Latin Jazz Conversations: Zaccai Curtis (Part 3)


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For many jazz musicians, a move to New York represents many things, but all in every way, it symbolizes a step into the center of the jazz world. Vibrant jazz scenes exist across the country and each one produces a significant amount of creative energy that pushes the music into the next era. Musicians dedicate their lives to jazz communities across the country, doing important work that in many ways equals the artistic output of New York's jazz scene. Still, New York holds something special that brings a different type of edge and a connection to history that can not be denied. There's an importance that accompanies performance in the city that fostered much of the evolution behind jazz. There's a large community of musicians deeply convicted to the art of jazz with massive amounts of experience to share. When a musician moves onto the New York scene, they also know that the world is watching; a fact that could bode well for their future career. In so many ways, a move to New York signals a seriousness for a jazz musician and an big commitment to a musical life.

Pianist Zaccai Curtis made his transition into New York's major leagues of jazz through hard work and persistence, carving a solid place for himself on the city's bustling scene. Curtis spent his childhood immersed in music, diving headfirst into classical piano and Latin percussion studies at a young age. Even before his teenage years, Curtis took his passion for music even further through participation in ensembles at Jackie McLean's Artist's Collective and a Latin Jazz program run by local pianist Joe Velez. Along with his brother Luques and a number of their musical peers, Curtis formed a Latin Jazz group, Latin Flavor, performing in Hartford and beyond, even making an appearance at the Havana International Jazz Festival. With music clearly in his future, Curtis pursued music in college, landing at the New England Conservatory's Jazz Studies program. Curtis worked diligently at the conservatory, earning both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in music, studying privately with pianist Danilo Pérez, and performing throughout Boston. Knowing that his future held larger musical horizons, Curtis set his sights on New York's jazz scene, and along with his brother Luques, moved to the jazz capital. Once the brothers arrived there, they connected with a number of musicians that recognized their strong drive and immense musicality. Drummers Ralph Peterson and Cindy Blackman recruited Zaccai into their straight ahead jazz ensembles while Latin Jazz legends Papo Vazquez and Jerry Gonzalez regularly hired the pianist. Along the way, Zaccai and Luques worked hard to follow their personal creative vision, breaking into the scene as bandleaders as well. Their first recording with their group Insight, A Genesis, made a bold statement about their approach to Latin Jazz and the massive potential in their music. As they dug their way further into New York's scene, it became increasingly clear that Zaccai and his brother Luques would be heavy hitters in the big leagues of the New York jazz scene.

With his artistic vision firmly in place and his life steadily committed to being a part of New York's music scene, Zaccai Curtis became a focused and important part of the next generation of the city's Latin Jazz community. His hard work and insightful artistry paid off as he now works as a respected sideman and an established band leader. In part one of our interview with Curtis, we looked at his vast exposure to music as a young person, his time at Jackie McLean's Artist's Collective, his trips to Cuba, and more. During part two of our interview, we discussed Hartford's music scene, Curtis' time at New England Conservatory, his move to New York, and more. Today we focus upon his early gigs in New York, the recording of A Genesis, working as a band leader, and much more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: Who were some of the people that you connected with quickly when you got to New York?

ZACCAI CURTIS: Ralph Peterson was the first person that started having me gig with people in New York. It took a little while though, it wasn't easy for me. Luques kind of jumped on the scene right away, but it took a little while for me. I was just doing gigs wherever I could . . . I'm still doing gigs wherever I can! I've been working with Cindy Blackman; that was through Antoine Roney, who was another huge help when I got to the city. Alan Palmer, who was my teacher in Hartford had a connection with Antoine Roney, so he referred me. That was how I hooked up with Antoine Roney, and then through Antoine, Cindy Blackman. I was working with Bill Saxton when I first moved to the city, who is a great saxophonist. Then Russ Musto helped us out, got us subbing for Andy Gonzalez and Larry Willis with Jerry Gonzalez and The Fort Apache Band. That was huge when Russ started subbing us in there--it's so much fun whenever I get a chance to play with them! They're one of the best bands ever. I've also been playing with Papo Vazquez for a few years now. He was an old time contact, friend, and mentor. Then it was almost like a snowball--you talk to this person and then this person refers you. It was like, any connection was huge.

LJC: It must have been different establishing the Curtis Brothers as a group as opposed to sidemen. What was it like building a reputation as a band on the scene?

ZC: As far as being an individual musician, we got our reputations from just playing around, meeting people, and things like that. But as a band, it is a lot harder, and it takes time. To be an established band really takes time. New York City is definitely not an easy place to come with your band and say, “Oh, we'll perform everywhere!" It's just not that type of place. Each club has their own type of music that they like to present to their customers. Whether they like you or not, if you're not what they're feeling for the next eight months, it's not something that is going to happen, no matter how hard you try. A singer could just walk in there who doesn't even have a band, but she might give them her press kit and they say, “We want this singer." It really has to do with whoever is booking the club. The important thing is not to take anything personal, becuase it's probably not personal at all.

It took us a little while to actually get into a lot of places. Once did, a lot of things opened up for us. We were able to get a few more venues, and things like that. Now every once in a while, we play in the city. Right now we're working with a quartet, but when I was working with a larger band--a seven-piece band--it was very difficult for us to bring the band into any venue, very difficult. That's the advantage of having a quartet--more venues are apt to book you, and the money is somewhat decent. But if you're doing jazz, you really have to do it because you love it. If you don't love it, there's nothing there for you. You really have to love the music. The thing with the club owners, they don't get any breaks at all. The club owners and the people that have jazz at their venues are working hard too.

LJC: Once things did start moving for you, how did you pull everything together to record A Genesis?

ZC: Luques and I put our own money and our own phone calls in for A Genesis. That was when we first moved to New York, because we wanted to have something that showed people what we did. That was how we did that one. Blood-Spirit-Land-Water-Freedom was pretty much the same situation. We saved enough and we really went over how we were going to do things. That was how we put out that CD. It's almost like we really don't want to wait. This is what we're doing now, this is the project that we're working on, and that was kind of what we wanted to do in New York. So yea, it took a lot of money from us to do it, to do every CD that we've done so far. We just finished one right now with a lot of great musicians--Brian Lynch and Ralph Peterson--it's more of a straight-ahead album. It's really our own vision, it's only what we're envisioning and what we're doing. A Genesis, we just had to put that together, to show people what we could do. Then we had something almost like a business card--a CD can take the place of a business card at times.

LJC: Another thing that really is a big part of your generation is the do-it-yourself creation of CDs without the help of a record label. How has that process effected your career?

ZC: Honestly, it's probably one of the best decisions that we would have made. We've learned so much about the system and about how things actually work. I think if we hadn't done that and just relied on being musicians, we would never have any insight into what really goes on behind the scenes. This is something that has opened us up, we can't even say how much. Record labels, especially in jazz, don't offer much anymore, unless you're somebody like Esperanza Spalding, who is promoted consistently because of the wave that she's on. If you can get your community to buy your CD and support what you're doing, you will be in better shape than any of the musicians that have their CDs on the shelf. The record labels pretty much have the power to do whatever they want with your music; they own it.

I have a lot of things that I actually believe in, and one of them is that an artist has the right to his art. Whether it's a painting, a picture, or a drawing, I don't think that someone else has the right to it. Even if it's sold, it doesn't mean that someone else did it. Record companies really do get portions of other people's rights to their artwork. It's just so weird to me that it's even accepted by artists, so many great artists too. That seems like something that really shouldn't even be a topic, something that's brought up, or something that's put on the table. But it is, it's a standard. That's something that I could never do--I could never allow for anything of mine to be dealt with like that. That's just my own opinion. Some great artists have great record deals with some of the large companies. But you have to have that backing, that following of a fan base.

So we decided, what if we built the fan base first and went from there? That's what I would love to do. Rather than sacrificing what I could or would do. A lot of the great music that you write happens when you're young. A lot of the great music that a lot of these great musicians put out was when they were really young. That's kind of like where their first compositions happened, and it was something that was great. I don't know why it works like that, but that's what it is. I know a lot of record companies do try to grab up young musicians, their compositions, and things like that. So they would have a piece of the pie if or when something ever happens with it. That's just our take on things, I'm not trying to make a statement on how people should be. That's just my own opinion on why I do what I do.

LJC: You're the primary composer for the group, you've also won ASCAP composer awards for your writing. What do you think about when you're writing for the band?

ZC: I think about the sound of the band or the sound of the musicians before I do it. So if I'm writing for Insight, the sound of the musicians together is what I write. If somebody asked me to write something for their band, I would have to listen to the way their band plays music over and over again to get an actual feel for what their doing. How ever I write it, I try to do my best interpretation. For instance, we just did a recording with Ralph Peterson on drums. All of the compostiions, I heard Ralph Peterson playing the drums on all of them before I decided that was what the final stage of the composition would be. All of them were made around musician sounds or band sounds. But I don't have a specific technique, it's kind of how I approach almost everything.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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