Latin Jazz Conversations: Zaccai Curtis (Part 1)


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A childhood immersed in great musical experiences sets the stage for the emergence of a great musician. Listening can be a powerful way to peek interest in a young person, and the more time they spend hearing music, the more it will resonate with them. The more interested a child becomes, the more likely that they will find their way to an instrument. They need large amounts of encouragement and opportunity at this point, but once they have it, they will work hard to master the details of their chose instrument. Performing with an ensemble exposes the child to the social aspect of music and gives them an idea of the rush of live music; this will only serve to encourage them more. Involvement with jazz allows a young person to express their own identity, helping them define themselves in an often confusing part of life. Each stop along the way digs a young person deeper into budding artistic conviction and opens the door to an involved musical lifestyle.

Pianist Zaccai Curtis spent his childhood saturated with high quality music both as a listener and performer, setting the stage for a creative career on New York's jazz scene. Growing up among two brothers, Damien and Luques, Zaccai heard music constantly in his house, due to his father's love for all kinds of music. The wide exposure had a profound effect upon the three brothers, and eventually they all dived into classical piano lessons. Their father held an affinity for the sound of congas, leading him to also connect all his sons with a percussion teacher and Latin music. As the brothers grew more involved in their music studies, they became regular students at Hartford's Artist's Collective, a local jazz school founded by saxophone legend Jackie McLean. The Curtis brothers took full advantage of the many opportunities at The Artist's Collective, playing in ensembles and studying privately with some of the area's top musicians. At the same time, they became involved in a local Latin Jazz program, run by pianist Joe Velez. The ensemble lit a fire with the Curtis Brothers and exposed them to classic compositions from Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, and more. The program unfortunately folded at the height of the brothers' involvement, inspiring their parents to continue the group in their basement. With the help of local percussionist Ed Fast, the group practiced weekly and evolved into a performing unit called Latin Flavor. The band gave the brothers invaluable performance experience and placed them on Hartford's jazz scene at a very young age. During this time, Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes heard the group; they impressed him enough to earn an invitation to the Havana Jazz Festival. Still in their teens, the Curtis Brothers had heard a diverse array of music, connected with influential professionals, and performed worldwide; a full-time career was an inevitable part of their future.

Zaccai and his brother Luques would continue their focus upon jazz, moving to New York and becoming entrenched in the straight ahead jazz and Latin Jazz worlds. As a pianist Zaccai would perform with artists such as Papo Vazquez, Waitiki 7, and Brian Lynch; as band leaders, he and Luques would form Insight and The Curtis Brothers Quartet. In Part One of our interview with Zaccai Curtis, we look back upon his musical upbringing, discussing his broad exposure, his time at The Artist's Collective, Latin Flavor, and more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You grew up with your brothers Luques and Damien all playing music, you must have had a musical childhood. What was it like growing up in that environment?

ZACCAI CURTIS: There was a lot of music happening in the house--a lot. Even before we really played music. My dad was a big fan of music in general. I still remember, everywhere we went, there was music playing or we went to concerts. My dad was always a fan of jazz and r 'n b, funk, or whatever it was. It kind of morphed into the salsa world at one point--salsa and Latin Jazz. He didn't really have any borders with the music, so it wasn't that he liked either salsa or Latin Jazz. I think I remember him saying that he liked music with congas in it. So in the type of music that he listened to, usually it had some type of congas. Groups like Santana or Mandrill. He was always playing that type of music in the house, some sort of music with congas in it all the time. All of us kind of grew up with all that music. Including classical too--he wanted us to listen to everything. So he'd put on classical music in the morning or something with more sentimental type vibes. All this was before we even got into playing music.

Then when we got into playing music, we started off classical. All of us started classical piano. My older brother Damien was first and then I gravitated towards the piano because he was playing it. After that, I started with classical music and so did Luques. Luques did classical piano as well. Shortly after that, there was a percussion teacher in town. My dad got a hold of him and said, “Hey, I would love for you to teach my sons congas." That was our first introduction to Latin music. I still remember that whole introduction into Latin music, playing congas and eventually timbales. I started drumming, it was very musical. My father got us into anything that we gravitated towards and just pushed us in that direction. That was the beginning of music for us. Before us, there was no one in our family that played though.

LJC: Your percussion background must have really been an asset in playing Latin music, was that something that you wanted to do at the time?

ZC: I wanted to play--we all wanted to play. In fact, Luques was a conga player before he was a bassist--he was the conga player for our band. It would be my older brother Damien on piano, Luques played congas, and then I would play horn parts on the piano. I would say I liked it the least; but I still enjoyed it. They were really into it. As time went on, things got more defined as far as what we were doing. We started having jazz lessons, and things kind of came together.

We went to a school called the Artist's Collective--it's a school that Jackie McLean started. The Artist's Collective was where a lot of us really started playing jazz. That's where I started playing jazz as well as Damien and Luques. We all took lessons. We were with the Artist's Collective since we were maybe nine until after high school. We were with the Artist's Collective for our whole schooling of jazz until we pretty much went to college.

Ed Fast had a really big part in all of this too. Ed brought everything to the table as far as teaching us Latin Jazz and lending us recordings and things like that. He kind of shaped it later on.

LJC: I looked on the Artist's Collective website, it sounds like a pretty incredible program. What sorts of things were you doing there--were you in the big band or did you do any Latin music there?

ZC: We were in the big band. Actually we did do a lot of Latin music there. We still remember a lot of the repertoire that we went through. We were there at the time that Steve Davis, Alan Palmer, Mary Davis, Nat Reeves, and Jimmy Greene were there--there were so many people there that are huge right now in jazz. That was for us, the golden era. We look back on it now, and even when we were there later on, and we were saying, “It was such a good time to be there when there were so many great musicians." Of course, Jackie McLean would always be walking around; it wasn't like he was never there--he was there a lot. He would always come in and talk to us, sit down in class, and give us a few pointers. He was always there, it was his school. I think it was really a great time. I learned a lot.

LJC: I read that you had jam sessions in your basement at your house, similar to the Gonzalez brothers and their upbringing. What was that scene like and how did that help you out?

ZC: I think that was the most important thing that happened. We started at a school playing Latin Jazz; it started with a summer program at the Hartford Conservatory. This program was run by a guy named Joe Velez, a great pianist from Hartford. He had a small Latin Jazz band and that was our first experience playing Latin Jazz. He showed us Mongo Santamaria's music, Tito Puente, and things like that in a simplified version for us. For the first year of two, we learned a lot of music, he was a very good teacher. Then the program stopped, it ended. My parents were like, “Well, our kids love it so much, why don't we just start it here?" So they talked to the parents of the kids that were already in the program. They had space in the basement and they already had the instruments, so they said, “Why don't we just have it at our house?"

We would get together weekly and play--that was the beginning of everything. Then of course that's when Ed Fast came by and really started to get involved and helped us out a lot. He himself had a Latin Jazz band, so he had music and recordings. George Puentes is Joel Gonzalez's father; we grew up with Joel, he played trumpet and he was in the same programs that we were in. When we played together, George played professional congas already--he knew how it was supposed to sound and he knew what the clave was. That's how we learned how to play clave--through them. They were doing it already. Hartford doesn't have too much as far as places to get music, so to be involved with people who really knew what they were doing was kind of like a extremely lucky situation. That was kind of how it worked out--that was the basement!

LJC: Is that what evolved into your group Latin Flavor?

ZC: Yea, that's exactly what happened. The parents of the kids that were there said, “Well, why don't we just have the kids perform?" I guess they thought we sounded good! We would do community events at parks or anything. We would just perform. That was great because it gave us a chance to play. I didn't really know what performing was. We were just doing what we thought we should be doing. But when you get older and you grow up doing something like that, you understand performance. It's not foreign to you and you don't give nervous as you would if you just started performing one day. So it was great, we had a great time; it was always fun, never a hassle. I don't remember any problems.

LJC: I heard about a trip that you guys took to Cuba when you were younger--how did that come together and what did you pick up while you were down there?

ZC: My dad would take us to concerts--if it was in a three hour radius from our house and he wanted to go, we would go. He would call any kids in the neighborhood, the kids in the band, or any friends that wanted to go to the concert, and he would say, “Let's go." We always had a minivan and we would just pack the car with whoever wanted to go and we would drive hours to go to these concerts, all the time. He would bring us to these gigs to see these great musicians playing. He didn't care if we wanted to go or not, he would say, “O.K. guys, in the car, we're going!"

That's kind of how we met a lot of musicians--I met Papo Vazquez when I was really young and now I play with him. We met Jerry Gonzalez And The Fort Apache Band. We used to be little kids playing in the playground and then we would be going to see a show from Jerry Gonzalez And The Fort Apache Band. Now we play with them; they've known us since we were really young. It was the same with so many people. Charles Flores, who is the bassist for Michel Camilo gave me my first gig when I was fourteen or fifteen. We've known musicians for such a long time.

So we went and on one of these trips--we went to Bradley's in New York and we saw Chucho Valdes play. It must have been 1997. When we saw Chucho play, somebody told him that my brother played bass. So he called Luques up on stage to play with him. Luques went up on stage and played with him and he loved it so much. He said, “Man, I want to bring you to Cuba!" Somebody else told him, “Well, they have a young band of all kids." So we sent him some information, he contacted us, and invited us out to Cuba that next winter. We all went out there and played. Then later he invited us out again. The first time we went, Ed Fast hooked us up musically to go out there. He had been working with us for a little while by then, so it was cool.

LJC: Anybody that you saw down there that really kind of turned your head around musically?

ZC: Everybody. We went to rehearsals with local bands, we went to shows, we were bombarded with music consistently while we were down there. It was amazing. We had such a great time.

LJC: For a young person going down there, that must have been so eye opening.

ZC: It was, especially the second time. We were a little bit older then, so we got to understand a little bit more of what was happening.

LJC: How old were you when you went down there?

ZC: The first time was 1997 and then the second time that we went was in 1999. They were two years apart. By the time we went down in 2000, I was in my first year of college. We're actually trying to go back again now.

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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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