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Luis Bonilla: I Talking Now

Franz A. Matzner By

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Luis BonillaTrombonist, composer, bandleader and professor Luis Bonilla is not a tortured artist. One cannot imagine him careening from one imbalanced extreme of self- reflection to the other or participating in anything particularly self-indulgent, whatsoever. He is a loving husband and a father who seems to inhale and exhale commitment to his two-year-old daughter. The middle son of a Costa Rican father and mother, he grew up in a workingman's home and is a hard working man himself, dedicated to getting the job done professionally and consistently. He is a humorist but not a cynic, able to paint quick, amusing sketches of friends, family and the slices of time that define our daily lives, with both words and notes.

He is also a seriously talented musician. A Grammy award winner whose material beautifully blends his down-to-earth qualities, observational humor, and life-loving exuberance, Bonilla prides himself on being a consummate technician, focused on delivering a professional, technically sound performance each and every time he hits the bandstand, whether subbing for the night, playing as a standing member of several big bands, or exploring his own compositions as bandleader. But don't let this focus on technical facility or this dedication to the art of the sideman fool you; for Bonilla, an integral part of being a jazz musician is developing a unique musical voice and a deeply personal musical vision.

Bonilla's is the type of biography often overlooked in favor of those more superficially unusual and extreme. Yet it is precisely his ability to translate apparently prosaic moments into candid emotional portraits and rollicking rhythmic celebrations that gives his music life.

Chapter Index

  1. Early Years: Los Angeles
  2. Discovering the Trombone
  3. Going Pro
  4. Defining the Sideman
  5. Latin Jazz
  6. Accolades
  7. Family Portrait: I Talking Now!

Early Years: Los Angeles

All About Jazz: You grew up in California in the '60s and 70s, right? Can you describe life in California for you at that time?

Luis Bonilla: I was born in the northeastern part of Los Angeles in 1965. I am first generation; both parents are from Costa Rica. It was a pretty comfortable life. My dad worked all his life very, very hard, and always provided really well. I have an older brother, George, and a younger brother born three years after me, also in Los Angeles. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. Kind of a mellow, normal school. I've been accused of having a PG upbringing. [Laughs.] Very fortunate—a lot of love, and support, and patience, especially with me, as I was, well [chuckles]—but very, very mellow.

None of my family, cousins, aunts, brothers were really into music. None of them played any instruments. My older brother was introduced to the accordion. My dad's first intro to music when he got to America was the Lawrence Welk Show. So when the accordion door-to-door salesman came by, he signed my brother up. And he absolutely hated it at the time.

AAJ: Sounds like you grew up with a lot of family around?

LB: I had quite a bit of family. A couple of aunts and uncles, a couple of cousins.

AAJ: Did your family maintain ties to Costa Rica?

LB: We would try to go back every several years or so, but because it was expensive, it wasn't until my dad became a little more successful that we actually flew back and forth as a family.

AAJ: Do you feel that Costa Rican culture and music had much influence on your musical development or upbringing?

LB: Not really. Because, first of all, there isn't really that much music that Costa Rica is known for. There's some indigenous music, but I don't think for my parents it was really part of their upbringing. Basically, my mom started working in the sixth grade. Those days, they just went straight to work—basically no childhood. Your adulthood was brought on very quickly.

AAJ: This is the mythological era for California: the height of the film industry in Los Angeles, bell bottoms.

LB: Yeah, sure. But I was still pretty young at that point. By the time I really had any idea of what was going on, I was 15 and things were already creeping into 1980. I was a product thereof, maybe not directly, but over the '70s time period, when I was 10 or 12 years old, I'd always been listening to music, to the radio. I remember begging my parents for a radio for my birthday or Christmas— just a small transistor. If FM existed already back then, I certainly didn't know about it. All I had was an AM radio. I listed to everything from oldies to folk, or John Denver, Cat Stevens, or over to the Funk station for Earth, Wind, and Fire. I mean, I really listened to that. 1580 K: I'll never forget that—at the far end of the dial. They played Parliament. They played James Brown, Ohio Players. I can remember all the melodies. I could never remember lyrics—and that is still something I can't seem to do—but the melody and, for some reason, all the horn hits. I could always remember all the horn hits.

Discovering the Trombone

AAJ: You tell the story in several places of coming to the trombone by accident.

Luis BonillaLB: In seventh grade I went to Eagle Rock High School, which is a junior high school and high school combined—all six years on one campus, which, in my case, was fortunate in that I had the same band director, John Rinaldo.

When I was enrolling in seventh grade I was given five classes and one elective, and it was either choir or beginning brass. My brother told me he'd had a feud with the choir director, so I chose beginning brass, thinking it was a shop class like automotive or electric or woodshop. I thought beginning brass meant I'd be making lamps and ashtrays.

So first day of class, there were eight to ten of us, and he pointed to each of us individually: "Trumpet, trumpet, trumpet, trumpet," and when he got to me, "I need trombone players. Trombone." Then, "Trumpet, trumpet," and he got to the last guy: "Trombone." That was it. It was handed to me. I knew it was a horn, but I didn't know anything about it. I'd had no experience at all. But I quickly found a natural talent for it. I could produce a sound. I found I could play by ear, and that kept me that whole first year from having to read music or anything. If I had a test, as long as I heard someone play it before me, than I could play it and pass. Now if I'd been the first one at bat, [gulp].

AAJ: What was the first tune that you mastered so that you felt you knew what the music was all about?

LB: More so than a tune, the blues form. From eighth grade on, the routine that John Rinaldo would have us warm up with was everyone got to play two choruses of blues. That was our warm up as a band. You'd have to play—everyone would have to play throughout. If the first chorus was saxophone, the trombones would have to invent a background, so we always had to be on our toes and really feel the form and understand the call and response.

AAJ: It sounds like he was really a good teacher.

LB: He was an excellent teacher. When I got into eighth grade, Larry Koonse was a senior and Scott Colley, a couple years older than me, was still there. His sons Dave and Doug had already graduated. The drummer Carlos Vega, Dave Stone. So he already had an established track record of having young musicians come out and make an impact on the musical scene at large, from the get-go.

AAJ: Was it his teaching that directly introduced you to jazz?

LB: Absolutely. I hadn't really listened to jazz until I got into the junior high band. I think one of the first charts that I remember playing was "Groove Merchants." Part of it was we had a really good, swingin' drummer and a good bassist, and the lead alto player was also extremely, extremely talented. She could play solos—any key—it didn't matter. She just played. Wow.

AAJ: Who were your early jazz influences, beyond your teacher?

J.J. JohnsonLB: My dad, at the time, had belonged to the CBS record club for several years, but he never kept any of them! For some reason, though, he kept this one record—I think he probably just forgot to send it back [laughs]—called J.J. in Person (Columbia, 1958). It has Nat Adderley, Tommy Flanagan, Wilbur Ware, and Albert "Tootie" Heath as main players. There were a bunch of great tunes on it. And I played it and I understood the sound of the trombone, but I couldn't understand how he was getting around the notes. ...[W]hen I got back to school in September, my band director gave me a cassette of Carl Fontana playing "Emily," and I don't know why, but that I really got. He gave me another tape, and I really got that, too. So in terms of trombone playing, Carl Fontana and Frank Rosolino had the early, most profound influence as far as improvisation.

AAJ: The trombone seems like a really tricky instrument on which to play jazz. What makes it challenging?

LB: My primary interest is the pure vocal quality of the trombone. It's in the same range as where I hear my own voice speak. I like it—as much as it is challenging, although maybe it's the challenge I like—of just being able to manipulate the slide and consistently put it in the right place to get the correct pitch. And also to be able to coordinate your articulation so that your tongue is striking the slide position at the precise time, so that you get not just the pitch in tune but clearly right at the center core, so it sounds like valves or buttons being pressed to change the notes on the instrument. One of the things I like to work with my students on, the most difficult thing about learning the trombone, is internalizing how easy it really is to play! [Chuckles.]



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