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.]

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, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw. Of course Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins. 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 or Red Rodney or Betty Carter. 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 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, 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 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.

Latin Jazz

AAJ: Let's circle back to your introduction to Latin jazz. Since you first started playing it, much of your music has been labeled Latin jazz. How do you define Latin jazz?

Luis Bonilla (right) with Dave Douglas (left) and Brass Ecstasy

LB: Latin jazz is still a term that is so vague and ambiguous...but Latin jazz for me is as simple as anything that isn't straight ahead: the feel of the eighth notes—which isn't swing, which is much more even—the addition of playing more percussively. True Latin jazz players are well-steeped in not only manipulating harmonic progressions, a.k.a playing changes, but also the ability to implement the percussive language as well. I don't hear a lot of people doing that.

AAJ: That is an interesting way to define it. Obviously, there have been a lot of Latin influences on jazz, people incorporating pieces of Latin tunes, instruments, perhaps only for one or two tunes on an album. But then there is someone like Paquito D'Rivera, who uses Latin jazz to explore Latin musical traditions, including classical composers. That seems the further extreme: taking a whole musical tradition and using jazz to explore it. Could you take a minute to give us the historical development of Latin jazz? You could probably go on for 20 minutes on that!

LB: Or 20 seconds! It becomes a little tricky. In some ways, it goes back to something as simple as the Duke adage: there's good music and bad music. There are good compositions and bad compositions. ... Latin jazz is probably a category built up to market it a little differently than jazz itself, especially since it did start to catch on in the late '80s and '90s when it became a staple in and of itself in terms of a kind of jazz music. ... It becomes kind of murky in terms of what I want to call Latin jazz. Even if you take the music of Piazzolla— great compositions, melody, harmony, rhythm—I don't know if you take it just as it is. Is it Latin jazz? It's Latin American music, certainly, if jazz is defined just as improvised music. Some want to call it Afro-Cuban jazz, but there's music from Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico—the list goes on and on.

AAJ: It feels, though, that the interest in Latin jazz, however you define it, comes in cycles and that we are in an upsurge right now, perhaps because of ever-growing exposure to those cultures.

LB: Sure. Definitely. A lot of my friends have spent time overseas just to study, but now with the added invention of the internet you hardly need to hop on a plane to get culture by proxy, as an option for submersing yourself in a culture. The need to express yourself is always the same kind of drive, but you can sew it through the fabric of so many cultural fabrics. Just think, at this point we can investigate so many different types of music just from the African sections from each of the Latin countries itself. Puerto Rico, that's one thing. Go to Cuba. Go to Colombia. It goes on and on. There is definitely an upswing just because so much more is being documented and is now available immediately. We are still experimenting with that kind of music; it is reaching out globally.

AAJ: That experimentation is clearly something you enjoy participating in.

LB: It is always fun to do something interesting, something new. I remember playing with a group from the African part of Colombia. [They] were playing a club and a friend of mine asked me to join, so we popped in to play. Everything was written out, pretty normal. So there I was playing through it and having fun. Then, on the last tune of the night, a bunch of guys pulled out a bunch of folkloric instruments—these drums and a variety of instruments—and they put out this music written in 6/8 time, and let me tell you, I just had to guess. I could not feel where one was. I could not tell. I could feel where the music was, but I could not find one. I'd start to play, and the guys would look at me: "No, no, no, no."


"No, no, no, no."

[Laughs.] All right, I'll just start singing it, and it'll be sorta close.


AAJ: You have won two Grammy awards for your work with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Afro Latin jazz Orchestra. When you get those types of awards, what does it feel like?

LB: I have so much invested in the Vanguard orchestra. I have already played with them for a little over 10 years. I'm very close to the people and the music, and have been part of the new music that's been commissioned and part of its development. So it brings a great sense of pride. With the Afro-Latin jazz Orchestra as well, even though I am fairly new there, it has also made some considerable headway.

Luis Bonilla / Dave Douglas Brass EcstasyAAJ: What makes the Vanguard orchestra such a special band to play with? LB: I've never played in any other organization where each member had the ability to be such a profound improviser, for one. Two, [they] have such great musical skills to be able to make the unit sound as one. That's the orchestra that I play with that has the highest proficiency from top to bottom. Everybody plays extremely, extremely well.

AAJ: It must also be fun to play in the Vanguard on a regular basis.

LB: I sit behind Dick Oatts, and then I have John Riley to my right and John Mosca to my left. It is not gonna get better than that. Then Jim McNeely on one end of the band and Gary Smulyan on the other, David Wong. It's very deep in every chair and everybody has their own voice. Nobody sounds like anybody else in that group. You play in other groups and, "Well, he sounds like Freddie Hubbard. Oh yeah, he's playing like Sonny Stitt."

Now, I'd like to play like Sonny Stitt, sometimes. Who wouldn't? But that's not the goal. That is an extension of the idea that was ingrained in me: you are not only encouraged to play your own thing, you are expected to, because that is what really makes it happen.

Luis BonillaFamily Portrait: I Talking Now!

AAJ: Let's take a little time to talk about your new album, I Talking Now (Planet Arts, 2009). You may be known in some ways as a sideman exemplar, but you are also a leader and composer, as evidenced by this album, which is quite fantastic with a wide range of material on it. How did this come together and what was your vision?

LB: The vision for the album is being comfortable with where I come from musically. For example, I've never been coy to say that my favorite all-time band ever has always been Led Zeppelin.

I just hear that music—first of all, it's very well-steeped in the blues, obviously—but they branched out and were unapologetic and willing to take risks and have fun with the music and really let it develop. With that kind of vision of what I wanted to accomplish, it only made sense to bring in the people that I did, because they all share a very similar vision, as well. They are all good leaders and sidemen. We have that in common. Everyone plays really well. Everybody listens very well.

Knowing who I was going to get made it a lot easier to finish writing music for that recording and write with the medium in mind. So much is built around John Riley for me. I didn't want to do it unless he was there.

AAJ: He definitely exerts a high level of energy right from the first track, which sets the tone for the whole album. Also, the cover cartoon, looks like something from the Life is Hell series.

LB: That's the idea. I wanted to portray the story of the title track on the cover as well. I could not find the right person to do it. I wanted to try to piece it together with pieces of preexisting artwork, make something crazy. But at one point, I realized it just needed to be drawn out and by the right person, because I can't draw, you know, to save my life.

I happened to be in a friend's restaurant, and, as I was saying good-bye to him, I looked in his office and he had this picture frame with a cartoon, and it was really crazy, very grotesque humor, and I thought, "This is it!"

AAJ: What is the story behind the cartoon and the song?

LB: As I mentioned, my dad was an immigrant from Costa Rica, so he didn't really learn to speak English. It certainly came with a very heavy accent. It almost didn't matter, it would happen at most any meal, but I especially remember around Thanksgiving when there were a lot of people around—especially kids, two brothers, cousins, all running around. My dad would be sitting there at the end of the table, having his drink, not really saying anything. His eyes would just start to squint a little—you could see him winding up. It was just a matter of time before he'd have to slam his fist on the table and say: "You chuttup! I talking now!" [Laughs.] Then he'd say what he had to, sit back and keep drinking his beverage, and the mayhem would repeat itself all over again.

AAJ: A lot of the tunes here are dedicated to members of the family. It is quite clear that family is important to you.

LB: It is crucial. It is paramount in my life. Without that it makes it very difficult for me to feel completely dedicated as an individual. Especially as a contributor to society, for me, having my family as a support system and safety net, I know I have unconditional love, regardless.

AAJ: The tune "Closer Still" is a beautifully composed piece written for your wife. In the album notes you wrote that she is your inspiration. What does that mean?

LB: I just feel encouraged to be better at everything I do, on a daily basis. Whether it's being a better husband, a better father, a better musician, a better friend. Just be a little bit more refined, to think about things a little bit more thoroughly before you say or do them—more discipline, more focus- -to be a better individual for all those around us.

AAJ: How did you meet her?

LB: I was playing at SOB's and I saw her sitting with a friend, who she tried to pawn off on me. [Laughs.] But I wasn't having any of that. As soon as I saw her and she was walking in my direction, it just took my breath away. I saw the little movie in my head that said, "This is your life," and I knew it. You know as soon as it happens. There was absolutely no denying it.

AAJ: You also dedicated the last two tracks to your daughter and your niece. How do the different songs reflect the children?

LB: "Luminescence," for Sophia, I actually wrote before she was born. That was one of those compositions where the melody is something I just heard in my head. Both of them were similar in that way. The melodies would just not go away. When I found out that my younger brother and his wife were pregnant and were going to have a little girl, it was so sweet to me, because it was the first child to make my mom a grandmother. My dad had already passed away. That was the first grandchild of our family. It seemed both sweet and fun.

With "Elise," the melody kept getting longer and longer the more I really got to know her, even just as an infant. She's always been very playful, very demanding! Not from my part of the family, ok? [Laughs.] It's playful and tricky, and a long tune. It's a long melody which, I hope, translates to her life.

Selected Discography

Luis Bonilla, I Talking Now! (Planet Arts/NJC, 2009)

Dave Douglas/Brass Ecstasy, Spirit Moves (Greenleaf, 2009)

Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Song for Chico (Zoho, 2008)

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Up from the Skies (Planet Arts, 2007)

Luis Bonilla Trombonilla, Terminal Clarity: Live at the Jazz Gallery (NJC, 2006)

Donny McCaslin, Soar (Sunnyside, 2006)

Tom Harrell, Wise Children (RCA, 2003)

Lester Bowie/Brass Fantasy, When the Spirit Returns (Warner/ESP, 2000)

Luis Bonilla, Esucha! (Candid Records, 1999)

George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band/Liebermann, Live at Jazzfest Berlin (TCB, 1999)

Luis Bonilla Latin Jazz All-Stars, Pasos Gigantes (Candid Records, 1991)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 2, 4: Courtesy of Luis Bonilla and Aestheticize Media

Page 3: Jose Horna

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