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Latin Jazz Conversations: Chris Washburne (Part 1)

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The beginning of a person's musical life certainly can differ from their ultimate career path, a fact that makes the individual interesting and unique. Initial forays into music come from the influence of a person's community, and the popular forces of the area tend to steer their early musical explorations. With the support of the community, the individual becomes deeply involved in music, searching for more ways to stay connected with music on an intimate level. Learning becomes a mandatory requirement for continued involvement in music, whether through private study, school, or experience. Regardless of the means, musical growth inevitably leads to greater exposure and involvement in new musical concepts. Sometimes these new directions are so intriguing and so inspiring that the musicians starts on a completely path, leading away from their initial musical loves. After years of traveling in new musical directions, the artist looks drastically different than the young person at the beginning of the journey, but the voyage results in a well rounded and insightful artist.

Trombonist Chris Washburne started his musical life far from the hard hitting world of New York's Latin Jazz scene, moving towards that future spot through a number of important steps. Raised in Ohio, Washburne connected with the trombone through the area's school music program, then a robust part of the region's culture. Although rock and roll grabbed the lion's share of Washburne's attention as a young person, he also had exposure to jazz, expanding his musical ideas. Washburne continued his music studies at the University of Wisconsin, aiming at a degree in classical performance. Some influential professors encouraged Washburne to dive further into the jazz world during his time at the University of Wisconsin, supporting his walk between the two musical worlds. This artistic balance stuck with Washburne, and after graduating, he searched for opportunities that would allow him to expand his horizons in both jazz and classical music. The New England Conservatory's Third Stream Program offered this type of flexibility, emphasizing improvisation within multiple traditions; Washburne soon started attending classes. During his time at the conservatory, a chance call sent Washburne to a local salsa gig, sparking a fire in the young musician. He quickly became a regular part of the salsa scene in Boston, getting an education about clave on the bandstand. As Washburne began listening, he soon discovered Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta, a group that featured trombonists Jose Rodrigues and Barry Rogers. He dedicated himself to an in-depth study of the music, applying his Third Stream studies to the lines between Latin music, jazz, and more. With a passion for all these different styles driving him forward, Washburne continued digging deeper, looking for a personal place within the music.

Washburne would eventually find his way to New York and become an integral piece of the Latin music scene, moving into the forefront of the Latin Jazz world with his band SYOTOS. With his 2010 release Fields Of Moons fresh in our minds and SYOTOS celebrating their 20 year anniversary, Washburne took some time to look back on his career with LJC. In the first piece of our in-depth interview, Washburne talks about his initial musical exposures, his dual exploration of jazz and classical music in college, his discovery of Latin music, and much more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You grew up in Ohio, how did you get into music during your childhood?

CHRIS WASHBURNE: I started playing trombone in the school band program when I was in fifth grade. They had really strong marching band and concert band type of stuff happening. Back then, which is unfortunately not how it is today, everybody just kind of expected to play an instrument. Originally I wanted to play trumpet because it was loud and shiny . . . I still kind of want to play trumpet! There was a night where we went up to the high school and tried out different instruments so we could rent them and get started. I went right to the table with the trumpet and blew into it as hard as I could; I couldn't get a sound to come out at all. So my mother said, “Do you still want to play trumpet?" I said, “Yea, sure." She said, “Well, you've got to try one more instrument before we leave and before I get the trumpet." The trombone happened to be at the table next to it, so I picked up the trombone, blew into it, and a sound came out. So the trombone picked me, I didn't pick the trombone!

I played in the band programs, and then when I got into high school, I started to play in the jazz program too. It was in a rural area in Ohio, and it was really a place where rock and roll was big. There's a reason why the rock and roll hall of fame is in Cleveland. It's really a rocked out part of the country. So I wanted to be a rock and roll star. The first band that I joined was a Led Zeppelin cover band; I was playing trombone in it.

LJC: Really? How cool!

CW: Yea, looking back at it, I was onto something, really, really early. But when I was in, I wasn't hip enough to realize that I should have just stuck with it. I could have been the first rock and roll trombone star! It was frustrating because I just couldn't get the right timbre on the horn to sound like Jimmy Page or anybody else for that matter. So I realized when I started seeing jazz bands that trombones could be playing more of a lead role and I started gravitating towards jazz. It was really because I wanted to play a lead role as a trombonist. Of course, it took a while for me to find Latin music, because there was no Latin music in the area where I was growing up . . . there is now, but not when I growing up.

It wasn't until I was in college at New England Conservatory that I was sent as a last minute sub to a local salsa/cumbia/merengue cover band. It was really love at first hearing. It played into that notion that the trombone is really a lead instrument in that ensemble. It's a place where you can shine as a soloist, play parts, and really play a significant role. The trombone in a concert band or marching band is supportive. Even in traditional jazz bands, it can be a solo instrument, but it does play more of a supportive role just because of the register that you're playing in. But not when I started checking out La Perfecta--then it was all over!

LJC: How did jazz first catch your ear?

CW: Well, I played some of the music in the jazz bands, and my stepfather was an amateur jazz drummer. He was really enamored with Count Basie and Lionel Hampton. Those bands were traveling when I was a kid, and they would play in clubs throughout the Mid-West. Every time they came into town, we would go. So I listened to that and there's also a couple of pretty big jazz festivals out in Ohio. I remember when I was in high school, I checked out Miles Davis' band. I got to see a lot of the top acts. I still was just listening to rock and roll, but I was gravitating towards jazz just because I could see where my place as a musician could be. There was already a path forged. I was a big fan of the rock group Chicago because of James Pankow. South Side Johnny had a trombone section, and even the Stones would have a horn section sometimes. It was the notion that I could play in a rock band like that and it would be fun, but it was kind of a marginalized position, like a background singer. That's not really what I wanted to do.

LJC: You went to the University of Wisconsin and studied classical trombone there. Back when I studied music in college, there was a weird energy between jazz and classical music in an academic setting. How was it at that time--did you pretty much have to play in the orchestra or was there an openness to jazz?

CW: There still is a weirdness in academia between jazz and classical music. That hasn't gone away. It's in the scholarly pursuits and it's also in the performance schools. It's a real shame. There's always been a weirdness and it's ridiculous because both musics have fed one another for the last hundred years. That's been easily shown in many transcriptions, interviews with musicians, and in various scholarly endeavors. But we still have this notion that there's some kind of divide. I've been trying to break down that divide now for twenty-five years. I started to do it in my own practice, in my own way. If you're going to preach something, you've got to practice it.

I was very, very lucky--the University of Wisconsin is a realitively small music program, and there weren't enough jazz trombonists to fill out the jazz bands. So they had to pull from those classical players. I seriously was trying to practice to be an orchestral player; towards the end I started gravitating more towards chamber music. It was just this idea of sitting in a section--it's really fun and if you're in a good section in a good orchestra, it's a real thrill and you play wonderful music. But again, it's only from Beethoven on that you get to do anything. Classical music goes back way farther, there's very few concertos, it's only in the twentieth century stuff that you can really pursue anything. So I found it limiting.

I got an opportunity to play in the jazz band and luckily there were two professors at Wisconsin that were enlightened. One was Richard Davis, the bassist; he was my first jazz teacher. When he was in New York City working, he played jazz, and he also played for Stravinsky in his chamber ensembles. So he was really hip to both sides. There was also the woodwind player, Les Thimmig, who is another one who does both styles equally well. He's a composer, teaches classical saxophone, but also is a jazz player. He was the leader of the jazz ensembles, along with Richard Davis. These were two mentors that I had early on that just never said no. They just let me do what I wanted to do. I remember that Howard Johnson, the tuba player and baritone saxophonist, came out my first year in college to be a guest soloist with the big band and to give a master class. Howard is a very unconventional player. He plays tuba in a register where no other tuba players play--he plays extremely high. Someone asked him, “Why do you play tuba like that,? Why do you play up high?" And he goes, “Because nobody ever told me that I couldn't. Anytime that people started asking me about it, I would say, these are not my friends." It was just like, yea, why impose limits? There's enough limitations in this world. Why impose them on yourself?

Then when I got to New England Conservatory, I was studying with John Swallow. He was the principal trombone player in the New York Ballet for many years. He also did a lot of chamber work and worked with Gunther Schuller. He was another one who was just like, “Hell yea, man. You want to work in New York City? You're going to have twice as many opportunities if you can do all those things, classical and jazz." So I just kept doing it. Now of course to get certain gigs, I couldn't tell certain people that I was playing classical music and vise versa. I remember sitting in a brass quintet rehearsal once; we were playing a transcription of a piece from Gershwin's Porgy And Bess. Right in the middle of a phrase, I guess I phrased it “too jazzy." The trumpet player stopped and said, “Ow, that's jazz articulation" with this disgusted look on his face. I just looked at him and I was thinking, “Yo, if you only knew . . ." I was playing was playing with the Ellington Orchestra the next day; if they knew, they would have just fired me from this. I just looked at him, and said, “Oh god, I'm so sorry." It was Gershwin after all, and it was Porgy and Bess, but if you want to do it real square with classical articulation, that's fine.

LJC: You went to New England Conservatory and you were in The Third Stream Program. That's an interesting word--today it is used to describe European Jazz and classical tinged jazz. What did that encompass for you?

CW: When I finished my undergrad, I took a year off, and I was trying to figure out what to do. Les Thimmig told me that the only program that he was aware of was at New England, which was the Third Stream program, where you could be in as many worlds as you wanted and no one's going to blink an eye. Third Stream is a term that was coined by Gunther Schuller, back when he took over the New England Conservatory in the sixties, to refer specifically to contemporary classical composers that were using jazz in their works and vice versa. Not just using it superficially or not just borrowing, but really trying to delve deep inside the traditions and come up with something new, thus a third stream. So yes, typically, that's what that word meant.

That changed quite drastically since the sixties. By the time that I got to the New England Conservatory, they were already toying with changing the name of the program. Now it's called Improvisational Studies or something, it's no longer the Third Stream department--and for good reason. The idea was to develop your own individualized improvisational style and voice where you would really delve deeply into one, two, three, four, five different traditions from around the world. It could be classical and jazz, but it could also be Middle Eastern musical styles, Latin American musical styles. Get inside it, make it your own, and then fuse it together with another tradition that you kind of embody and delved deeply into to come up with something new. So for me, it was ideal.

It was really like an intense ear-training program, but you'd be training to hear musics from different cultures and around the world. It just was wonderful for me in terms of Latin music, because I started playing it at the same time. I approached Latin music the way that I approached learning jazz where I was transcribing solos, I was memorizing tunes, and I was trying to sound exactly like Jose Rodrigues and Barry Rogers. I was trying to loose Chris Washburne for a while and then reemerge with my version of their influences and my own voice. It's exactly what I did when I started playing jazz--learning J.J. Johnson solos and Slide Hampton solos and Frank Rosalino solos and then trying to come up with something new. That's why I went with the Third Stream approach, and again, it allowed me to do both jazz and classical. I played in the chamber orchestra, I played in the jazz band, I studied with George Russell, and I took private lessons with Bob Moses, the drummer. It's really one of the more creative music departments in the country, still.

LJC: What was the gig like that turned you onto Latin music, was there a scene there at the time?

CW: Yea, at that time, there were a lot of Colombian immigrants in the area. From the mid-seventies through to the early nineties, there was a huge influx of Colombians and Central Americans. Of course, there was a substantial Puerto Rican base as well in Boston. In these outlying communities, there were a lot of private parties. These were cover bands basically, playing the top cumbia, salsa, and merengue hits of the day. Usually they were musicians that had day jobs--part-time professional, semi-professional, and amateur musicians. The horn players were all drawn from the conservatories in Boston--New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, or places like that--and from Berklee. There just weren't enough musicians that played horns to cover all the chairs. All those bands were fairly big--there were four, five, six horns in all of those bands. Thinking back on it now, they were probably very mediocre players, but for me, it was just so new and these rhythms were mesmerizing. I immediately heard the deep traditions that were behind them and the diversity of different rhythms that were there. It was a real challenge to have to adjust your playing accordingly. There were a couple of older horn players on the scene that had been playing Latin music for a while in Boston. They were very helpful.

The other thing that I was attracted to was culturally, with a little bit of integrity, honesty, and true love of the music, there was an openness to share those musical styles amongst those musicians. They were giving me records, turning me onto things--it felt like home. It was cool that I played jazz and classical music; it was no big deal. Of course, playing those Latin gigs, amongst jazz players, we all know the kind of animosity that can foster among that divide. Luckily this was a very friendly environment, a great place to learn. Kind of a low pressure place. They liked me as well, and for some reason, I just clicked. The regular trombone player that I started subbing for, they got rid of him and they hired me. I don't know, we just got along, it was a happy marriage. Then I started working my way up through the echelon of the Latin bands in Boston, working with some of the better bands that were there. Often times we would open for bigger bands. I remember one time we opened for El Gran Combo, and I was like, “Oh, that's the way it's supposed to sound!" So the doors just kept opening and the layers of the onion started slowly peeling away and I was getting to the core of things.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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