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John Santos Finds His Groove

By Published: May 13, 2003
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.

AAJ: I was about to ask you about the Internet, since you have a well-maintained Web site; and there's so much talk in the industry about piracy and file sharing. Do see the Internet as mostly positive?

JS: I do, but I'm saying that as a person who is not really computer savvy. I've had a Web site for several years now, and from my perspective it's positive because it's been a great promotional tool. It's been the main source of bringing people to an awareness of who we are, and it gives them access to buy our CDs from anywhere in the world.

Since we don't deal in real commercial pop music, that whole question of file sharing and MP3s being traded or pirated over the Internet almost doesn't apply to us, at least not in the same way. We're don't stand to make or lose millions of dollars from people trying to get our stuff on the Internet for free. So that hasn't affected me much.

For me it's a positive thing. It gives any artist a chance to compete on a one-to-one level. We can let the world know what we're doing and where we're playing and make our statements, and give people access to our music. So I think it's a wonderful tool. And that's the reason I decided to go ahead and put these records out on my own; I figured I could sell them only through the Internet, exclusively. And I tackled it. But then once it was up and running for a couple of months, I started getting inquiries from distributors, and now we're with a few of them. The ball slowly picked up momentum, and now it's rolling.

AAJ: Let's change gears for a moment. What does the phrase "Latin jazz" mean to you?

JS: To me, that's a whole world of music. It's very similar to just saying "jazz," you know? It's not really a style of music, in my opinion. Jazz is not a style of music, jazz is like an attitude, and so is Latin jazz. It's a vibe. It's a certain freedom, a spiritual content that exists in the music. When you get into styles, you have swing and bebop and Dixieland, where there are certain things that can be identified stylistically, but you can't say that about jazz as a whole, and I don't think you can say that about Latin jazz either.

Yes, Latin jazz is a sub-category of jazz, but it's got a lot of the same problems and history and implications in terms of trying to categorize it. There are certain styles within the genre of Latin jazz: there's different rhythms, different eras, different types of instrumentation, but it's really a wide open field. It's not limited at all. There's a whole dance element to Latin jazz, but also jazz itself started out as mostly dance music in its earlier eras. Latin music has that same legacy, and carries forward into today as still a very strong dance form. But there's that whole other side of it that is not meant to be danceable. Just like jazz does, it gets into the fusion of world music, odd meters, odd instrumentation... there's no limitations.

AAJ: You used the phrase "world music." Latin jazz often gets lumped into that, which is really a catch-all category. Do you think Latin jazz is marginalized?

JS: It certainly gets marginalized, mainly because jazz itself is marginalized. And Latin jazz is a small subcategory of this marginalized form called jazz. So of course it's marginalized.

I'm learning more and more how true that is in trying to promote our music, because there's a lot of jazz radio stations that won't play the Latin jazz stuff if it has certain things. Like if it has lyrics in Spanish or African languages. They don't play it, because their audiences are used to instrumental music being jazz. And maybe if it's Latin but doesn't have the lyrics, then they are more likely to play it. But a lot of Latin jazz has lyrics. And a lot of it crosses over; for example, there's a huge gray area between salsa and Latin jazz.

So I think it does get marginalized a great deal. There's a lack of presence of Latin jazz in most of the educational venues, like the colleges that have jazz programs, the jazz festivals around the world. The Latin element there is still quite miniscule.

AAJ: And there are so many jazz histories out there, both in print and on film, but often it seems that Latin jazz gets one chapter somewhere near the end...

JS: If that!

AAJ: it's its own little thing, and it isn't integrated throughout. As an educator, that's something you've preached quite often, that Latin music is really a force throughout the history of American popular music.

JS: Precisely. And it comes through the jazz connection, which is why it's important to talk about Latin jazz in the same conversation when we talk about the blues and other elements which form the roots of jazz. It's all part of that conversation. It's part of the history of pop culture in the United States, and yet it doesn't get treated that way at all. It's practically nonexistent in jazz education.

AAJ: At the same time this issue of All About Jazz: San Francisco will be out on the streets, you'll be doing a lecture and concert series at La Pe'a Cultural Center. Will you be discussing some of these same issues there?

JS: We certainly will, although that series focuses more specifically on Bay Area Latin jazz. We're going to be interviewing people who have played a role in the past as well as some of the younger, up-and-coming people who are really pushing the field and mixing Latin jazz with other styles: groups like Mingus Amungus and Omaya. We'll be talking about their experiences in the local scene. We will certainly touch upon these broader issues, but more than a overall history of Latin jazz, it'll be something pertaining to Bay Area Latin jazz.

Each week there will be a concert, with a panel discussion preceding each one. I'll be hosting the panels, and we'll have different combinations of musicians from the various groups that are playing. Jesse "Chuy" Varela will be moderating the first one.

AAJ: As a Bay Area native, how would you say the jazz scene here has changed in your lifetime?

JS: That's a good question. I would have to qualify it by saying that I don't feel I can speak for the whole jazz scene, because I work in kind of a specific niche as a Latin player and a percussionist.

From my perspective, the scene has grown a lot, just in terms of the musicians, and this is something that's not just specific to San Francisco. I think in general, musicians have opened up to the world. The Internet has a lot to do with that, the opening up of Cuba has a lot to do with that, people are starting to understand that there's a whole world of stuff out there that is fascinating and is very related to the world of jazz. So any musicians who are into jazz, want to know the history of jazz, want to become better players and improvisers, have better rhythmic understanding, all those things would lead them to expand into Caribbean music, into Latin American music, and into African music. In that sense the Bay Area has flourished; it's one of the leading areas in the whole world. A lot of people have come here from all over the world to live, and have brought their music, and have blended with the musicians who are already here. And so creatively and artistically, the whole thing has blossomed.

On the other hand, economically we're feeling the crunch as bad as anybody else. There's very few venues to play in comparison to the number of great musicians that are here, and that's a problem also that is not exclusive to our area.

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