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Latin Jazz Conversations: Wayne Wallace (Part 6)

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The career of a jazz artist contains a number of plateaus, and with each additional ascent into higher artistry comes more responsibility. An artist needs to continually push themselves into new stages of their evolution through research and experimentation. At the same time, they hold a responsibility to support their musical peers and enrich their own personal musical community. In order to ensure continued work, they must share their knowledge and make sure that a younger generation of musicians finds their way towards jazz. With each step forward, musicians take on more commitments that support the music world around them and solidify the impact of their legacy.

Trombonist and composer Wayne Wallace now stands as a primary figure on the San Francisco Bay Area Latin Jazz scene, and he continues to contribute to the scene's creative energy. The diversity and creative energy that spun around San Francisco during the fifties and sixties inspired a young Wallace, who found his way to the trombone during elementary school. Already working professionally as a teen, Wallace honed his classical chops at San Francisco State University while working with jazz and rock groups. He found a number of important mentors in the city, including members of Bobby Hutcherson's working band and Herbie Hancock trombonist Julian Priester. Latin music became a part of Wallace's gig schedule in the eighties, first on the city's salsa scene and later as a part of legendary timbalero Pete Escovedo's band. During his time with Escovedo, Wallace formed a bond with his fellow band members that included percussionist John Santos, pianist Rebeca Mauleón, bassist David Belove, and more. The young musicians eventually formed their own band, The Machete Ensemble, embarking on a two-decade journey that would define the sound of the Bay Area Latin Jazz scene. During this time, Wallace saw Irakere perform in Europe, inspiring a number of trips to Cuba. Filled with new information about Cuban culture and music, Wallace refined his work as a leader and produced his first two releases as a leader, Three In Oneand Echoes In Blue. Determined to guide his own career, Wallace established Patois Records with two of his own albums, Dedicationand The Reckless Search for Beauty, as well as recordings from vocalists Kat Parra and Alexa Weber Morales. Patois Records continued to grow over the years, and in 2010, Wallace's album ¡Bien Bien!garnered a Grammy nomination in the Latin Jazz category. Riding high on national recognition, Wallace released To Hear From Therein 2011, a stunning release that shows inspiring growth and maturity. While his career as an important performer grows exponentially, Wallace maintains an active commitment to the spread of jazz, teaching at San Jose State University, the Jazzschool Institute, and more. As he has shown throughout his career, Wallace takes his responsibility to music and community seriously, thoughtfully crafting high quality projects.

Wallace has spent his career adding boosts of smart musicality into the Bay Area Latin Jazz scene, and he seems poised to continue long into the future. To Hear From Thereresonates with the vitality of an artist in his prime, overflowing with creative approaches to tradition. In Part One of our interview with Wallace, we discussed his exposure to jazz in his youth, his early professional experiences, and the impact of San Francisco's music scene. Part Two of our interview focused upon Wallace's classical trombone studies, his pop music days, and important mentors. We looked at Wallace's time with Pete Escovedo, the creation of The Machete Ensemble, and his discovery of Irakere in Part Three. The Fourth Part of our interview moved towards Wallace's travels to Cuba, his evolving writing style, and his initial recordings as a leader. We talked about the creation of Patois Records, the label's broad mission, and Wallace's current success in Part Five. In the conclusion of our interview, we dig into To Hear From There, Wallace's dedication to teaching, and future projects.

———- LATIN JAZZ CORNER: One of the things that struck me on To Hear From Thereis the amount of dedications to musicians that you've worked with in the past—was there something in particular that inspired you to reflect upon that or was it simply an extension of what you do?

WAYNE WALLACE: It's both. I'm very tuned into health issues with friends in life. My mantra over the last five years has been “Don't take anything for granted." If you can get up in the morning and actually put your feet on the floor, it's a good day. Forget about all the taxes and crazy politics, embrace all the good stuff around you and move forward. My other little thing is don't let anyone steal your joy. Whatever it is that brings you joy in life, make sure that you do that.

So I try to reach out to all the people that have helped me. When I found out about the Grammy nomination, I called John Santos and thanked him. Anybody that had done something that had helped me gain some knowledge or enriched my life, I called them and thanked them. You don't get there by yourself. I've tried to stay with that.

LJC: Some of the tunes that stood out to my on To Hear From Therewere the first two tunes—"La Escuela" and “Serafina Del Caribe"—you can hear timba in them. Do you keep up on the Latin dance scene and how does that inspire your jazz writing?

WW: I can't get away from it! It follows me everywhere. “La Escuela" is dedicated to the Escuela Nacional De Las Arte—we wanted the song to be timba because that is what was happening at the time we were down there. We had hung out with Changüito and seen that whole timba thing. I wanted it to resonate in that song. The thing that I'm really proud of in that tune is that little three bar phrase that happens right before the conga solo; it crosses against the clave and goes back and forth.

There are two big time things that I'm thrilled about on the album—that spot I mentioned on “La Escuela" and the 7/4 groove on “Yemaya." I feel like I'm pushing forward instead of just following the tried and true.

The groove on “Serafina Del Caribe" is a gumbo—it's not just timba. It's got a New Orleans thing, soca, and bomba in those rhythm patterns. The rhythm on that song is not a true timba thing to the point where Michael Spiro and I said, “We've got to find a new name for that rhythm!" It's got songo, timba, and all that stuff in it; it's really more of a gumbo.

LJC: You've got two tunes based on folkloric tunes—"Yemaya" and “Ogguere (Soul Of The Earth)" —which reminded me of your work with The Machete Ensemble. Is that something that you want to explore more?

WW: Yes, I do. I have this concept for an album that really incorporates the folkloric music of the Americas. That's one of the projects that I'm trying to pull together and solidify right now. That's kind of come out of a course that I'm teaching at San Jose State, because everyday I'm talking about the folkloric music of the Americas.

I've also got a commission to write a piece for the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. It's about 75% done—it's got strains of Afro-Caribbean music in it, but it's really more of an Afro-Caribbean chamber jazz thing. I'm trying to do some different things besides what the quintet is doing.

LJC: For the past few albums, you've had a pretty steady quintet. Can you tell me a little bit about the group?

WW: The thing that is beautiful about the quintet is its diversity. I remember someone called us up to do a wedding. We played a bolero, a James Brown tune, a salsa tune, a Nat King Cole tune, and more. We looked at each other and said, “We're the ultimate wedding band!"

That's one of the great strengths of this band—how easily it flows between styles. We all have the base of Afro-Caribbean music, but we can do the other stuff too. If we wanted to play a straight-ahead jazz gig, we could. It's in the same vein as The Fort Apache Band, but different. Fort Apache goes back and forth between those two styles in a blink of an eye, and we do that. We have all those other components of R n' B with it too.

Another strength of the band is that we genuinely are a family in that we know each other. We don't just come together for a gig; we worry about what happens in everybody's life. As a result, there's a great tacit communication on the bandstand. It's almost like we can look at each other and go, “O.K., that's a great idea—let's do that!"

LJC: You've mentioned your role as an educator—tell me a little bit about what you're doing.

WW: Currently, my steady job is at San Jose State where I teach two general studies classes. One is called Worlds Of Jazz—it traces the history and the evolution of jazz. It's a writing course, so I'm demanding a lot of the students. I'm asking them to use intellectual curiosity as they look at how jazz evolved and why it evolved in America. I also teach a similar writing course on Music And Culture Of Latin America, looking at how each country developed such distinct styles of music depending upon colonization, religion, slavery, and more. It's challenging for students of this age—it really forces them to go back and do some research. I run a Latin Jazz Ensemble as well—it's Afro-Cuban based, but we'll do Brazilian Puerto Rican music also.

I teach five classes at the Jazzschool in Berkeley. I teach two jazz combos—a high school combo and a middle school combo. I do combine some jazz history with that. I teach an R n' B combo that I call The Old School Soul Kitchen, where we do music from the seventies through the nineties. I teach a class called Getting It Together that focuses upon improvisation and nurturing the creative side. I also teach a history class on jazz from 1940�.

Then I teach the summer jazz workshops. I teach a class at Stanford Jazz Workshop on arranging and composition. Then there's the jazz camps—Jazz Camp West, LaFayette, and another one at San Jose State this year.

LJC: Do you think that we're doing enough to educate the younger generation about jazz?

WW: I think so. I've traveled and done some workshops in Chicago, Washington, and Colorado. There are people that share our enthusiasm. The mid-West seems to have a wider reach of getting it out there. Music seems to be more integral to the fabric of everyday life in the mid-West because they have groups in the churches and it seems like there's more music schools. So the outreach of jazz seems to get deeper inside communities. Here on the West Coast it seems to be more of an urban phenomenon. There are the big scenes—Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles; then there are little pockets like Fresno, Bakersfield, and Monterey.

LJC: You've been a primary figure in Bay Area Latin Jazz—how would you describe the area's sound and where do you see it going?

WW: We have a history here of being non-conformist. These scenes that arose here since the Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast, and everything else, they created the spirit of this area. It's an area that accepts different cultures and is willing to experiment with them. You can look at the Peace-Love movement or anything else. . . If something can happen, it seems to happen here.

On the East Coast, it seems like things have to be stratified to survive. To keep your community together—whether it's Puerto Rican or whatever—there are these pockets of where people can live and where they can't live. The little reading that I've done about the diversity of New Orleans—people think of it as a place where cultures mixed together. But the thing was, there was so little land mass, that they were forced to live together. It was kind of a forced integration.

San Francisco is not a big city, in terms of landmass. When you think of New York, San Francisco pales in comparison of population and geographically. But the whole Bay Area is big—when you put Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco together, you start to get something like New York. Within that, there is a tremendous amount of diversity, just because of what San Francisco is and because of its history. That, to me, has been the strength of this area—it's willing to experiment and accept the experiments—whether they work or they gloriously fail.

LJC: What does the future hold for you?

WW: I think that I'd just like to expand musically. I look at what bebop has done—you can't play that music any better than Bird and Diz did. You can play it, but how are you going to improve on it? For me, I'd like to expand musically as a writer, arranger, and as a player. A lot of that is about setting up platforms for me to play off of that allow me to go in different directions. That's not to say that we've done everything we can do, but I just want to expand on it as much as possible. We all know the platform of Latin Jazz, but how can we expand on that? That's what I'm trying to do as I move forward. I'd also like to expand the venues for music and open up people's ears.

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