Latin Jazz Conversations: Jose Rizo (Part 3)


Sign in to view read count
Bringing together a collection of master musicians often requires more than great music, it demands some sort of magnetic force. By the time that most musicians reach a high level of artistry, they've come to their own ideas and conclusions about their approach to performance. The individualized nature of music almost guarantees that a room full of experienced musicians have different beliefs and comfort zones around their music life. Add the fact that they are busily focused upon their own projects into the equation, and you've got a challenging task pulling these musicians into one group. It can be done, but it requires the assistance of a special person that understands the artists individually and can support their needs. When this person comes into the situation, magic can happen, charging towards memorable results.

Radio personality and bandleader José Rizo built upon his huge love for Latin Jazz to form one of the West Coast's greatest all-star bands. Rizo grew up in Oxnard, California, exploring his growing interest in music through hearing the popular music of the day and playing trumpet in high school. As he moved onto college at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Rizo became discouraged with the representation of Latino issues on the radio and decided to change it for the better. Through pure will power and determination, Rizo soon found himself hosting a public affairs show on local pop station KIST and leading a collective of hopeful radio personalities in an organization called Radio Chicano. During this time, Rizo also found inspiration in Carlos Santana's interest in jazz, sparking a life long love for the music. As Radio Chicano found its way back to UCSB, Rizo decided to start a music show on the college's radio station, creating a Latin music program, Barrio Salsoul. As music became a larger piece of Rizo's life, he moved away from school, taking on a full-time job at an electronics firm. Eventually Rizo left radio and became fully focused upon completing his college degree. As he listened to local Latin Jazz shows though, he saw a lack of intelligent programming for the music on the airwaves, and he contacted local jazz station KLON. After an audition, the station saw the immense potential in Rizo and immediately hired him to host Jazz On The Latin Side. For the next ten years, Rizo provided Los Angeles with some of the best Latin Jazz available and regularly invited some of the music's best artists into the studio. As he approached his tenth anniversary of the show, he invited a large number of musicians into the studio to celebrate the occasion. When the event became larger than the studio could hold, the station turned it into an event. Rizo enlisted local trombonist and arranger Francisco Torres to help him produce original music and recruited local record label CuBop to record the event. The night was a smashing success and the recording became two nationally released albums—Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars Vol. 1 & Vol. 2. Word of mouth spread quickly and soon Rizo received calls for live gigs; he reconstructed the band and took it to concerts. With a successful following behind him, Rizo started his own record label and produced two more recordings, The Last Bullfighter and Tambolero. With the power of the finest Latin Jazz musicians in Los Angeles behind him, Rizo made a dent in the music world, producing several unforgettable albums and concerts.

Rizo's hard work and determination made the Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars a reality and carved an important spot in West Coast Latin Jazz history. While many of the group's members had individually laid their own claims to history, the power of the collective made a monstrous splash that resonated with musicality. The group's recordings and performance paid tribute to the importance of the individual musicians and garnered respect and tradition for the often underserved West Coast scene. In Part One of our interview with Rizo, we looked at his entry into music during his youth, his bold embrace of radio in college, and his growing love for jazz. Part Two of our interview focused upon the creation of his popular show Jazz On The Latin Side, his growth into music director at KKJZ, and the current state of public radio. Today, we dig into the evolution of the Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars, the jam session that became their first two albums, and the group's subsequent releases The Last Bullfighter and Tambolero.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: In 2000, you had a celebration for the tenth anniversary of your radio show and that was the beginning of The Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars. Tell me a little bit about that night and how it inspired you to create that group.

JOSÉ RIZO: The idea kind of came from my UCSB years. When I was in my early to mid-twenties, I would make these drawings of these musicians that I thought were the best and I thought, “Wouldn't it be great to have an All-Star Band, with all the best musicians in one band?" I still have some of those early sketches. That meant a lot to me—it was the seed to do something like this. Also during those early years at UCSB, I was always humming these different melodies and ideas—my wife would say, “Where did you get that from?" I would say, “I don't know, it just came into my head . . . but I like it!" I would record all these things on cassettes and then all of a sudden, I had a box full of cassettes with music ideas, melodies, and tunes. My wife was saying, “What are you ever going to do with that? You don't have a band." But I couldn't get rid of it, there were beautiful things in there.

At KCSB, I would bring in Los Lobos to play on my show, as well as Poncho, Ruben Estrada, and different people. I'd interview them and then have these jam sessions on the radio. I'd already done some of that in college; then after being at KKJZ for a while, that bug came back to do this live on the radio. I was thinking, “I don't really hear much of that in L.A.; it would work here." So I started doing live sessions on the air—I had Los Lobos come in, I had Ozomatli, The Estrada Brothers, Poncho Sanchez, Bobby Rodriguez—I had a lot of different bands. One time when I had the Estrada Brothers performing, Mongo Santamaria came to the studio, sat in, and played live. Justo Almario brought him in; I interviewed Mongo, and he played with The Estrada Brothers on the radio.

On my tenth anniversary, I thought that I could do a big thing in the studio just like that. I invited twenty-three great musicians that were also friends, but then they all accepted! There were guys from Ozomatli, Los Lobos—everybody! I thought maybe only half of them would want to do something like this, but they all accepted. Then Poncho said “My band can play and then you can have everybody sit in." I said, “That's a lot of guys Poncho, that might not work." I was thinking, “How am I going to fit them all into the studio?"

At the time, KKJZ was doing a big blues festival at Long Beach State and we would do a lot of concert events. So I told the concert producer about my idea and he said, “Look, that's not going to work—let me set up a concert, call the band something, and then we'll do a benefit for KKJZ." So he set up a night at B.B. Kings on Universal City Walk as the place to do the benefit. We were working with them quite a bit and they were available.

Finally, I remembered those things that I had hummed onto the cassettes during my years at UCSB. Right before the B.B. King's gig, I told Poncho, “If you don't mind, I'd like to work with these young arrangers, like Francisco Torres to put together some of my music." I thought that we could perform those at the gig—that would be a real treat for me. I wanted to hear the things that I heard in my head with musicians! There were the great musicians, so it was an opportunity to hear my stuff live. Francisco was young at the time; he was learning how to arrange. I asked Francisco to sit down patiently with me and listen to some of the tunes that I had on cassette and help me write them out. Francisco agreed, so he would come in and write all my tunes out.

We did a couple of rehearsals; not everybody was there. It was kind of rough, but everybody was my friend, so they were doing it for me. Then we started playing the tunes—I had different configurations of which musicians would be on each tune. We started doing it live and that's when the magic happened. Poncho, Alex Acuña, and Justo would come to me on the side and say, “You know, this is pretty good. This actually sounds really good." They would come up individually and tell me. I was saying, “Are you sure?" They were saying, “This is good, I like this. These are your tunes? I like them!" All of a sudden, I was thinking this was going to be great.

I invited CuBop to come in and record the band. I thought, “Well, it would be good to document this somehow." So I brought in an engineer and they paid him for the documentation; then we signed the stuff. At that time, I didn't know what I was signing; I was young and I was just excited that it was going to be documented. Those were all my tunes with these incredible musicians playing them and it sounded magical. So I signed all these things stupidly—I didn't realize that I was giving away a lot of stuff.

Then a few months later, Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 came out. Everybody thought it was one band, but it was just different configurations of musicians on different tunes. I had Al McKibbon, David Hidalgo, Louie Perez, and all different people.

Then I got a call asking, “Can your band play here? I heard that your band was awesome at B.B. King's and we've been hearing your music on the air. Can your band play?" I was trying to explain, “Well, it's not really a band, it was a one night thing." But they said, “Well, we have this much money to pay for you to play." So I said, “Well, yea, my band can definitely play, sure." Then I was thinking, “Oh boy, what am I getting into here? How am I going to configure these bands?"

So I sat down and figured out what instruments I would need in the band, then I called Francisco Torres. I said, “Francisco, I have a gig coming up and I want you to help me adjust some of these other arrangements to include all these instruments." He got excited and started helping me out with those arrangements to fit a big band—some of them were sextets originally. We performed, I paid everybody well, and I thought great. Then all of a sudden, I got another call and then another call. Before I knew it, I ended up being a bandleader and I had a working band. It lasted ten years.

When I finally started getting new material together, I went back to CuBop and said, “I've got new material, so I'm ready to record a CD." I wanted it to be a studio thing though, with the band. Now I had actually developed a band; before it was just a jam session with different musicians. This was now a band—now I wanted to document the actual Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars. I said, “I've got my tunes and I've already got them all copyrighted and protected." They said, “Wait, you can't do that." But I wanted to take care of my songs. They didn't like that idea; they said, “We can't record you if you're going to do that. You're going to have to do it on your own—start your own label." I thought, “I think I will!" So that's when I talked my wife—she was so supportive—I said, “We're practically buying a Mercedes Benz here; I have to do this on my own." So I went to all the guys—they were bummed out because they thought we were going to go with CuBop again. I told them, “No, I'm doing it on my own. Let's do this!" Then we became a brotherhood.

That's when The Last Bullfighter was recorded. We went in there, did whatever we wanted with nobody looking over our shoulders. It was a brotherhood—Francisco Aguabella, Alex Acuña, Poncho Sanchez . . .it was such a beautiful, beautiful session. They've all been beautiful sessions—we documented them and we did O.K. I think that The Last Bullfighter finally broke even just recently.

I thought I would do a second one and that was when Tambolero came out. At that time, Marvin “Smitty" Smith had joined me on drums too. Then it just grew. Gilbert Castellanos came in and did some trumpet. It was beautiful. Tambolero didn't sell as well as The Last Bullfighter, but I saved some money. We did a few concerts outside of L.A., but there were 16 or 17 guys—that's a lot of money. We did three nights at Yoshi's in Oakland and we sold out almost every night. There were so many guys though, but they barely broke even. It was too bad—it was such amazing music, but because of the economy, it couldn't work.

That's when I started thinking about the old Mongo stuff—I loved that stuff, so I decided to look at it a little more. I started listening to some early Mongo stuff—I loved the violin and the charanga jazz. I loved the stuff that Bongo Logic was doing, but I wanted to do something different though, something classic and romantic, but yet with modern taste. That's where the idea for Mongorama came from.

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.


Jazz News


Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.