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Latin Jazz Conversations: Chris Washburne (Part 2)

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Every artist that aims for a full time professional music career hopes for longevity, a goal that often requires them to broaden their horizons. The best players may find steady work that offers significant financial rewards, but life holds many surprises for any musician. The artist might prefer a different musical focus that doesn't pay well, requiring them to take more gigs for less money. Lifestyle choices might force the musician to restrict travel or perform certain types of gigs, once again limiting their income. On an ideal level, the musician might simply excel in a broad number of artistic directions, spreading them across the whole musical spectrum. Regardless of the circumstances, musicians need to apply themselves as performers, teachers, learners, band leaders, composers, arrangers, and more to sustain their careers over time.

Trombonist Chris Washburne made his mark on several pieces of New York's professional music scene during the eighties and nineties, after long years of intensive training. Recruited into music by school band programs in Ohio, Washburne played trombone in symphonic bands, marching bands, jazz big bands, and rock bands throughout his youth. Fully immersed in music, Washburne attended the University of Wisconsin, splitting his time between the school's jazz big bands and orchestral groups. Seeking a place to more fully develop his diverse interests, Washburne moved to the New England Conservatory for graduate school, diving into the Third Stream program. During his time at the conservatory, Washburne got a call for a gig, taking him into a salsa band for the first time. Enthralled with his new discovery, Washburne threw himself Boston's salsa community, learning the ins and outs of the style. As his musical skills grew, he became determined to push himself further, so Washburne moved into New York's large music scene. Hoping to find some stability while establishing himself in the area, Washburne applied for doctoral studies at Columbia University, landing in the ethnomusicology department. Word spread fast about Washburne's strong musical skills though, and he soon found himself in the midst of the salsa circuit, working daily with some of New York's top bands. Hoping to pursue his interest in jazz more fully, Washburne gathered some of the salsa world's top musicians and began to organize sporadic Latin Jazz gigs. Washburne quickly filled his nights with steady gigs, while spending his days deep in the larger focus of ethnomusicology. As Washburne became a regular figure in New York's greater musical culture, he touched upon a number of worlds, acting as musician, band leader, and scholar.

Washburne's ability to simultaneously balance several roles in New York's musical culture broadened his reach as an individual and guaranteed a long career. It opened doors, allowing him to play with Latin music legends, create cutting edge Latin Jazz, and contribute important work to the scholarly community. In Part One of our interview with Washburne, we looked at the path that got him to New York, looking at his first steps into music, his dual life in the jazz and classical worlds, and his discovery of Latin music. Today, we dive into Washburne's early days in New York, his first gigs on the salsa scene, the development of SYOTOS, his appreciation for ethnomusicology, and more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: After you finished your studies at The New England Conservatory, did you go straight to New York?

CHRIS WASHBURNE: I took a year off and I lived up in a little fishing village--Rockport, Massachusetts. I just did freelance work. I did a lot of contemporary music. I commissioned over twenty new works for trombone, did some concerts in Boston, and was really seriously considering pursuing a career as a soloist in contemporary music. But my dream was always to come to New York City and be a studio musician. I wanted to figure out how to do that, but I had no connections. I knew one person in the music scene down in New York, and that was it. I applied almost on a whim to graduate schools. I was speaking with some of my professors at New England, saying, “I don't want to get a DMA, but I want to learn more about Latin music." Steve Cornelius, who was teaching ethnomusicology at New England Conservatory, said to me, “Hey, why don't you apply to the ethno programs? You could study Latin music in graduate school and then you could play at night." So I did.

I applied to NYU and Columbia; that was it, because I knew I wanted to be in New York. I also heard that they gave you cheap housing and a stipend. So it was like, this is great; I won't have to flip burgers until I brake into the scene. I got into Columbia and I started to go--for me, it was just a meal ticket until I started playing. After a while, I did get busy playing in New York quite quickly. It was a really vibrant time for Latin music as well as jazz and classical music. I was making enough money to support myself, and I didn't need to be in graduate school anymore . . . but I was actually kind of digging it. I also realized how few things had been written in English on Latin music. I said, “You know, wait a minute. This might be a great opportunity for me to actually pay back some of these musicians that have been so generous to me." So I ended up staying in graduate school.

The way that I broke into the scene in New York was kind of funny. I knew this one guy, he was a Venezuelan musician. I called him when I came to New York, and he gave me one phone number. He gave me the number of Rolando Briceño, who is a saxophonist that played with Mario Bauza and also did a bunch of different stuff. I called him the first day I was in New York--I said, “I'm a trombone player, I just moved to town. I was told to give you a call to see if you know anyone that needs a trombone player." He said, “ You know, tonight there's a rehearsal with this Venezuelan singer, El Watusi, and he needs an extra trombone player for the rehearsal, can you make it?" I was like, “Yea, sure." So I went to Boy's Harbor, where all the Latin bands rehearse. I got there and there were four trombones sitting there, a salsa band, and this guy on piano. He came up to me and he said, “Hi, I'm Oscar Hernandez, thanks for making it. Can you play lead?" I was like, “Yea," because I had strong classical chops and had played lead in jazz bands. So he sat me down in the trombone section on lead to check me out and we played. He said, “Hey, you sound great. We're actually rehearsing for a gig and a recording session. Can you do them this weekend?" So, I did Watusi's first record.

The gig was at a club that doesn't exist anymore, and we were opening for Tito Nieves. I got there and I played. Leopoldo Piñeda from the Fania All-Stars was playing in the trombone section for Tito's band. When they showed up early, he heard me, and he asked for my card. I knew who he was, and I got his card; it was a thrill to meet him. The next week he said, “Hey, I can't make Tito's gig, can you play?" This is my third week in New York! It was because I had prepared so much. At that point in my life, I could sound just like Barry Rogers when I needed to, and that's what these guys liked. Barry was still very much on the scene.

The next week I was playing with Tito Nieves, and then the following week I got called by Isidro Infante to do another private party. I came in and I said, “What do you want me to play, lead trombone or second?" He said, “You play second." I said, “O.K." I sat down in the second chair and then Barry Rogers walked in. I was like, “Cool!" I remember that gig was Charlie Sepulveda, Brian Lynch, Barry Rogers, and myself--what a wonderful horn section! We were playing for this Colombian drug dealer in Queens; it was his daughter's christening or something. This was right when the crack epidemic had hit New York, and at the end of the night, we all got paid in one-dollar bills! I remember it was $120 each and they came out with this black plastic bag filled with one-dollar bills and gave it to Isidro. It took him like three hours to count it all out for all of us. In Tito's band at the time, Sergio George was playing piano and so that's where I met Sergio. At that time, Sergio was just starting to work for RMM Records as the A & R man. I started doing recordings for him within a year and then started playing in the RMM All-Star band. I was playing with Combinacion Perfecta backing up every major salsa singer in the world at that time. That was really lucky. Here I am still in graduate school, touring all around the world just trying to make it back to get to my classes. It was a fun time.

LJC: Would that be the late eighties/early nineties?

CW: Yea, I came in the late eighties and that's when Tito had his first hit--it was either '87 or '89. He was just rising. Salsa Romantica was just really taking off, and it was a thriving scene. In the mid-nineties, we were working anywhere between eight to fourteen gigs a week in New York. It was just ridiculous. Basically you would play every single night except maybe Tuesday night . . . but sometimes even Tuesdays. You'd have a double on Friday, sometimes a triple or a quadruple on Saturday, and a double on Sunday. You would have Monday or Tuesday off and it would just start all over again. You were traveling and you were doing recordings during the day time; it was really a very, very special time. I arrived at the right time, at the high point of that type of Latin music performance in New York City. That no longer exists, but at the time it was great.

LJC: A lot of guys like Ray Barretto and Tito Puente were breaking down to small groups at the time, were you doing much in the way of Latin Jazz outside the dance music world?

CW: SYOTOS is celebrating its twentieth anniversary on July 14th to be exact--it was Bastille Day, that's when we had our first gig at a French Restaurant. We weren't called SYOTOS at the time; we were just called The Chris Washburne Latin Jazz Group. Of course I was still very much interested in playing jazz. I was doing jazz gigs, but I noticed that there were several musicians that I was playing with on the salsa scene that were trained like I was. They didn't just play Latin music; they were really jazz players to begin with, but then fell in love with Latin music and were doing both. That was people like the trumpet players Ray Vega and John Walsh, Barry Olsen, the pianist and trombonist, and Ruben Rodriguez, the bassist--people like that. I decided that I should just combine these two worlds that I'm working in and start doing some Latin Jazz. I had played Latin Jazz in Boston, and I had done these little Latin Jazz groups here and there. I wanted to start something on my own; it was really just hiring my friends that I was playing on the salsa scene with. I just hired those guys and we started playing little gigs around town. It was finally realizing all of this Third Stream training that I had gone through and then actually being able to do something with it.

LJC: Were the guys that you started with there the same as the musicians that are on your albums today?

CW: Off and on. The very first gig that I ever did, Dario Eskenazi was on piano, Mario Rodriguez was on bass, Robby Gonzalez was on drums, Georgie Delgado was on congas, and Ray Vega was on trumpet. The second gig, which was probably in August, Ray couldn't make it, so John played. Robby Gonzalez couldn't make it so Vince Cherico played. A lot of the guys that have been playing with me off and on over the years really got started very early on. Barry came in about a year and a half after that.

LJC: What was it like balancing your academic studies with ethnomusicology with your performance career?

CW: The only way that I could do what I've done and have these two lives, where one is academic and one is performance, is by breaking down any divides in my head and in my life. I was attracted to ethnomusicology because it was asking bigger questions than just, “What clave is this tune in and how do you play with clave?" That's a very interesting question in and of itself, and for musicians, it's vitally important to know these things. But I also wanted to know, “What is the significance of clave in terms of Afro-Cuban identity or Afro-Latin identity? If the clave is supposedly tied to Cuban musical styles, why is it in so many Puerto Rican styles? What is the social significance of that? What does that tell us about our history, and culturally what's gone on in New York City?" All sorts of things like that.

I was interested in these broader questions. I was interested in knowing as much as I could about the music--not only how to play it, but where it came from historically, its musical antecedents, and also why it sounds the way it does. What is it culturally that makes cumbia sound the way it does and why doesn't it sound like salsa? Why does salsa played by Colombian bands have a little different lilt and groove than it does when it's played by Puerto Rican bands? Things like that, where the answers are just not only musical; they're contextual, they're cultural, they're social, and they're economic. That's what attracted me to ethnomusicology in the first place. It's also how I approach playing. Showing up on a gig, yea, you need to know the tunes in 2-3 or 3-2, sure. But if you really want to play this music right, you need to get much deeper into it, both structurally and culturally. That is really the path of ethnomusicology, to delve really deeply into the context.

Originally I was interested in Brazilian music; I had played a lot of Brazilian stuff and lived in Rio for a summer. I was thinking about doing a dissertation on that music, but I wasn't playing a lot of it in New York. I thought, you know, it's not unusual for ethnomusicologists to play in the musical scenes that they write about, but it is unusual for them to be playing at a high professional level. At that time, there was very little ethnomusicology being written from an insider's perspective--a musician's perspective--playing with the top echelons of whatever musical style they were working on. So I just used my performance as a research tool. It also allowed me to gain access into scenes that nobody had been able to get into. If you're hanging out with musicians on tour twenty-four hours a day, you're going to see things and be privy to things that a researcher that's just coming to the gigs or sitting in the audience cannot see. That's not necessarily saying that my perspective is any better than ones that are sitting in the audience; it's just a different one. I could really take advantage of it and communicate something about the music and about the musicians that dedicate their lives to this music that no one else has been able to do. It gave them voice; that's really what the goal of my research was about.

I played with a lot of bands, and I also interviewed all the people that I played with. I told them what I was doing, saying, “Hey, I'm writing a book, can I talk to you a little bit?" A lot of times it was just between sets, hanging out. I played with Tito Puente many years off and on, but I remember that we were playing in Argentina and they screwed up my flight ticket. They accidentally gave me a first class ticket! I was sitting right next to Tito in first class and Celia (Cruz) was on the other side of me. It was a nine hour flight and that was the most amazing nine hours that I had in terms of my research, just talking with them, and getting them to talk. Both of them were very gracious and totally interested in sharing different things. Who else would have had that opportunity? If you spend enough time with people, you can really kind of get to the core of the issues that are at hand.

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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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