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Interviews

Michel Camilo: Pianist for a Golden Era

By Published: March 1, 2004
AAJ: Was it always the piano?

MC: Not for me. In my home I did not have a piano. The piano was at my grandparents. So that's where the gatherings would happen for the family. But at home, my parents gave me an accordion, initially. Luckily it was in tune [laughs]. You never know with those toys, right? I was able to pick out some songs. They tell me the first songs I picked out by ear was "Happy Birthday" and "Silent Night." Then I went pretty fast, because my uncles would teach me stuff and I would just watch when they played. I'd pick up on the go.

AAJ: They were piano players?

MC: Yes. I had an aunt and uncle. She was a classical pianist and my uncle was a popular pianist. I would pick from them and just watch the way it was done. And I was in love with the piano, so finally, when I was 9, I asked my parents to buy me one, and they said "Well, first let's put you in music school and see if you last." [laughter] Then at 10, they bought me one.

AAJ: So you went to music school at a young age?

MC: Yes. Down there it's called the Elementary Music School, but it's part of the National Conservatory. Then I started a whole career, 13 years. The first four years are preparatory study, and then you jump to the conservatory. It's a different system down there. It's pretty long.

AAJ: Were you hearing jazz growing up?

MC: The first time I heard jazz was when I was 14 and a half. I heard the great Art Tatum on the radio playing his solo piano rendition of "Tea for Two." That immediately caught my ear. I just wanted to soak it in, to learn to play that style. Then I found out it was jazz. Up until then I was more into the classical training. But pretty quickly I got friends with record collections. It was pretty hard to find a jazz record down there. I got close to the radio emcees and I would go there and borrow records; try to transcribe them and understand what that was about.

There were a couple things that happened in my life. One was Willis Conover, the guy that had the Voice of America jazz radio programs, visited the Dominican. He heard me play and he asked me to make him a demo. He liked what he heard, I guess. Then the Harvard University jazz band also came down to the Dominican. After they played a concert, there was a jam session at the American embassy. I got invited as one of the jazz local players. And I just sat in with them, and all of the sudden the director of the band came over and said "You ought to be in the States." He put the little bug in my head. I didn't know. I was going to medical school by then, as well. Music was more powerful, so I set my eyes on New York and in 1979 I decided to take a leap of faith.

A friend of mine who is a classical percussion player, Gordon Gottlieb, who lives in New York. He also invited me over to his apartment and took me, literally, from club to club. Sometimes I would sit in. Then I set my eyes on New York and decided I should live here and try it and see what happens. It just worked out. I'm very glad it worked out.

AAJ: Who were some of the other jazz pianists that you were listening to?

MC: I was listening to Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner and when I came to New York, in '74, the hot thing at that time was Herbie [Hancock] and Chick [Corea] and Keith [Jarrett]. So I picked all of that. But I was also exposed to Horace Silver and a lot of Errol Garner. And some of the old stride pianists, like James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. All that. I also got exposed to some of the stuff played by Scott Joplin. Because ragtime was closer to Latin music, to the Caribbean traditional music. There was a link there, rhythmically speaking.

AAJ: You must have incorporated the rhythms of home into your jazz.

MC: Believe it or not, not until I moved to New York. When I was living in the Dominican. I was playing mostly hard bop, and trying to stay as much in the tradition as possible. But when I moved to New York, somehow in my playing, something sounding Latin would pop up. And the musicians on the bandstand would just go crazy with that stuff. "We like that stuff, what was that? Do more of that." And that's how, I guess, I brought out my roots in my music, by bringing my Latin identity and incorporating it in the jazz language. And also because of nostalgic reasons, somehow a way of linking back to my roots and finding my identity, musically. I used things that I took for granted that I grew up listening to.

AAJ: In your native music, was there improvisation in that, or was it more a rhythmic influence?

MC: There was some improvisation. My uncle could play some boogie-woogie and once and a while he would attempt to play some stride piano, as well. But in the Caribbean there is a word equivalent to jam session and that's a word I use for one of the pieces in the album: descarga. It means like a jam, or jamming. So Latin music has always had the descarga, a moment when you improvise.

When I started playing jazz, I had a trio with two friends down there and we used to play in this Bohemian place where only the painters and sculptors and the poets and the actors would show up. Every Thursday night we would just go there and play. At the beginning, the audience was like five people. Later on, when I had moved to New York, I became the musical director of the Heineken Jazz Festival in the Dominican, we got the audience all the way up to 6,000 people — sold out — which is amazing, to see how many jazz fans there are.


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