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Latin Jazz Conversations: Jose Rizo (Part 1)

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There's nothing stronger in the human soul than a message that you need to share with the world. Most people aren't born with this type of drive, and some people never capture it during their lifetime. Still, there are insightful individuals discover issues in their life that drive them to educate, inform, and speak on topics ranging from politics to race, art, and more. The simple discovery plants a seed in their head and continued exposure causes their desire to grow over time. As the need for change, bubble inside them, they find their way towards venues to spread their word. The connection between a message and the means to spread it inevitably lead towards forward motion and a number of potentially powerful opportunities.

Radio personality and bandleader José Rizo found the need for a strong, professional, and powerful Latino voice on radio and made large steps to create change. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Rizo's family moved to Oxnard, California when he was still a baby, raising him in the area's large Mexican-American community. He had a diverse exposure to music during his youth, ranging from Santana, Tower Of Power, and the popular music of the day, to Glenn Miller and Tito Puente. Rizo connected with music through his school band, but didn't dive in deeply until he found his way to college at the University of California in Santa Barbara. It was there that he first checked out Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and more, expanding the range of his musical tastes. Disappointed with the representation of Latino culture on radio, Rizo actively pursued an opportunity to provide a more professional voice. Despite a lack of experience, he offered his services to local radio stations and pop music station KIST replied. Rizo soon found a mentor to walk him through the basics and radio and started a public affairs show. Seeing the need for an even larger representation of Latino radio, Rizo started Radio Chicano, an organization dedicated to sharing his new knowledge. The group grew in both size and presence, eventually spreading back to UCSB, where Rizo and his peers also began broadcasting. Along the way, Rizo began integrating his expanding musical tastes into his public affairs show, making him think that he should start a show based exclusively on music. He soon started Barrio Salsoul, a show dedicated to Latin Soul, Latin Jazz, salsa, and more. His growing connections with the music community led to his participation in concert promotion, starting with annual Cinco De Mayo dance concerts. Throughout his college years, Rizo made huge strides in establishing an important voice for the local Latino community in Southern California radio and began building a significant connection with the music.

Seeing a gap in radio representation of the Latino community, Rizo actively found ways to spread the right message and laid the groundwork for an important career. He would eventually become an important voice in Southern California jazz radio and an advocate for Latin Jazz. His passion for the music would eventually move beyond radio and extend into all-star collections of musicians that would deliver awe-inspiring musical performances. In Part One of our interview with Rizo, we look at his early explorations of music, his bold step into public affairs radio, and his eventual move towards music radio.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You were born in Guadalajara, Mexico—how were you exposed to music as a child?

JOSÉ RIZO: My parents brought me over to the States when I was forty days old. I would go back and visit family pretty frequently. I had a godfather, who I got real close with; he would always have these really early albums of Tito Puente and Beny More. He'd also have these old 8-tracks of Glenn Miller and all these big band things. Early on, I would listen to the stuff that I would hear with friends, like War and Tower Of Power, but on the side, I was also listening to my uncle's Glenn Miller things, Tito Puente, and Beny More albums. That was my mix.

LJC: You played trumpet when you were in high school; were you deeply into music at that point?

JR: No, because I hadn't really discovered real jazz yet. I started plying trumpet in third grade and went up through high school. It was funny because I played football too, so I couldn't March with the bands at the games. I had to suit up and play football! But I had that combination.

Early on, I wanted to play in bands other than school bands. I grew up in the barrio in Oxnard; it's a little rough there. Especially in those days in the seventies. A couple of times I tried to join some bands and there were some pretty rough characters there. I remember there was one band that I really wanted to be a part of, because they were playing all of this James Brown and Tower Of Power stuff—they were called the Flaming Skulls. I joined band for a little bit on trumpet with my friends from our school band. But some of these guys were in the corner before rehearsal, and they were shooting up heroin. I looked at my friend and said, “You know, I don't think this is a good thing for us to be part of!" So I finally said, “Forget this, I'll just stick with the school band and then move on." So I never really had any kind of music that I hooked with to really want to play badly after that experience.

When I went to UC Santa Barbara, I got deeper into the Santana albums and made the connections, where he mentioned that he was influenced by Coltrane and Miles. I said, “Let me listen to a little bit of that." I did, and I just got hooked to Trane, Cannonball, and Miles. Then it grew into Mingus, Monk, and all that stuff. That's where it started.

LJC: Santana was such a launching point for so many of us on the West Coast . . .

JR: He was the bridge. Especially on recordings with Luis Gasca. Luis told me personally that he introduced Carlos to jazz. He brought Carlos in as a young pup, playing with Joe Henderson and these other great jazz cats. That was Santana's first connections with jazz.

LJC: You got into radio at UC Santa Barbara as well. How did you connect your love for music and your interest in radio?

JR: Back then when I left my neighborhood in Oxnard and went to UC Santa Barbara, it was weird. I was like a lot of youths in the neighborhood at that time, getting into trouble. I finally left Oxnard and for some reason, I took the SAT test and I scored pretty high. I got some grants to go to UCSB; I thought, “Sure, it's free, I'll go!" I was 18 years old. I jumped on my low rider and drove up the coast from Oxnard to UCSB.

On my trips to UCSB, I would listen to the show called La Hora Chicana on one of those local stations. I thought, “This guy is representing our people, and he's coming off with all of these unprofessional ways of doing it." That got me frustrated. So later on in my first freshman year at school there, I thought, “Let me try to do some of this stuff, I can do better than that." I had no idea about radio, so I just started writing some letters to the local stations there around Santa Barbara to see if they would give me a shot at doing a public affairs show.

I started getting feedback and requests for meetings, so I went to the meetings. The first one was KIST, a top forty station in Santa Barbara. They said, “We'd like for you to come in and do some shows. Where have you worked before?" I said, “I haven't worked anywhere before, this is my first thing. I just want to do this." There was a guy at that time who was a media consultant at UCSB, Luis Torres. He was so gracious to teach me about radio. He said, “What are we going to call this group?" I said, “Let's call it Radio Chicano." So we did, but it was only him and me, that was it. After teaching me for about three or four months, he had to leave. I thought, “I guess I'm going to have to take that and go a long way with it." So I did, I started picking up from there and I started training other students. Before you know it, within two or three years, I had about twenty-five people in the organization Radio Chicano. I would do training sessions with them.

I started doing this public affairs show for KIST called La Voz De La Raza. I would interview social service centers, car clubs—just different people from the Mexican-American community that had some contribution to the community at large. Little by little, I started adding a little bit of music in there. Back then, it was just what I knew—Santana, El Chicano, Daniel Valdés, the great Chicano guitarist. Then it just kind of grew. At the same time, I started listening to some jazz. I got into whatever type of early Latin Jazz that there was. There wasn't really a whole lot available back then—you had to really dig to get it. I was still learning about this stuff—I was getting turned onto Gil Scott-Heron, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters—I was digging into all of that stuff. I was seeing them live in concert at UCSB too. They were coming around the campus and I was going out to check out The Headhunters, Gil Scott-Heron, The Midnight Band . . . I was eating all that stuff up. I was learning very quickly.

Then I went back to UCSB and thought, “Well, there's a station on the campus too." So I thought that I could do the same thing on campus. They let me do it. I had started adding music to the public affairs show little by little, so I told them that I could do a whole music show. All this was happening when I was 18, 19, and 20 years old. Eventually I had my own show on Sunday nights on KCSB called Barrio Salsoul. There I mixed in Latin Soul with whatever Latin Jazz I could find at that time.

I wrote a letter to Jerry and Alex Masucci at Fania Records. They responded really well, I even talked to them for a while. They sent me a huge box of Fania Records; I had them all in my apartment. I thought, all these albums are just taking up space, I should listen to them. I had a little turntable so I started opening up some of those records—I had a good 150 or 200 albums there. Then I started listening to Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco; I thought, “Woah, this is some good stuff." That was totally different for me—in Oxnard, we listened to oldies, Santana, Malo, and that stuff. We didn't listen to salsa, that was alien to me. But I discovered that world. It was really a beautiful and rich time where I was just soaking all of this stuff in.

I started doing the Cinco De Mayo dance concerts too in my early twenties. I would bring in people like Pete Escovedo, Los Lobos, Poncho Sanchez. The concert producer was impressed with the work that I did; he saw that I used his monies properly for these Chicano Cinco De Mayo concerts. So he would give me all-access backstage passes to all of the stadium concerts that he was doing. I was backstage hanging out with The Doobie Brothers, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, and all these rock bands. I used to hang out with Santana a lot. He would really trip out—he would come in and I was still dressed like I was, but I knew about Coltrane and Miles. It would tripped him out. So he'd have me come back after the concert to talk more. Those are my memories—me in my early twenties hanging out with Carlos with his Perrier water and all his guitars. I'd be hanging out with him and all these people would come in to greet him and talk to him. I was thinking, “Wow, this is pretty cool."

LJC: Did you find any kind of resistance for you going out and having a Latin presence on the radio?

JR: Oh yea. There wasn't as much in the commercial radio. They welcomed a Latino voice, because that pretty much fulfilled their public affairs commitment—their requirement to air the voices of the complete community. I kind of fulfilled that for them on KIST. I did that for only a couple of years and then after that I kind of left it. At KCSB, when I started getting involved, there were no other Latinos really working there except for one other gentleman, he was the public affairs director. So the element was a little alien for them. Especially with me coming from the barrio. I had a lot of resistance. But I've always been a really hard worker that was able to stay focused on things that I really liked and I really learned things as much as I could. So they were impressed and I grew within that station.

I eventually became program director at KCSB. It got to that level, where I was pretty much running all the programming there. As program director, I set up daily Chicano/Latino programming with all of the members that I was training through Radio Chicano. I would have a daily slot between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. at the University where I would present the young people that I was training. It wasn't only Chicanos—it was Latinos, African Americans, Anglos—it was whoever was interested in the music. The music was all that counted, we just stayed with the name Radio Chicano. I had a whole interesting mix of personalities there, and it continued for a few years. For me, that was a really creative point in my early involvement in radio.

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