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Latin Jazz Conversations: Wayne Wallace (Part 4)

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Some occurrences in our lives play such a serious impact upon our outlooks, that they forever change our perspective upon the future. For a musician, most of these events come through interactions with other people, most often when least expected. All of a sudden, the people surrounding the music become equally if not more important than the music itself, as tradition and culture wrap around the sounds associated with them. The deeper that the musician goes into the culture, the more intimately the music becomes connected to their personality and life. In the end, these moments change an artist forever and take their music to another level.

A series of life changing events led trombonist and composer Wayne Wallace deeper into Afro-Cuban culture, making the music a major part of his life. Wallace grew up in San Francisco during the fifties and sixties, finding his way to the trombone and jazz through his experiences in school. The city's vibrant cultural and artistic scene during the sixties held plenty of opportunities, exposing Wallace to a wide array of music and providing professional performing experiences to the talented teenager. As he continued his studies at San Francisco State University, he honed his classical technique and expanded his reach into the area's pop music scene. Being an active performer, he connected with a number of important musicians in the city, such as Bobby Hutcherson and Julian Priester. The Latin music scene soon became a source serious source of work, and Wallace found himself working for Bay Area Latin music legend Pete Escovedo. He joined several of his band mates in the Escovedo group to form The Machete Ensemble, a cutting edge group that dug deeply into Afro-Cuban styles and changed the course of Bay Area Latin Jazz. The eighties also held a wealth of R 'n B work for Wallace, but after years succeeding greatly in this area, Wallace turned his attention to Afro-Cuban music. A teaching trip to Europe led Wallace to an Irakere concert and the conviction that he needed to spend more time studying Afro-Cuban music. A trip to Cuba in 1993 brought Wallace closer than ever to Afro-Cuban music and culture; as a result, his concept of the music grew and his relationship with the people of Cuba became close. His approach to writing in clave became clearly defined both through his exposure to great arrangers like Juan Formell and his own research. Along with his contemporaries like John Santos, Rebeca Mauleón, and Ron Stallings, Wallace brought his knowledge back from Cuba and applied it in groups like The Machete Ensemble and Conjunto Cespedes. With his concept of Latin Jazz clearly defined, Wallace decided to make his own statements, recording two albums on Spirit Nectar Records, Three In Oneand Echoes In Blue, the beginning of an important career as a leader.

As Wallace stepped into the role of bandleader, his music was deeply rooted in a connection to Afro-Cuban culture in a very real way. His experiences in Cuba and on the bandstand alongside important musicians forced him to look into the music from a personal perspective, drawing out some amazing music. We examined Wallace's early connections to jazz, his first steps into music, and the influence of San Francisco's culture in part one of our interview. In the second piece of our discussion, we looked at his classical studies, his time playing pop music, and the connection to important mentors. The third part of our interview took us through Wallace's tenure with Pete Escovedo, the evolution of The Machete Ensemble, and his discovery of Irakere. Today, we talk about Wallace's studies in Cuba, the evolution of his writing style, and his first recordings as a leader.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: When you went down there to Cuba for the first time, who were some of the people that you worked with and what were the experiences that stood out to you?

WAYNE WALLACE: It was life changing for me. One of my trombone teachers was Alvaro Collado, who is one of the long-standing members of Los Van Van. I met Chucho; I met Juan Formell, and Amor Herrera, who was the trombonist in the all-female group Anacaona. I also met the members of Palito y Su Elite.

We went down with Caribbean Music And Dance—it was a group of women that had decided that they wanted to have dance courses taught by Cuban instructors. They had done it in Mexico, and then they decided that they wanted to do it in Cuba. So they set up this thing where musicians and dancers could go down there to study. We went down there in 1992 or 1993. I did not have nearly enough Spanish to communicate, but it was life changing for me from the cultural standpoint. I loved talking to the musicians through translators, as best we could.

It was right after the fall of the Soviet Union, so they were at their worst as far as supplies. I remember one of my teachers was telling me that he couldn't get shoelaces for his daughter. The power went out all the time, and everybody was so used to it, they would just sit there and wait for it to come back on. It was one of those things where I realized that I was blessed to live in the United States and everything is good—I have no problems!

We were staying at the high school—the ENA (Escuela Nacional De Las Arte), and then there was the ESA nearby, which was the college kids. Both schools are on a retired country club. The buildings were old and dilapidated. We stayed with the kids; we were in one of the dorms during that first year. So we were talking to the kids; they were tripping on us and we were tripping on them. I had these great encounters with these kids; musically, they were so rich.

The very first week that we were there, I was supposed to get a private trombone instructor. Nobody showed up. So here I am in the middle of this school, where nobody speaks English. The translators spoke English, but they translated stuff literally and they didn't know musical terms. When I would say, “What key is this in?" They would think about opening doors.

So I didn't have a trombone instructor so I just went in a room and started practicing myself and playing on a piano. This got to be a funny thing. Those kids were so smart and so inquisitive; they would all stick their heads in the door and watch me play. I would say, “Come in!" They didn't speak English, and I didn't speak Spanish. They'd sit there, and I'd say, “Do you play piano? Play something!" They would play something, and they all had great classical chops. I'd say, “Do you know any jazz?" They'd say, “Blues?" And I'd say, “Yea, let's play a blues." So this little bond started. My trombone instructor didn't show up for four days, so there would be this regular thing where the kids would come by and it would be like, “Can we play? Can we jam?" I thought, “I'm going to make the most of this. I'm here in Cuba, I don't have a trombone instructor, I'll do the other courses, but I'm going to play with these kids."

Every day, this one young girl would come in; she just watched, but didn't say anything. On the fourth day, the other kids didn't show up, but she came. I said, “What do you play?" Eventually she said, “Violin." I said, “Do you want to play something for me?" She goes, “Momentico." She ran off, and then she came back with her violin. She took it out, tuned it up, and chalked it up. She struck a bold pose, and said, “Brahms." I listened to her and I said, “O.K., cool, now, do you play jazz?" She said, “Jazz? No." So I said, “Do you want to play jazz?" “Si." So I said, “Here, play these notes." I showed her a minor mode and I said, “Just play." I'd do a modal thing and she soloed on it. You could see the smile on her face, and she said, “Cool!" Eventually she became my shadow and started following me around everywhere. To make a long story short, she ended up becoming my goddaughter of sorts. I visited her family in Mantanzas. I brought her a violin back the next year because she didn't have one. Now she's living in Los Angeles, she has a kid, and she's moved her mother here. Some of the bonds that I made in those first three years still carry to this day.

LJC: It seemed like in the Bay Area at the time, there was a big influx of Cuban music based on people like yourself traveling to Cuba. One of the groups that reflected that Cuban influence was Conjunto Cespedes—how did that group come about?

WW: It's all connected. I don't remember the circumstances of when and how I was asked to join the band, but Guillermo Cespedes was the one that initiated it. I had joined the band and then we started touring nationally. They were a dance band, but they had a folkloric content to them. Most of Bobi's improvs were based around a decima, which comes from the punto guajira style—metered verses. That's when I started to understand the folkloric content of the music. With her being a priestess, it was just the thing that kept pushing me towards that end of the music.

The funny thing about Conjunto Cespedes was that everybody in that band was totally bilingual. I had visited Cuba a few times and I was working on my Spanish. We'd be in a back room some place and the whole conversation would be in English. Then some person that didn't speak English would come into the room, and the whole conversation would go Spanish. I was just going, “This sucks! I have no idea what is being said." That's when I decided that I was going to learn Spanish enough so that I could understand what was happening. Through that, my Spanish got better to where I met a lot of his family down in Havana. I was able to actually go down to Havana and not have somebody go with me. When we were on the road, I remember studying Spanish and actively talking with those guys.

LJC: You were one of the primary writers for Conjunto Cespedes and Machete at that time . . .

WW: That's when it started to come together for me to understand the gestalt of the whole thing as opposed to just floating with it.

LJC: How had your writing evolved at this point?

WW: Through these studies and experience, I started to understand the concept more of writing in clave. I basically just applied the same conventions that I had used with jazz. I would study an Ellington score. I would study Billy Strayhorn scores, Gil Evans scores, and whoever else. I just started doing that with Cuban composers. Chucho gave me some of his scores and I looked at those. I would transcribe Reve arrangements, NG La Banda, and whoever it would be at the time. There were a couple of Beny More things that I worked with too. I looked at how those guys arranged the tunes in terms of clave, and with the singers, the call and response.

During my studies in Cuba, Juan Formell in particular, would talk about the history and how he would write and arrange for Los Van Van. Chucho would do the same thing. These guys talked about the technical aspects, as well as from the context of dance. Richard Euges would talk about that too, from the charanga standpoint. It was a very rich time—it was almost as if you had been dropped into the tail end of the bebop era and those people were talking to you. We were getting first hand experience outside of what lessons were being offered. We were going to the folkloric museums, we were seeing folkloric presentations, I went to casa de las Americas, I went to Mantazas, and I went to Guantanemo. Wherever the information was, I was looking for it and asking questions.

LJC: In 2000, you did your first release as a leader, Three In One—how did that come together?

WW: That was through the benevolence and good graces of Ron Stallings. He had the same experience as me—he had fallen in love with Cuba. Through hard work, he was the initiator of Que Calor with Mark Levine, Michael Spiro, David Belove, and Jeff Cressman. Que Calor had recorded on Spirit Nectar Records, a label started by Ray. Ron recommended that I talk to him. I talked to Ray and he was into doing a record. So I worked and pulled it together as best I could. That was the beginning of the two recordings that I did for Spirit Nectar Records, Three In Oneand Echoes In Blue.

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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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