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Interviews

Luis Bonilla: I Talking Now

By Published: March 8, 2010


Luis BonillaGoing Pro

AAJ: You studied in California all the way through college. What was the jazz scene like at that time?

LB: Early mid-'80s, in terms of jazz. One of the first jazz groups I started to play with was the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. I was 19 years old. I remember the first two performances we did were the Hollywood Bowl and the Monterey Jazz Festival within the same week, with Dizzy as the guest. And I thought, "Well, if this is jazz, I'm in!"

And then I started playing around professionally. I started playing in a Latin band. A friend of mine—a great trombone player and graduate from Eagle Rock High School as well, Arturo Velasquo—he asked me to come along with this group. I was 18 or 19. That was really my first exposure to Latin rhythms, because I hadn't grown up listening to that music. By then, I was listening to a lot of Big Band jazz and small group stuff: Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, Freddie Hubbard
Freddie Hubbard
Freddie Hubbard
1938 - 2008
trumpet
, Woody Shaw
Woody Shaw
Woody Shaw
1944 - 1989
trumpet
. Of course Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
. So, when I started listening to this music, the percussiveness was really very exciting.

In terms of [a] jazz scene there wasn't that much happening, but I was young, so it seemed like a lot. I kept kind of busy with the kind of jazz things that did exist like the New American Orchestra, which also led to studio opportunities.

AAJ: It seemed like you were already pretty integrated into the scene before you moved to New York?

LB: Yes, I guess that's true.

AAJ: So why did you choose to move to New York?

LB: As I was in college doing my undergrad at Cal State, I was going out and listening to music as much as I could. And it always seemed to be Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
or Red Rodney
Red Rodney
Red Rodney
1927 - 1994
trumpet
or Betty Carter
Betty Carter
Betty Carter
1930 - 1998
vocalist
. Every group I went out to see was from New York. I had just graduated from college and went to Europe for the first time, so on the way back, instead of going straight back to Los Angles, a couple friends of mine had just moved to New York, so I decided to just stay there and check it out for ten days or so.

I was in Brooklyn. I took the train, got out at West 4th, walked up the stairs, saw the Blue Note jazz club. It was summertime. There was music everywhere. All the doors were open, people walking around, and I was, like, "This is for me." I just knew it.

So I went home and decided, "In six months, I'm out of here." And six months to the date, boom, I did it and made the move over here.

AAJ: In the past, you mentioned Lester Bowie
Lester Bowie
Lester Bowie
1941 - 1999
trumpet
as someone who was very important to your career and perhaps more than just for your career.

LB: After moving here, a month or so later, one of the friends of mine who had moved here named Michael Cane was playing with Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
b.1942
drums
, so he was kinda hooked up already. He was getting into M-base. So I went up to this club to meet and Steve Turre
Steve Turre
Steve Turre
b.1948
trombone
walks in, and we got to talking. I had just recorded my first CD Pasos Gigantes (Candid, 1991), and we talked about it. He invited me up to his place, we listened, talked a little bit, and a couple months later, I just happened to run into Steve again in the Village, and he asked me to sub for him on a few rehearsals with Bowie's brass band because he was moving to Jersey. I was living in Brooklyn, very close to Lester. I sort of knew who he was, but I had never met him. And I was more than excited to run up to do a rehearsal. After a couple of days, the road manager called me up and asked me what I was doing for the summer and invited me to go with him to Europe for six weeks to replace Frank Lacy at the time. I became very close with Lester, through his life, his music, and who he is—always very, very open with me. When I think about him, I have so much to appreciate. I think of him as almost my surrogate East Coast father. I think of him every day. ... His point was that jazz isn't the music you play, but the way you play the music. He not only encouraged you to find and develop your own voice, but it was expected because that's what made the show, what ultimately made the music grow to another level.


Defining the Sideman

AAJ: Throughout this period, you developed a reputation as a fantastic side man. What does that mean? What makes someone a great sideman?

LB: In my senior year of high school and up until the time I moved to New York, I was studying with Roy Mane. Everybody that I knew was studying or had studied with him. The list was endless. I don't know of any trombone player, at least of my generation, that didn't study with him. He was very well-steeped in developing the ability to play the instrument extremely well. All your technical abilities: your ability to sight read, your ability to play good time, your ability to have good sound; your ability to balance, to blend; to be prepared, including work ethic, getting there early.

Luis Bonilla TrombonillaBasically, to sit down, shut up, and do the gig: that's what counts. You will have your hands more than full if all you are concerned about is delivering your best performance. He always used to tell me, "You have to be undeniably good because you have to make it sound, even if you come in at the very last minute, like you have played it a hundred times."

Even if it is a band that has coexisted for 10 years and now, at this point, I'm coming in to sub for someone at the very last minute, I don't want to bring any more attention to myself than needed. I'm a sideman. I know what my job is: to make the leader sound like a million bucks. That's it.

I've always liked big bands, and even though I do play lead, I always prefer to play second. That is where I really excel, because I know what my job is. At that point, my job is to make the lead trombone player sound like a million bucks. I don't care if I don't like her, or him, or if it bugs me that their socks don't match or their mustache is crooked. I don't care. That is my opinion. My opinion has nothing to do with enhancing the music.

It's a state of mind. Shut up and do your gig.



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