Latin Jazz Conversations: Wayne Wallace (Part 3)


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Music evolves in a fluid nature, but key individuals and turning points serve as milestones in the musical history of any one region. Certain ideas and approaches are just simply so powerful that they permeate the culture and popular thought of an area. These concepts don't evolve in a vacuum; they are the result of collaboration between a number of inspired people. While these movements are generally fueled by the minds of different individuals, some musicians have such a wide range of interests and abilities that they touch a number of these moments.

Trombonist and composer Wayne Wallace took a large part in several key points in the history of Bay Area Latin Jazz before moving on to write his own chapters. Wallace grew up in San Francisco during the fifties, listening to his parents' jazz record collection, playing sports, and taking piano lessons. He discovered the trombone during elementary school and continued focusing upon the instrument throughout several influential years of high school. The diverse and open nature of San Francisco's music scene during the sixties exposed Wallace to funk, jazz, and rock, leading him to professional work in the midst of his teen years. Wallace studied under classical trombonist Will Sudmeier at San Francisco State, developing his classical chops by day while working with a Top 40 band at night. He connected with Bobby Hutcherson's band and gained an important mentor in Julian Priester, who was the trombonist in Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi sextet at the time. In the eighties, Wallace began finding gigs on San Francisco's lively salsa scene, eventually finding work with Pete and Sheila Escovedo. His association with Escovedo continued into the timbalero's Latin Jazz Orchestra, which also called upon other first call players on the Latin music scene such as percussionist John Santos, pianist Rebeca Mauleon, and bassist David Belove. Hoping to make their own statements upon the music, Santos, Wallace, and several other Escovedo alumni formed The Machete Ensemble, a group that would define Bay Area Latin Jazz over the next twenty years. Wallace balanced his work in The Machete Ensemble with high profile R 'n B gigs, performing and recording with artists such as Aretha Franklin and Earth, Wind, And Fire, as well as scoring a Top 10 hit with Confunkshun. During a teaching tenure in Europe, Wallace saw Irakere perform for the first time, and set his musical focus firmly upon Latin Jazz. With a driving force behind him, Wallace set into the future with a passionate desire to learn more about Cuban influenced jazz.

From his connection to Escovedo to the creation of The Machete Ensemble and an active contribution to Bay Area R 'n B, Wallace experienced several important points in the evolution of the area's music scene. His ever present musicality and keen insight into performance styles made these musical events come to life, ensuring their memorable nature. In the first piece of our interview with Wallace, we looked at jazz in his young life, his leap into music, and the influence of the San Francisco music scene. In part two of our interview, we dug into his classical studies at San Francisco State, his involvement in the pop music scene, and his relationship with Julian Priester. Today, we discuss Wallace's time with Pete Escovedo, the creation of The Machete Ensemble, and his exposure to Irakere.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: There was quite a bit of blending between jazz and funk for you during the seventies, was Latin music mixing in there as well?

WAYNE WALLACE: It was mixing in, but not for me until the mid to late eighties. I remember that Pete Escovedo asked me to sub with Azteca for one gig. I had just had both wisdom teeth removed and I couldn't do the gig! I didn't start working actively on the Latin scene until Pete Escovedo asked me to join the group that he had with Sheila, his daughter. They had regular Mondays or Tuesday at Keystone Corner. Richard Komode was in the band, and Ray Obiedo was there. That was my first solid introduction to the Latin Jazz scene.

Then I got involved in the salsa scene, playing Club Elegante on Mission Street. I went to Cesar's Club back when it was on Greene Street, and I saw Cesar's band. Julian Priester was in the band. Then eventually Cesar hired me for his band in 1984 or 1985. After that, I started working with Babatunde Lea's band, Conjunto Uhuru. That introduced me to salsa and Latin Jazz as well. The traditional things I was doing was with Cesar's band—he was doing The Fania All-Stars stuff and all the early things like that. With Conjunto Uhuru, we started doing the more modern material from Ray Barretto's Indestructibleand Rican/Struction.

At that same time, I started working with Pete Escovedo again. He had stopped the Pete and Sheila project, and he put together a two horn band. We started working at a club in Solano. That was the first incarnation of what Pete's band has become. Besides Azteca, that's when he started mixing more funk with the Latin, Brazilian, and everything.

LJC: You were coming from the jazz scene, was there any sort of divide between the straight-ahead scene and the Latin Jazz scene?

WW: For me, it was fluid. Somebody else might have a different experience with it. I've always been fortunate that the boundaries have been totally blurred in just about everything that I've played. The people that I've played with have been accepting, eager to learn from each other, and open to experiencing other styles of music. I've played in ska bands, African style bands, and more. One of the things that has been in all the bands that I've worked in—and I guess it's both my strength and my weakness, because I don't like to do it when it's not there—has always had some component for the musicians to improvise. I tend to not be as attracted to situations or playing formats that don't leave room for it to be different every night. There's got to be some variable in it so that you're not dying from the repitition.

LJC: When you joined Pete's Latin Jazz group, you got inspired to focus more upon Latin music. What was it about that experience that got you there?

WW: That's almost true. That was my first entre into it. I hadn't done the homework or experienced it enough to really say that I was there. I was kind of just playing with it. For me, the next big step was joining The Machete Ensemble.

LJC: Machete formed in the mid-eighties, how did that group come together?

WW: John Santos had Orquesta Batachanga together for years. Looking back upon it, I think that John was listening to what Fort Apache was doing. He wanted to move in that direction, so he formed Machete. I had been working with John . . . actually, all of us were together—David Belove, John Santos, Rebeca Mauleón, and more—we were all playing in Pete's band at the time. John knew of my work with Pete; I'd been slowing arranging with him. He asked me to write a song for the newly formed version of Machete. We had a gig as a special guest with Joe Henderson at the Brava Theater in the Mission District. I wrote a quasi-African/Latin piece called “Foreign Exchange" for that gig—we recorded it eventually. That was my real first step to getting involved with the folkloric component of the music. For me, that was the turning point.

The eighties was also my R n' B and pop period. In the beginning of the eighties, I started working with Narada Michael Walden. I toured with his band after he had a couple of hit records. We were opening for The Brothers Johnson, Parlament Funkadelic, Rufus and Chaka Khan, and at one point, Dianna Ross. Then Narada started producing records, and he became the superstar producer of the eighties, through the Whitney Houston stuff, Kenny G, and on down the line. I started doing session work and writing some pop tunes within that time. Then I was getting phone calls for that. I was doing a lot of session work. I did stuff at The Automat with Phyllis Hyman, Carl Carlton, Stacy Lattisaw, and eventually with Aretha Franklin and Earth, Wind, and Fire.

People had been seeing the horn arrangements that I'd been doing in this context of R n' B, so I got a call from Confunkshun to do some horn arrangements for their record To The Max. They had a couple of really big hits, and they asked me to join the group as a keyboardist and a trombonist. So I went out on tour with those guys and actually ended up having a Top 10 R n' B hit that I co-wrote with Michael Cooper that is still getting radio play. We still get residuals for it—from 1986, 24 years after the fact!

LJC: What tune was that?

WW: It's called “I'm Leaving Baby." Then together with a good friend of mine, I wrote a song that Phyllis Hyman recorded. It was one of the last records that she ever did. I also wrote a tune for Lenny Williams after he had left Tower Of Power. So I was doing a lot of that. After a while, I kind of got tired of that pop merry-go-round. It can be so cut-throat. The real money in that is the publishing and people will do anything that they can to make it happen.

I remember that there was a defining moment around 1991 or 1992, where I just went, “I'm out. I really want to play and study Afro-Cuban and Latin Jazz music." I received a composer's grant from the NEA—it was a commission to write a piece that reflected the diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area music scene. The piece that I wrote eventually was called “Digging Up The Roots." That was the impetus for starting my band, Rhythm and Rhyme, because we had to perform that piece. A big part of that grant was to go visit Cuba and study the music there. That was my first trip to Cuba in 1993.

LJC: What did you dig deeper into when you got to Cuba?

WW: When the Berlin Wall fell, John (Santos) had asked Rebeca (Mauleón) and I to go to Germany with him to do this teaching tour. While we were there, we caught a ferry from Germany over to England to see Irakere play at Ronnie Scott's club. After I heard them, I was just like, “That's what I want to do, that's what I want my band to sound like." I was so impressed that the trombone player at the time could play all those lines. After the show, John and Rebeca stayed; I came back to Germany with the woman that had taken us there. We went back at her house, waiting for John and Rebeca to come back so that we could start teaching again. I remember I locked myself in a room and practiced double tounging for two days so that I could play lines like that. It was a pivotal turning point technically for me. It gave me the confidence to write more difficult horn lines and it changed my whole concept as an arranger and as a soloist. I bought a bunch of Irakere records at the show, and I brought them back and I wore them out. These were the records that they did on Egrem that weren't the ones that they had done in the U.S.; they were more of what Irakere was about, as opposed to the pop-fusion thing that they seemed to think they needed to do on the Columbia recordings. That took me into the folkloric aspect of it, because they had more of it on those records.

So that prepped me to start listening to everybody else that was doing that music at the time. Babatunde's band was doing a cover of Batacumbele's “Se Le Ve," so I got introduced to songo, which was the big rage. We all wanted to play that because it was funky. That led me to going to Cuba to study. It vicariously got me studying Spanish. It got me studying the cultural aspect of Cuban music and the people there, and then starting to relate it to where it intersects with African-American culture in North America. Now, I'm teaching a course at San Jose State about the music and culture of Latin America. That opened the door and I'm deeply, actively teaching about the Afrocentric characteristics of Caribbean and South American countries.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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