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Chris Washburne: Instrumental Activist

By Published: October 23, 2006
AAJ: I don't think there are a lot of other ways to have that effect on people. If George Adams had been speaking stridently and then quieted down, people might have stopped to listen. But his use of music to grab at the core of what it means to be an American—that seems like a powerful ability to have.

CW: That's right. That's the power of music without lyrics. Everybody gets to put their own meaning on it. As a performer, you're guiding the different types of emotion and the different ideas behind that, but you really don't have as much direct control. You never have full control—everybody's going to interpret things the way they want to, of course. But it's so much more open and fluid that way, and that's the beauty of it.

AAJ: Let's talk for a second about Paradise In Trouble (Jazzheads, 2003), the SYOTOS album that preceded Land of Nod. I wore out my copy of that one, and it seemed to me to also be a political album with a bit of a commercial critique as well. Was I reading my own agenda into it, or was that really there?

CW: You're absolutely spot on. That record was written in the months following September 11. It's not an overt political statement—I wasn't ready to make that—but it was a lament. Paradise In Trouble was a lament for my city that I live in and love, and how it was forever changed and forever marked. That was the beginning of where I was searching for musical ways to deal with the feelings that I was having. It's a much more personal and introspective record in terms of the issues that I was dealing with, as opposed to Land of Nod, which is a much more overt stance and dealing with issues outside of my own personal life that affect all of us.

Chris WashburneAAJ: In addition to playing in your band, you've played with a remarkable array of musicians from [percussionist] Tito Puente and pianist] Eddie Palmieri to [singers] Mark Anthony and Celia Cruz. When I think "Latin jazz trombone," I of course think of the University of Wisconsin. But seriously, how did you get from there to here?

CW: I grew up in Ohio, in a very rural setting, and then going to school in Wisconsin, I had no exposure to Latin music whatsoever, other than reruns of I Love Lucy. After Wisconsin, I went to the New England Conservatory for my Master's. I was living in Boston, and one night I was playing really late, practicing at school. There was a janitor who worked at the school and also played in some local Latin bands around Boston. So he knocked on the door and said, "Chris, you've got to help me. I've got a gig tonight and I can't make it." I asked what kind of gig it was. He said, "It's a salsa gig." I said, "What's that?" He said, "Don't worry about it. Dress up nice, show up on time and play really loud, and they're going to love you." So I did that, and they did love me. They loved me so much that they fired him and hired me. It was cool, though, because he wanted to quit, so I didn't steal his gig.

I didn't know anything about the music, but I had an affinity for the rhythms. I found them to be infectious and joyous. I loved the fact that the trombone played such a central and lead role in the ensembles. It was rare that the trombone could be in that lead solo position in any group. It was something I think I'd been searching for since fifth grade, playing trombone and figuring out how to play in rock bands and blues bands and getting occasional solos but not being the center of attention for very long.

The next day after I played with this band, I went to this mom-and-pop record store in Boston that doesn't exist anymore. I went in and said I want to know more about salsa. The guy working behind the desk must have been Puerto Rican, because he got this glint in his eye and he said, "This record is all you'll need." And he handed me Eddie Palmieri's "White Album" [Eddie Palmieri (Barbaro, 1981)]. I didn't know who Eddie Palmieri was. I put it on, and of course the trombonist with Eddie Palmieri was Barry Rogers. Barry Rogers was a Jewish man from Brooklyn who transformed the modern Latin trombone sound. He grew up playing in rhythm-and-blues bands and rock bands, and really brought that street-smart, gritty sound into the salsa milieu. I heard his sound and said, "I want to do that." So I went back to the store and bought every Eddie Palmieri record I could and threw myself into it, transcribing Barry Rogers' solos and really starting to study the form seriously. That's how I got my start.

When I came to New York, [I was at] one of my first gigs, and guess who walked in with a trombone case? Barry Rogers, my hero. I got to know him and hang out with him, and he taught me a lot. Because I was so engaged with it, I was very lucky. Within two years of coming to New York City I had my first gig with Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, and moved up through the echelons of the Latin music business and got to tour and play with them for many years.

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