Miguel Zenon: Jazz Sherpa

Lawrence Peryer By

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There are certain taboos that we walk around as far as what this music is. I wanted to give the people the opportunity to judge this music for themselves ... and decide if they like it or not, and just have the opportunity to enjoy music for what it is.
At the dawn of the second decade of his career, saxophonist Miguel Zenón has established himself as one of the most sophisticated and stylish players of the new millennium. In a very short time, Zenón has made his mark as a composer, band leader, educator, and jazz advocate. He has performed and recorded with scores of the scene's most prominent musicians as leader, side man and member of the groundbreaking SFJAZZ Collective, where he is the sole founding member remaining with the group.

Zenón has taken jazz awareness and education to new levels through his work as a Kennedy Center Jazz Ambassador to West Africa, a guest lecturer and teacher at Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory of Music and elsewhere, as well as with his founding of Caravana Cultural, a quarterly series of concerts and talks aimed at bringing jazz music "to the people" in his native Puerto Rico.

Zenón's work as an educator extends to his creative endeavors as well. His latest release, Alma Adentro (Marsalis Music, 2011), is his third so far to examine and interpret a musical form from his homeland, in this case songs from the Puerto Rican popular songbook of the mid-20th century.

All of this work—and much more—earned Zenón a prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2008. With its $500,000 prize allocated over five annual installments, the award not only recognizes Zenón's growing impact in the world of music but has afforded him the resources to continue to pursue his passions with vigor.

Chapter Index
  1. Teaching and Learning
  2. The SFJAZZ Collective
  3. Leading a Band
  4. The Music of Puerto Rico

Teaching and Learning

All About Jazz: Was your first experience with jazz through a formal educational setting? How did you come to be familiar with and connected to jazz?

Miguel Zenón: Well, I came into music through a performing-arts school—middle school and high school—that we have in Puerto Rico, that a lot of musicians went to [Escuela Libre de Musica]. [Saxophonists] David Sanchez, Angel Marrero, and a lot of Puerto Rican guys went to the same school also. But that school- -all the training is classical, so there's no jazz or anything, or any kind of formal jazz teacher, or anything like that.

I discovered jazz while I was going through that school—just some friends who were passing around tapes of Charlie Parker and Miles and all that, and I got exposed to it. And because I was trained in a specific way, what drew me to jazz—like when I heard Charlie Parker for example, that was one thing that I remember—what drew me to it was just the technical proficiency of it. You know, I didn't understand anything about improvisation or anything like that, but what drew was the technical proficiency that these musicians had.

I realized that while they were improvising, they were creating and being so technically proficient, and had so much mastery of the instruments; that just kind of blew me away. I mean, that was kind of like what put me over, and it became a thing where I really wanted to understand it. Because there wasn't any formal training or anybody that I could go to and say, "Can you explain this?" I just listened. A couple of my friends were equally interested, and we passed around tapes and listened to National Public Radio and bought what we could, and played—tried to imitate some of the sounds we heard.

I started growing on my own for a little while, and I found more and more people who were interested [in jazz], mostly people my age. So a lot of the early jazz experiences that I had were all kind of on my own, all self-taught. Even though I was training as a musician, I wasn't trained as a jazz musician.

AAJ: Were your teachers in the performing arts school critical of jazz? Did they try to dissuade you?

MZ: No, no they weren't critical at all. They weren't critical at all. I mean, they were very enthusiastic about the idea. I think they just didn't know how to help me. I was lucky I had really good teachers. And my teachers, most of my teachers, were not only classically trained but they were very, very active in popular music in terms of dance music, Latin American music, that kind of thing.

They were really well versed in playing music that was connected to the people, so jazz kind of rang the bell for them, in that sense. They guided me to places where they thought I could go and gave me things that they thought I could work on, tried to get me some books and all this.

But also, there was a little background. Like when I was going to high school, for example, my teacher—he was also David [Sanchez]'s teacher; David went there maybe eight years before me. So by that time David was already playing with Dizzy [in Gillespie's United Nations Orchestra] and making records and all that, so I did have a point of reference in a way. My teacher would say, "OK, I'll give you things that I gave him, and maybe it'll help you too," and that kind of thing. But I didn't really get any kind of formal jazz training at all until I got to Berklee.

AAJ: And then the world was wide open?

MZ: Yes, oh yes. It was incredible. When I decided that I wanted to play music, it was clear to me that I wanted to play jazz. I didn't want to play anything else. If I was going to play music, I wanted to do that. And I knew that I wanted to go to Berklee. I knew I wanted to go to school, I knew that I wanted to continue studying and I knew that I needed to study.

And actually, it took me a while to get there, about a year and a half between the time that I graduated high school and I went to Berklee—because I come from a working- class family. My family didn't have any money to help me with; I basically had to save everything from the [plane] ticket to tuition and a lot of that stuff by playing gigs and pop gigs and all this stuff.

But when I did make it over there, it was a shock in a way. It was like a good kind of shock. It was almost like to going the Promised Land. It was all these people there like me, who wanted to play, and wanted to play all the time, and wanted to hear music all the time, and wanted to talk about music all the time. And teachers who were telling me, "OK, you're on the right track, but this is what it is [you are trying to figure out]." It's almost like I would be working on this thing for a year [on my own] and the teachers told me, "OK, so this is what it is," and they just told me, like, right there in a couple of days—that kind of thing where, like, if you have the right person kind of pointing you in the right way it really helps. And I had some really good teachers.

But mostly what I got out of Berklee was just being surrounded by so many people my age who were a lot better than I was and knew a lot more about jazz than I did, and they inspired me in a lot of ways. And also I got the chance, while I was in Boston, to meet [pianist and composer] Danilo Pérez and be around other people like [saxophonist] George Garzone and [drummer] Bob Moses—that also helped.

AAJ: Was there a musician or a mentor you looked up to who imparted a piece of wisdom or said something to you where you realized, "This life is possible; I'm going to do this"?

MZ: Yes. Definitely I have to say Danilo Perez, there's no question about it. When I was getting into jazz in Puerto Rico, as I said, I had someone like David as a frame of reference because we shared a lot of the same experiences. But then I discovered Danilo's music and a lot of other Latin Americans who were making music, making jazz music, while still maintaining their identities as Latin Americans.

When I got to Boston, I sought him out; I remember going to a concert and jumping on stage as soon as he played the last note and introducing myself. And I'm not usually that guy—that's not something that I would usually do.

He was really open and very welcoming and really supportive. I would go to his house pretty much every week to get all these basically free lessons and just play and talk about music. And he was just so supportive and everything, and really—I mean it's like you said—he kind of gave me this sense that this is possible and it could happen. And to meet someone who was also just so passionate about it—I mean, I was seeing him grow and get better and better. And he was still working really hard all the time, and then I'd get better. It's really very inspiring.

And the same thing when eventually I did get to meet David and other people who are inspirational, like [saxophonist] Steve Coleman and people like that. You know, when you meet someone that you hold in high regard and they surpass what you expected from them, it clearly gives you a push in terms of inspiration. So I would especially say that Danilo was definitely the first guy that I can think of, especially once I moved to the States, that gave me that push.

AAJ: It sounds like you had some key support at specific points along the way: the community of musicians, a family who would support your decision to enter the arts...

MZ: Yes. But I have to say the [family] support was not immediate; it took some time. Like I said before, I was really into school, and I was actually a really good student. For the longest time before I went into music, I wanted to do something that had to do with math or science or something like that. I was already accepted into this really good engineering school in Puerto Rico. I blew that off and told my mom, "I don't want to be an engineer anymore; I want to play music." And she was shocked, of course.

But I think slowly she saw that I was passionate about it, and she trusted that I was going to do the best I could to succeed and progress it. Even when I went to Boston, I kind of struggled for the first year. I remember she would send me, like, 20 dollars in the mail so I could go buy some groceries. After a while I started playing gigs, and things started happening, and she started seeing that it was actually possible to make a living out of playing music. And, you know, things started getting better and better, and that kind of won her over in a way.

AAJ: When did you realize that you had a distinct voice, and that you had something to say on the horn?

MZ: I don't know. That's a hard question. It's hard to pinpoint. I think—for the longest time, and I kind of feel that way now—I felt that I was just filling up holes in terms of my knowledge of tradition and language where jazz is concerned. That was my main focus; from the time that I got to Boston, I just wanted to learn jazz and get better and more knowledgeable about the things that came before me and all the players—and describing and listening and checking out records, and learning tunes and that kind of stuff.

So from that to me working on my own thing, it was all kind of connected. Really, whatever personality I have as a player grew out of me being inspired by other players and just checking them out extensively. So I still kind of feel it's a process—there are certain things that I do feel very strongly about, and I feel that they could be things that kind of represent me as an individual player, or whatever, but I do feel that everything is inspired in some other place.

AAJ: You are speaking very personally about something that is a general current running through jazz history: the absorption of everything that came before—the players, the technical mastery—and then the setting of all that aside and transcending it in the art of improvisation. It's having that foundation but doing something else with it.

MZ: Yes. I think, for me, it was more a process of just finding priorities. The priorities that I had in Boston when I was a student there and the priorities that I had when I moved to New York and started hanging and playing with some of my heroes changed drastically. And the things that I felt that I needed to work on also changed drastically. I think, in a way, it's almost like you've got to realize what you need to do as a player in order to be able to communicate in terms of improvising, in order to be able to communicate more and more easily. And being able to master the instrument is one way, and being able to understand the language that you're dealing with is another thing; just being able to develop a sound on your instrument is another thing. But these are things that were not always a priority—they appeared as I progressed as a musician, and I started understanding what I needed to do in order to get better.

AAJ: How did education come to be so important to you, both in terms of your own learning as well as your own desire to teach?

MZ: Well, in terms of my own development, I was always the kind of person that functioned well as a student. I did well in school, and I was always very comfortable in that. Even when it wasn't about music, I was really into that whole interaction. I developed a sense of routine in terms of the way I learn things myself and the way I go about approaching new information and trying to learn and get better at things. Going through school and college, I developed a certain routine for the way I learned.

I went through different situations, like with Jazz Ambassadors, and doing clinics and seminars or teaching privately, or whatever—different situations, all geared towards the same purpose, which was communicating ideas or the way you think about certain things to other people in a practical way so that it all makes sense to them. I had to learn how to explain things. And by having to do this, I not only got more comfortable in terms of explaining, but also in a way learned some things in a more profound way— things that I already knew—by having the opportunity to explain it to somebody else. And it was actually very hard at the beginning. There are certain things that I've never put into words, so it was hard. But then I found some shortcuts and things that you could do to get to people, in certain ways, to make that experience of teaching and learning more effective, both for me and for the other party.

AAJ: The Caravana Cultural grew out of these experiences?

MZ: The Caravana Culture that you're referring to—that came as a desire that grew out of not necessarily thinking about how to educate people, but more out of a desire to go back to the really simple nature of playing music. I wanted to go back to the way I felt when I started playing music, where I wasn't thinking about making a living, or whatever. It was just about having fun and really enjoying what I was doing, and not having to think about anything else but music—not having to think about ticket sales and publicity and all these things.

So I wanted to get back to that feeling, and actually it was inspired by this documentary that I saw by a rock band from Iceland, Sigur Ros. They did a documentary where they basically conducted a series of free concerts in Iceland to thank the public for their support. I thought it was really beautiful, the way they went through it. They did it very informally, and people just came out and enjoyed the music. And sometimes they were in a school, sometimes they'd do it in a field or a factory. And it was really nice.

I thought it would be great if I could do something like that or similar in Puerto Rico with jazz, which is the music that I've been involved with for the last few years. And the idea materialized when the whole thing with the MacArthur grant happened. That helped really make it more a reality, in the sense that now I can do this—I now have the [financial] support to do something like this.

So eventually it grew into a more concrete project where we would present a series of concerts. I have a couple foundations in Puerto Rico that are helping me put the concerts together in terms of production and all that. But basically, the idea is to organize a series of concerts, free concerts of course, but specifically we're going into the rural areas of Puerto Rico where they don't get a lot of culture activity at all—not only concerts but anything else. The idea is to try to bring the music to places where usually it doesn't go, but also to try and eliminate preconceived ideas of what jazz is and the kind of people that should listen to jazz and should be exposed to jazz.

I think, especially in Puerto Rico but really everywhere, there's this idea that in order to listen to jazz and enjoy it, you have to be educated in certain things and be from a certain level, or whatever. There are certain taboos that we walk around, as far as what this music is. And I didn't think that these were true, and I wanted to give the people the opportunity to judge this music for themselves, to really get a chance to come to a concert and listen to music—they listen to Charlie Parker or whoever, and decide for themselves if they like it or not, and just have the opportunity to enjoy music for what it is.

So in that sense it's more like cultural investment in my country. And the more time that I spend out of Puerto Rico, I've been more and more involved in things that have to do with Puerto Rico—not only my home music but also trying to do things there I felt that are necessary and are not there and weren't there when I was young.

AAJ: What has the reaction been to the events?

MZ: The reaction has been really great, really positive. We've done two concerts already, one in February [featuring the music of Miles Davis] and one in June [focused on Charlie Parker]. And I think, in general, especially the one we did in June—I mean the first one was great too—but I think at the one in June, I was a little less stressed out and could pay a little more attention.

I got the sense that people had this reaction like, "OK, I'm listening to this music for the first time, and I'm enjoying it just because I like it. It's not something I'm familiar with, but I'm enjoying the show, and I'm enjoying the interactions that I see on stage and I hear." And it was that kind of thing where you're presenting something different, and you know that they've never experienced anything like that before, but you feel that there's sort of, like, an approval, almost like a natural reaction to just, like, the core— natural core of music. It was really special, really special.

AAJ: So people can approach the music or experience the music really just on its own terms. There's no baggage.

MZ: Exactly, yes. That's the idea.
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