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Latin Jazz Conversations: Victor Garcia (Part 1)

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The history of jazz is broad and varied, staged in various locations across the United States; strangely enough, the history of Latin Jazz is written in one area. During the birth of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton claimed the Latin Tinge was an essential part of the music, a fact which was de-emphasized until the Big 3 Orchestras rocked New York's Palladium with massive mambos. As history followed Latin Jazz, New York remained the focus, continuing to be written through the contributions of people like Machito, Tito Puente, Jerry Gonzalez, Hilton Ruiz, and more. New York artists certainly made incredible forward motion that changed the music forever, but it seems a bit shortsighted to consider that the end of the story. Jazz evolved across the country, and in many of these locations, people from the Caribbean and South America were a part of the community. Latin music played in harmony with jazz outside of New York, and it simply makes sense that other Latin Jazz traditions existed across the country.

Trumpet player Victor Garcia spent his childhood in Chicago between these two traditions and built skills that would change the city's Latin Jazz scene for the better. Garcia's father was an amateur musicians that loved performance deeply and shared that passion with his children. The elder Garcia gave Victor piano and guitar lessons, having his son sing lead and harmony in Mexican trios. The young Garcia spent time hearing his father's broad record collection, which ranged from traditional Mexican music to The Beatles. These early experiences gave Garcia exposure to quality music, concepts about harmony, and a deeply rooted appreciation for performance. A youthful joke led to Garcia's first Dizzy Gillespie record, and once he heard the music, he became hooked on jazz. Right before high school, he acquired a trumpet and began teaching himself. He transcribed jazz trumpet solos and figured out fingerings on his own. Some of Garcia's friends shared his interest in jazz, and as they saw him growing, they suggested he join a big band ran by Chicago's Gallery 37. The group was a Latin Jazz big band, which exposed Garcia to the masters of the music, taught him about phrasing in clave, and pushed his playing tremendously. His progress caught the eye of the Merit School Of Music, earning him a scholarship to attend the program during his final years of high school. Even before college, music was a chosen path for Garcia, leading him to professional work. By the time he graduated high school, he gigged regularly with salsa singer Ricky Luis, contributing arrangements, and eventually becoming the group's musical director. With an unquenchable thirst for performance and an increasingly strong set of musical skills, Garcia was on his way to becoming an essential part of Chicago's music scene.

Chicago had developed a strong community around jazz and Latin music over the years, and Garcia entrance into this mixture gave him inspiration to dive deeply into music. Today, he co-leads one of the city's golden big bands, the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, whose current album Blueprintsis exposing the city's vast talent to the world. In part one of our interview with Garcia, we dig into his early exposure to music, his accidental discovery of jazz, and his steps towards a professional music career.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You grew up in Chicago and started music at a young age—how did you get into performance?

VICTOR GARCIA: My dad was an amateur guitarist from Mexcio. He never had an opportunity to do it for a living; he had to work since he was eight years old. He did it as a hobby that he really loved. He vowed that when he had children, he would give them real music or an opportunity to at least have it if they really wanted it. He ended up being an acupuncturist. He gave us piano lessons—I remember sitting on his lap even as early as three years old. Then he gave me my first guitar when I was eight years old. So I've basically been around music all my life. We were singing since I was five years old—since I was old enough to enunciate a whole lyric. So it's been a really beautiful development.

The first kind of music that we heard was trio music—romantic Mexican music. They play it with three guitars. I was always the lead singer. If they couldn't find a harmony, I was always the one to find it. That really developed a keen sense of harmony for me and taught me how chords moved. It was really awesome to have that kind of a base early on.

LJC: Was the music that you were around when you were younger or was anything else floating around you?

VG: There was everything around us. My dad loved The Beatles. There was a time that I could safely say that I could recite most all the lyrics from all The Beatles songs. In my generation, the crap that was on the radio was really what people were listening to at school. I was always the odd ball out when it came to music, which I didn't mind. Later on I found out that there really are only two kinds of music, good and bad. Not that I was being predjudice against the pop music of that time, it's just that it wasn't good! There's a couple of Michael Jackson records that I really dug, but that's a different story—later on I found out that it was Quincy Jones behind it, so it makes sense. I learned that there's no limits to what kind of limits is allowed to be good or bad—it just is or isn't!

LJC: By high school, you were checking out jazz recordings, and this inspired you to get into the trumpet. When did jazz pop in there?

VG: Me and my brother were making prank calls one time. He used 10-10-921—one of those numbers that you can call to get free minutes and they would block your number. So we made some prank calls and all of a sudden we got a thing in the mail that said, “Thank you for using 10-10-921, you have won a free CD." My brother started freaking out and said, “Oh no, Mom's going to find out—here, you take it!" I was like, “Um, O.K." They showed a list of CDs that we could get for free and it was a very, very limited list. Nothing stood out to me except for this one CD with a picture of this dude with big old cheeks, who I would later learn was Dizzy Gillespie.

I also got it because at that time, I had just started playing trumpet. The summer of 8th grade, going into high school, I got my first little trumpet made in China. The valves were really stiff, but I dug it. I didn't even know how to play. As a matter of fact, years later when I got a teacher in my senior year of high school, he was like, “Man, you're playing all the wrong fingerings, but you're still playing the right thing—what the heck is going on?!?" I had just figured it out by listening to music. I transcribed solos before I actually knew what the word transcription even meant. I was like, “I want to play what he's playing—that's awesome!" So I transcribed some Thad Jones, I transcribed some Dizzy, of course—that was really hard because I was just starting the trumpet. I could barely get a high C; if I got one, I would be like, “Yes! I got one!" I ended up getting hip to a lot of different players at that time.

When I showed my friends, some of them were in Merit School of Music. In the second semester of my sophomore year, I joined this program called Gallery 37. My friends were saying, “Hey, come on, man, you should try this." So then I started being in the Latin Jazz big band at Gallery 37.

LJC: Was that an educational group?

VG: Yea, that was funded by the city. It was like work almost. You would show up at a certain time, we would just sit there an practice all day. The first half was sitting with Michael McLaughlin, doing long tones, lips slurs, and technical things for brass. Then we would look over some of the music that we were going to be performing for concerts. That was a really nice program, I'm so lucky that I had an opportunity to be a part of that. Meeting him, and then by the time my senior year rolled around, they said, “We've seen some really great growth in you, and we'd like to offer you a scholarship for trumpet lessons." So I told my parents, and they were thrilled about it.

I started going to Merit in then second half of my junior year, and then my whole senior year. I started playing in their jazz combo and their big band. I didn't even know how to read chord changes, but since I had been transcribing, I could really navigate the charts. It was funny, my teacher would put a new tune in front of us, like “Hot House" or something, I would stare at the chart and there were changes on the first and the second page. My eyes were fixated on the first page when we were obviously on the second page. I wouldn't know where we were, but I would listen to the changes. It was cool, because I got a really deep feel for form before I even knew what I was supposed to be doing. I came from that angle, which I think really helped me out a lot.

LJC: Was the Gallery 37 band your first exposure to Latin Jazz?

VG: Yep, that was definitely the first time that I got to learn about Machito and what Dizzy Gillespie was doing with Latin rhythms. I did hear something on the CD that I got originally, but I never had played any of it. I started learning about clave, its importance, and its role. I've figured it out now, but even then, I even remember hearing music and thinking, “There's clave in everything." I hold that to this day—I tell my students that clave is the phenomenon of phrasing. It has nothing to do with Latin music; it's very prominent, but every kind of music has phrases. You say something, rest, say something, rest. If you don't, then it's just going to sound like a run-on sentence, and it's not going to be music anymore. Everything has clave, it's the way that the human mind can take in information. It should really be emphasized everywhere. Even when I do horn arrangements or full arrangements for pop music, I take all that into consideration, and usually that works out well.

LJC: Before you went off to college, you were playing in local Latin bands around town. What was Chicago's Latin music scene like then and how did you get in when you were so young?

VG: I had a few friends in the Gallery 37 band, these trumpet players named Madeline and Tito. At the time, they were playing with this amazing musician and singer, Ricky Luis; he had a little salsa band here in town. They brought me in; one of them had another gig so they had me fill in at a rehearsal. I remember showing up and there were all these young guys, my age. I think the trombone player was the oldest, maybe a couple of years older than me. Ricky was doing some really nice stuff at the time. His mom really believed in his talent so she spent a ton of dough going to New York and getting some originals for him. Edwin Sanchez did the charts in New York; he did the arrangements and got all the best New York cats to record this music for him.

So he had this really amazing demo that got us gigs. We were doing originals and then we were doing a bunch of covers. Soon there after, I became the musical director. That really helped give me some leadership skill, it gave me the opportunity to direct the band and be the musical director. I had started out by getting addicted to transcribing, so now I was doing it really quick—I would do a whole arrangement for him in one hour. Now he's in Puerto Rico, signed to Sony Records.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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