John Santos Finds His Groove
“ ...for a lot of artists, our backs are up against the wall. We don't have any choices. Our music will not get out if we don't put it out ourselves. ”
John Santos is riding high these days. His most recent album, S.F. Bay , was nominated for a Grammy Award as Latin Jazz Album of the Year. He has received increasing notice from critics, and is a recognized leader not only in the Bay Area's Latin scene, but in jazz as a whole. This spring, Santos is leading a series of talks and concerts at La Pe'a Cultural Center in Berkeley, focusing on the issues and experiences of local musicians. I caught up with Santos shortly before the Grammy Awards ceremony in February.
All About Jazz: Let's start with the obvious: you've been nominated for a Grammy. How does that feel?
John Santos: Oh, it's fine (laughs). I haven't had much time to really trip on it. I've been really, really busy with a lot of things, so I haven't had a lot of time to let it sink in. Which is good, because I don't want to get nervous about it. In reality it doesn't change things too much. We've been getting a lot of good congratulatory messages, and calls from friends, but once they announce the winners, nobody's going to remember who the nominees were. [The Caribbean Jazz Project eventually took the prize, for their 2002 album, The Gathering.] It looks good on the resume, though, so that's nice. But seriously, it really is an honor to be recognized. And for us that means a lot. I feel happy for the players in the group. We've been together for a real long time. Our group has been together 17 years, and this is the first time we've had that type of recognition.
AAJ: Your friend Omar Sosa was also nominated. How does it feel to go up against a friend and collaborator like that?
JS: You know, the whole field is kind of like that. Of the five people and groups that were nominated, four of the groups are all friends! I was playing with Jane Bunnett just a few weeks ago in Havana, sitting in with her band. We're good friends. Omar and I have a long history of collaboration. Omar is a guest on my album, and I'm a guest on his album. And the Caribbean Jazz Project is full of players we've known for many years, so it is a very family, in-house kind of feel. The only artist in there we're not real familiar with is this cat from Brazil, Duduka da Fonseca.
It's kind of funny to find ourselves in this position, where we're all competing against each other, but whoever wins, it's going to be cool, because it's going to be somebody from within the family, and somebody who's not one of those persons who always gets nominated and always wins. Not that those guys don't deserve it, but it's good that whoever does it this time is one of the small guys, so to speak.
AAJ: Your new album is released on your own label, Machete Records, but you're out there running with the huge corporate labels. What sort of challenges and opportunities do you find in doing it yourself?
JS: That's a whole ball of wax that most musicians dread, I think, having to get involved in. It's a great deal of work for a whole staff of people to be a record company. It's really filling up a lot of my time now, and I'm not all that happy about that, you know? I'd really rather be practicing and writing and doing the creative stuff. On the other hand, I've always done administrative work in leading my own band. I've never worked with a manager or agent; I've always done that stuff myself. So it's not too different from what I've been doing, but it's a big workload, having to jump in and basically start at the bottom.
I've done this before'I released a couple of albums in the '80s on my own, and promised myself I'd never do it again, yet here I am. It's mainly because of the state of the industry. I feel like for a lot of artists, our backs are up against the wall. We don't have any choices. Our music will not get out if we don't put it out ourselves. Machete is good evidence of that, because we have a group that writes enough music'much more than enough'to put out a new CD every year, but we've only got six CDs in seventeen years! That's going to change; as of now, we will put out a CD every year. And I feel great about that. But it's a lot of work and the challenges are great; there's stuff I'm sure I can't even foresee, because I'm learning as I go along.
All the big companies are struggling, too. The distributors are struggling. A lot of those companies are going under, and they're taking the artists' product with them, which is a shame. When they file for Chapter 11, they have the right to sell your stuff to whoever they want, and you're not entitled to recoup or get your stuff back in many cases.
It's a bumpy road, but on the other hand it feels great to have the nomination. Just to be there shows that you can get recognition without a major label, and that's encouraging for all the artists who are in our position, which is most of them! You really do have a chance if you do it yourself, and I think with the Internet, that levels the playing field a little bit. It doesn't level it completely, but it puts the balance back a little bit from where it was.