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Latin Jazz Conversations: Chris Washburne (Part 3)

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Some musicians carry an innate strength that pushes their musical statements out into the world with an undeniable power. They work as hard as any other musician, and in some cases they work harder; they simply refuse to let their musical ideas be cut short in any way. Many scenarios that would find a regular musician defeated--a lack of work, incompatible collaborators, lifestyle demands--all these situations simply slow this musician's artistic momentum. When the most imposing developments alter their career, ranging from physical injury to instability, these musicians fight their way back to the top of their potential. The pure power of their inner drive keeps them racing ahead in a strong forward motion, fueled by their dedication an love for music.

Trombonist Chris Washburne's musical inertia has taken him on an unstoppable trajectory, creating engaging music despite major life challenges. Washburne fell in love with music during his youth in Ohio, and after much performance experience, he landed at the University of Wisconsin for college music studies. His connection to multiple musical worlds led him to the Third Stream program at New England Conservatory for graduate work in music. He discovered Latin music in Boston, lighting a passion for salsa and more which led directly south to New York City. Sensing the competitive nature of New York's music scene, Washburne enrolled at Columbia University for doctoral studies in ethnomusicology. Washburne quickly found work on New York's Latin music scene though, rapidly building a full schedule of performances with some of the world's top Latin music figures. As his career launched forward at full speed, Washburne hit a road block when a doctor found terminal cancer in his face. The removal of the cancer saved his life, but it also destroyed the nerves in his face, effectively ending his career as a trombonist. Washburne refused to accept this fate though, and he slowly rebuilt his ability to play trombone and create music. After a long healing process, his group built momentum again, landing a weekly gig at the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe. The band took advantage of their regular performances, developing strong original repertoire for an original release Nuyorican Nights. The group nailed down a second regular gig at Smoke while Washburne worked as a sideman with some of the genre's best musicians. He recorded an album in tribute to one of his employers, Tito Puente, who died right before the recording. The Other Side (El Otro Lado) remembered El Rey with class and style, once again solidifying the importance of Washburne's work. With a full musical journey behind him, Washburne continued forward, remaining fully dedicated to his life as a musician.

After establishing himself as one of the busiest musicians on the scene, winning a life threatening bout with cancer, and raising the profile of his own band with outstanding recordings, there's no doubt that Washburne's musical trajectory would last far into the future. In Part One of our interview with Washburne, we talked about his initial encounters with music, his dual love for jazz and classical music, and his discovery of Latin music. In Part Two of our discussion, we looked at his early days on New York's Latin music scene, the formation of SYOTOS, and his interest in ethnomusicology. Today, we spend some time focusing upon Washburne's life changing battle with cancer, his return to the scene, the creation of Nuyorican Nights, The Other Side (El Otro Lado), and more.

LJC: Early on in SYOTOS, you had an experience with cancer in your face that changed your life; can you tell us a little bit about what happened?

CW: That was a very difficult time in my life. Basically, anytime I would play more than five hours in a day--which I was doing everyday--I had a small mole in my face that was starting to get sore. So I went to a plastic surgeon and said, “Hey man, I'm a trombone player, but this is bugging me and I need to get it taken off." He said, “Yea, no problem." When I went in for the procedure and they started to do it, they said, “You know what? We've got to get this tested." It was within two days, my entire life turned upside down. They said, “Look, you have a very small chance of surviving this; this is a really deadly kind of cancer. The only way that you're going to survive is if you get this taken off right now. We have to do it in such a way that we remove all the nerves and muscles from one side of your face." It was like, “Yea, but I'm a trombone player." They said, “Not anymore." So, not only was I dealing with my own mortality, but what was even worse was loosing my own personalized identity. If I was going to survive this, my life was going to be completely different than how I knew it. Being a trombonist was just so much a part of who I was and how I expressed myself artistically and personally.

They did the surgery, and the guy was very conservative in how he did it. He tried to save as much of the muscle as he could, but he couldn't save the nerves. The surgery was successful and I actually pulled though and survived. Then he said, “I don't think you're going to play trombone anymore." I was sitting there about three months after the surgery, and I hadn't played a note. I was looking at my trombone case in the corner, and I thought, “You know what? I'm going to try." I picked it up and it was a disaster--I could play like two notes for two seconds and then I was in pain. I just said, “If I can play two notes today, then I'm going to play three notes tomorrow and I'll play for three seconds." I called up the doctor and told him what I was going to do, and he said, “Well, be careful. You could damage the surgery that I have to do, and I have to do more plastic surgery to get rid of you scar." And I said, “You're not coming near my face again, I'll live with the scar." So I still have a pretty big scar on my face.

After about six months of that--playing one more note for one more second each day--I had my first professional gig. People were very nice to me. Pete “El Conde" in particular was extremely nice. I could barely play, but they let me play on their gigs so I could get some money. It took me about two or two and a half years to fully come back and re-learn how to play with half of the muscles that I had before. And I'm playing without any feeling, so you have to play completely by ear, you can't really play by feel.

LJC: Is it still like that for you?

CW: Yea. The nerves don't come back. Some muscles have regenerated, but the nerves don't come back.

LJC: that must have given you a totally different perspective on music and what you wanted to do. What changed for you?

CW: I was just happy to be on a gig! Every note I played, I was like, “Oh cool, it came out!" I was no longer trying to play the perfect solo on Giant Steps, I was like, “I'll just play a perfect note on Giant Steps and I'll be happy."

When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was July 10th, and again, we were booked to play Bastille Day at that same French restaurant where we started. That day, we were still booked as Chris Washburne And His Latin Jazz Group. I had told the doctor to delay the surgery by a few days so that I could at least play my last gig. So he did. It was during that gig that all of a sudden that phrase, “See You On The Other Side" came into my head, right in the middle while I was playing. I just started introducing the band as “See You On The Other Side Band." The guys in the band were kind of like, “What?!?" I explained it to them afterwards--I said, “After this gig, I'm going to be on the other side of things. It's either going to be on the other side in a different world or at least not a trombone player anymore." When I finally got back and started playing with the band again, I just started calling it SYOTOS, which is the acronym for “See You On The Other Side," as a tribute to that experience--I am on the other side and let's see what we can find.

LJC: You started something that's kind of rare today with SYOTOS, a regular gig at the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe.

CW: Yea, the regular gig started after the cancer bout. That started 19 years ago. It's funny; I didn't really want a regular gig. I was still getting my chops back and they called and said, “Can you play on Thursday?" I said “O.K." and we played. That was right when their band that had been playing on Thursday got fired or something happened. They said, “We need a Thursday band, could you play?" I was like, “Well, alright . . ." never imagining in my life that it would last ten years. It really grew into something.

That was why SYOTOS came together. We developed our band sound then, and we developed a huge repertoire. Our first record is called Nuyorican Nights as a tribute to that. It was just such a blessing. Most of those weeks I played for no money, I just gave all the money to the band. It was just a door gig. It was really a very special time and the reason why we could develop a band sound. You know, there's not a lot of bands around. There's a lot of great musicians that play, but not regular working bands.

The kind of funny thing was I never really tried to pursue getting regular gigs. Now we play at Smoke every Sunday night. It was the same thing--they called me. They had a band that didn't work out, and they said, “Hey, we heard that you play the Nuyorican every week. Could you play here every week?" I was like, “Oh, O.K. . . ." So it's not the regular model of trying to scrounge gigs, because it's so hard to find places to play these days for a lot of musicians. But it's been a real blessing, and it's something very special about SYOTOS.

LJC: You hear a lot of first releases from groups, and it seems like they're finding their way. Nuyorican Nights was so solid and right from the start, you could hear that you had a very solid combination of diverse music. How do you go about pulling all those worlds together?

CW: You're playing it every night. When we first started playing that stuff, it didn't gel. But when you're playing every single night, you get to work it out. The reason that Nuyorican Nights in particular sounds so good is that we had been playing that music for two years, every Thursday night. We were doing different versions of it, trying out different things. What a luxury! It was trial and error. With most jazz records and a lot of Latin Jazz records now, people write music, they get together, they rehearse, they record it, and they release it. Then they go and try to find gigs based off this record. What ends up happening is the version that you get on a record is really the first version of the music. You go hear the music live and they've grown. They're doing some really interesting stuff with this music that you heard on basically their first performance, which is never good. You need time to work stuff out, mature, and do something special. That's not to say that other Latin Jazz records aren't great, because they are. A lot of musicians on the first time are playing stuff that's fantastic. But it's really hard to make it sound great in that setting. It's really easy to make it sound great if you've been playing it for two years every week. Then you just come in do the session, and it's just like, “Let's just do another version of it. Oh, that's not as good as we've been playing it, let's do another one." You just try to capture that live feeling.

LJC: A couple of years later you came out with The Other Side (El Otro Lado), which was a tribute to Tito Puente. He passed away while you were making the album.

CW: Yea, he was supposed to be a guest soloist on it. I had played with him just a few weeks before he passed away. I did his last record. I had told him about it, I played some of the demos for him. He dug it. I said, “Tito, this is a tribute to you and your music, I'd like you to be a guest soloist." He said, “Yea, no problem, I'll do it." Then a few weeks later, he passed away. It was devastating. I was really looking forward to this project and I was really missing him and those gigs. He was such a wonderful person to be on stage with. So then it became a tribute.

We actually delayed the record because there were so many tributes coming out and I thought it was in bad taste to try to take advantage commercially the passing of a great musician. So we delayed the release of The Other Side about six months so that it wouldn't look like we were trying to capitalize on his passing. Then it came out and I was very happy with that record.

LJC: One of the things about that album, you were able to capture the iconic sound of Puente's writing, but you were also able to be original with it--were you trying to respect Puente while putting your own spin on it?

CW: Oh yes, definitely. I had no interest in just repeating what Tito did. He did it so well, there's no reason to copy it. So I was trying to make a SYOTOS version. I was doing his music--transcribing it, trying to play it like he did it, and making it our own somehow. There's even some quotes from his music in my arrangements, but then my melodies are not very Tito-like.

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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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