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Meet Luis Torregrosa

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper BY

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The involvement of the younger generation is particularly encouraging. Listening to a good student ensemble gives me goose bumps, as it makes me realize that this music will still be here and thriving, long after I am gone.
Dr. Luis Torregrosa has been a Super Fan for as long as he can remember; you could even say his love of music is no less than a calling. Based in Trenton, MI (our first Super Fan outside of New York!), Luis has spent the last 45 years of his life not only enjoying the music he loves, but also helping to maintain and support it, something he feels is the duty of every super fan. If you're wondering just how you can help keep the music thriving, read on—Luis has no shortage of ideas!

Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I started developing my passion for jazz. My "day gig" is being a rheumatologist for a major health system in the Detroit area. After graduating from medical school in 1980, I came to Michigan to do my residency, and never left. I am happily married with a 27-year-old son. Outside of music, I enjoy reading about current events and politics, and watching sporting events.

What is your earliest memory of music?

The Beatles changed my life! I was given a record player when I was seven years old, together with some Beatles records, at Christmas. They were totally different from the children's music I had been exposed until then.

Music was a passion even from early childhood. I was fortunate to live in a section of San Juan, Puerto Rico that was about five blocks away from Distribuidora Nacional de Discos, the largest record wholesaler in Puerto Rico. I would go there to listen and buy records once or twice a week. After a while, I got to know everybody at the store, and I was offered a job there when I was 12. The child labor laws kept me from accepting the job, but I maintained a great relationship with them for many years, giving them advice on what records to buy in exchange for being sold records at slightly over wholesale cost.

How old were you when you got your first recording, and what was it?

The first were the above-mentioned Beatles records I was given at Christmas when I was seven years old. The first record I bought with my own money was The Rolling Stones Out Of Our Heads, which I purchased at a department store in San Juan.

What was the first concert you ever attended?

Around 1971-1972, John McLaughlin (pre-Mahavishnu Orchestra) played a benefit concert for the Sri Chinmoy Center in San Juan. I found out about this concert at a shop called The Record Store in Old San Juan. I was already familiar with John McLaughlin from his work with Miles Davis and Tony Williams.

It was held at the Puerto Rico Bar Association Building, which was located a very convenient three blocks from my house, so I actually walked to my first concert ever. This was around the time of the release of his My Goal's Beyond record. The first half was an electric set where he was backed by some local musicians, and the second half featured acoustic duets with his then-wife Eve.

From what I remember, I must have been the youngest person in the audience, and probably the only person who walked to the concert.

Tell us more about growing up as a jazz fan in Puerto Rico.

During my freshman year at the University of Puerto Rico, I stumbled into the Producciones Don Pedro record store in Rio Piedras. It was a small basement store devoted to jazz, and it was my "finishing school" in jazz. I learned more from its visionary owner (my dear friend Ramon Soto) than I have learned from anybody else in this music. It was also the perennial hang out place for the Puerto Rico jazz crowd. Through the magic of Facebook, I have recently been able to reconnect with some of the wonderful friends from those times.

We were very fortunate to have had many mainstream jazz artists perform in Puerto Rico in the 1970's. Producciones Don Pedro also promoted concerts and helped bring an incredible wealth of talent to the island: Betty Carter, Gato Barbieri, Dexter Gordon, Eddie Gomez, Hilton Ruiz, The Heath Brothers, Mary Lou Williams, and Sonny Fortune. That was the beginning of my "super fan" involvement with this music. I did what was needed: drive artists, sell records, work the door, etc.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?

Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, which I picked up because of its cover art, was the record that opened my ears to improvisational music, and was my gateway to jazz. At the time I bought it, I had already gravitated to what I would call more improvisational rock (King Crimson, Grateful Dead) and was probably ready for that next step. Although it took a while to get into it, it had a panoramic sound that I had never experienced before.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?

For as long as I can remember. My parents were classical music fans, so I was exposed to live music during my early childhood.

How often do you go out to hear live music?

At least once a week. Life kind of feels strange without it.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?

It's the opportunity to be in a room with like-minded people and share it with them. I have always considered music to be a communal experience, and it all comes together when you are having an amazing concert.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?

A great band, a wonderful audience and a great room with good acoustics. Having some friends there with you would be an added plus.

What is the most trouble you've gone to or the farthest you've traveled to get to a jazz performance?

Specifically for a performance, New York City, where I usually go once or twice a year to catch some music. And I try to make it to the Vision Festival every year. I have caught performances in places that are farther away, but usually I was there for other reasons, too. I also try to make it to Guelph Jazz Festival every year. Guelph [Canada] is located about 4 hours from Detroit and usually has a strong, interesting lineup every year. I have never considered traveling to hear music "trouble," and in modern times it's been incredibly facilitated by the Internet. It makes it easy to plan travel around music whereas, in the past, one needed to try to find music around travel. No more calling the "jazz line" when you got to a particular city, and trying to jot down venue and concert information, as quickly as you could.

You have a special relationship with Edgefest in Ann Arbor, which you attend every year. Tell us about about your involvement.

Edgefest always feel like a family reunion! (My family had a very crazy side.) As it is a local festival, I get to go to it with a very large cadre of my best friends, which adds a really special element to it. I am fortunate to have some wonderful friends who are also devoted to this music, and several of them are also deserving of the "super fan" tag.

It has everything a festival should have: a lineup that is consistently exceptional, a small intimate room, and a sensational audience. Almost everyone involved in the festival stays at the same hotel, so there is a chance to have some wonderful interactions.

For many years, we have tried to have an unofficial social component to the festival, which involves pre-show dinners, record store excursions, and after-hours parties to help enhance the experience. Like all things that get out-of-hand, the after-parties started as a small gathering of friends in a hotel room, and have become more elaborate with the passage of time. Several years ago, Jason Kao Hwang was the first artist to attend one of our gatherings, and at one point last year, we had 23 people in my hotel suite one Saturday night.

I feel very proud to call Edgefest our own festival, and I do what I feel every 'super fan" of this music has a duty to do: help get and keep the music going in any possible way, anything from providing whatever financial support you can (for example, by sponsoring a couple of sets at the festival every year), to small things that everyone can do, like leaving flyers at music stores.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?

I have been fortunate to have seen most of my favorites in live performance. Keith Jarrett tops my bucket list of artists I haven't seen yet but, if his concert schedule permits, that will hopefully change in the near future.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?

One is a very difficult number. There are several that come to mind: John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. They were all incredible talents, and unfortunately I am too young to have had the opportunity to see them live.

How do you discover new artists?

Many ways: Going to live performances of artists I am not familiar with, CD's, Internet searches. We live in fortunate times, where there are multiple ways to discover new music.

What is it about your favorite clubs that makes them your favorites?

I love Smalls in New York City. It is a small, cramped basement that is usually jam-packed, and everyone is totally into the music. It just doesn't get any better than that.

Which club are you most regularly to be found at?

Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, MI, and Trinosophes in Detroit, MI are my favorite local clubs.

Is there a club or festival that's no longer around that you miss the most?

There are several: Mimi's in San Juan, PR, which used to be the best club to hear jazz in San Juan in the 1970's.

Several clubs in New York City that I visited on my first trip there in 1980: The Tin Palace, Bradley's and Sweet Basil. Memories from that trip include two fabulous gigs at the Tin Palace—seeing George Coleman live for the first time, and the late Hilton Ruiz performing with Bill Saxton, Fred Hopkins, and Steve McCall.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?

Vinyl and CD's. MP3s are evil! The downloading and streaming of poor sound quality MP3s have contributed to the devaluation of the music and created a culture of people who think that it is their right to have "free music." This hurts everyone involved in the music: artists, record labels, stores, and, in a trickle-down effect, it also hurts the fans.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?

I consider myself an amateur percussionist, and my family thinks I make horrible noise. I guess that would make percussion my instrument of choice if I were a professional musician. Lack of talent and horrible stage fright keep me from ever venturing on a stage to play. If I was a member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), you would call what I play "small instruments."

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?

Here in Michigan, we recently lost two great trumpet players: Louis Smith and Marcus Belgrave. I was a witness to their last conversation, at a concert at Kerrytown Concert House, when they were comparing trumpet fingerings. What made it special was that Louis Smith had suffered a stroke several years ago, and although he could no longer play the trumpet, or speak clearly, he could still demonstrate trumpet fingerings with his hands.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?

The involvement of the younger generation is particularly encouraging. Listening to a good student ensemble gives me goose bumps, as it makes me realize that this music will still be here and thriving, long after I am gone. Keeping jazz alive and thriving is everyone's responsibility. We need to try to keep music education alive and well in these troubled times.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...

Difficult and unimaginable. A day without music is like a day without some sort of special, magic oxygen.

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