunes were constructed. It was the key to unlock the door to where all the harmonic secrets were.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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