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Latin Jazz Conversations: Victor Garcia (Part 2)

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Many elements effect the make-up of a musical scene, and as each piece evolves, so does the overall scene. The community of musicians within a city stays in a constant state of flux as artists come in and out of an area. When an important musical mainstay leaves the scene, the total artistic community feels ripples in both positive and negative ways. Sometimes influential musicians make moves to a new region, resulting in a major upswing of quality and creativity. Venues appear and disappear, changing the work flow for musicians in very major ways. It's a matter of cause and effect that directly impact the actions of young and inspired musicians.

Trumpet player Victor Garcia took all the influences of his Chicago surroundings, developing the skills that would make him a major player on the scene. Inspired by his father's deep love for performance, he moved through the piano, guitar, and voice, digging into a wide range of music from Mexican trios to The Beatles. A chance CD offer led him to Dizzy Gillespie, whose recordings got Garcia hooked on the jazz world. Still learning the basics of the trumpet, Garcia addictively transcribed jazz solos and built a broad understanding of the music. Looking for more opportunities to become a better musician, Garcia joined the Gallery 37 Latin Jazz big band, learning the fundamentals of clave and jazz. His immersion into performance became complete as he finished his high school career at The Merit School Of Music, getting private lessons, jazz experience, and more. An emerging musician by the time that he left high school, Garcia found professional performing experience in singer Rick Luis' salsa band, finding himself a home on Chicago's Latin music scene. Encouraged by his progress, Garcia continued studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but soon found his performance schedule in Chicago pulling him away from school. He became an essential piece of the Chicago salsa scene, working with bands led by Papo Santiago and Angel Melendez. His increasingly heavy load of performance commitments made it impossible to split time between Urbana-Champaign and Chicago, so Garcia transferred to the music department at Northern Illinois University. During his time there, Garcia met pianist Darwin Noguera on a salsa gig, and the two musicians began a fruitful relationship. As Garcia and Noguera began working together more consistently, they developed a repertoire of original pieces and arrangements. High profile gigs in Miami and back home in Chicago allowed Garcia and Noguera to hire a number of musicians, marking the start of a band that would place Latin Jazz in a prominent spot on Chicago's music scene.

Garcia's contributions to the Latin music scene in Chicago have evolved with the city, carving a high profile position for the style. The creative drive displayed by Garcia and Noguera resulted in the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, and as their album Blueprintsis solid evidence that Latin Jazz has become an important piece of the city's scene. In Part One of our interview with Garcia, we looked at the large presence of music in his childhood, his love for jazz as a teenager, and his development into a working professional. Today, we dig into Garcia's college years, the evolution of Chicago's salsa scene, his connection with Noguera, and the first steps of the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz ensemble.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: After that, you left Chicago to go to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. What took you out of the city and what did you find there?

VICTOR GARCIA: I didn't really know where I wanted to go to college; I didn't event know that I wanted to go to college honestly. My teacher really encouraged me. He said, “Man, you could get a lot of money if you do this for a living." So I was thinking, “Oh man, that would be awesome." So he really pointed me in the right direction of practicing everyday and making it a regular part of my life.

Since I was playing out with Ricky, a lot of people were seeing me at gigs. They would come up to me and get my number, so I started playing in more and more Latin bands. One of them was Angel Melendez and the 911 Orchestra; I was a mainstay with him for many years. Still to this day, he calls me whenever he has a big band gig. Ben Willis put together a really nice project. There was this lady named Zania who was doing some great things; I became the musical director for her. There was Papo Santiago, a great salsa singer—I still play with him, we just finished his CD. Angel de Cuba is another great singer. They're still kicking and doing some really great things, but the salsa scene has definitely changed today.

The money wasn't that great back then. That's why I had a lot of opportunities to play—the guys that were doing the gigs at the time were heavy trumpet players in town. But they were also doing other gigs that paid better, so they were always scrambling to find somebody. I was around, and I wasn't doing anything. They would call me to play these really late salsa gigs—it would $100 to be there from ten at night until four in the morning. It would be pretty crazy, but I really got my feet wet. I really learned what it takes to be a true player. You've got to be efficient and last all night long. You can't be great for one or two songs and that's it; people just aren't going to call you.

At that point, I started waking up every day at 5:30 in the morning to practice before school. I was so into it, I was so obsessed with it. Sometimes I would look up at the clock and it would be one in the afternoon—so I would say, “Alright, just keep on practicing!" It really made a difference that I took that time, especially since I started playing trumpet later on in life. It wasn't until my senior year of high school that I started breaking my bad habits. I used to play with a piece of gum in my mouth. It was just a weird thing, but nobody had told me it was wrong. My posture was all jacked up, and I even had to change my embouchure. I'm just glad it happened then and not now.

LJC: You said the salsa scene in Chicago had changed—what is the salsa scene like there?

VG: It's down to a few places. Back in the day I was playing at Sapphire's, Nick's, Rumba—that's one of the few places still around that is still playing salsa music. It's very, very limited. There's only a few places that will hire salsa bands. Luckily I've been doing the Cubby Bear thing every Sunday with different bands . . . I play in so many different salsa bands that I find myself there for some reason or another on a Sunday. Other than that, I don't really know of any other places that there are to play Salsa. Alhambra Palace is a new place, but they're not doing that great. They have to pay musicians peanuts on a Tuesday to come out and play.

Once in a way we do get some nice concerts coming in though. I'm playing with Ray Sepulveda next week. When the big guys come through town, a lot of them know me already. I've been in bands with some of them and then they go back to where they live and tell people, “Hey man, there's this guy in Chicago. When you come through there, give him a call. So I've gotten a chance to play with a lot of people, like Victor Manuel, Larry Harlow, and some real heavies. I even got the chance to play with Marvin Santiago the night before he died, which was pretty amazing. I'm lucky to have gotten all these opportunities, and I don't take them for granted. I still go home after the gig with the adrenaline left in my body, and I still practice.

LJC: When you were in college, you transferred back to Northern Illinois University and that's where you met Darwin Noguera. How did you guys start working together?

VG: I was playing in so many different bands, so I was coming back to town almost every day. It was really hard; I could almost never get my homework done. At the same time, I started doing what I really wanted to do anyways.

I got in this band called Orquesta Leal, a little salsa that really just sprouts up here and there to do festival gigs. It's a pretty decent band. It just so happens that Darwin had just moved into town, and he was looking for a gig. They found him, so they called him, and that's where we met—in a basement during a rehearsal. He was playing keyboards; I remember listening to him, thinking, “Man, this guy has some chops." He's a classical guy, so he has really great technique and he was just reading everything straight down like a hawk. I got to meet him and say, “Hey man, you sound great."

I was in Ricky's band, but that was the time that I made the transition into another band. I was musical director and so I was hand picking the band. He came in at a perfect time. I ended up getting him on piano, Josh Ramos on bass who I knew from Gallery 37, Brian Rivera, who is a great percussionist in town, and Tito Nieves, an amazing bongocero. These are all young guys that I met playing with Ricky. On the horns, I brought in Greg Ward, and sometimes Danny Campbell, a great trumpet player from St. Louis. It was awesome that I got to hand pick this dream team. We even made a few recordings of some concerts; we were playing at a ridiculously high level, even back then. It's really cool to reflect back and see the beginnings of it, because that's really what paved the way for what we are doing now.

LJC: How did the group evolve; did you guys have the thought that you wanted to have a big band?

VG: It actually started because Darwin is a go-getter. He decided that he wasn't going to wait for the phone to ring; he was going to start his own band. So he started his trio and then he started thinking, “O.K., I'm going to make it a little bigger, maybe I can add a couple of horns to it." He started writing and then he asked me one day to transcribe some stuff for him.

Darwin had an opportunity to play this gig in Miami, and he wanted it to be really, really good. We were going to play with the likes of Emilio Valdés, who is Chucho Valdés' son. Funny enough, Rocky Yera was in that band, he was a good friend of Darwin's from Miami. He was in the first version of CALJE, which happened in Miami. All the players were from over there. We took the charts and we made some great connections. For example, we played with Juan Turros, who had just gotten off the road with Maynard Ferguson; he ended up contributing those tunes “Send Eggs" and “Bossa Pegajosa," which I think are some of the most beautiful tunes on the CD.

From there, we just kept transcribing stuff. Darwin started bringing in some originals that he wanted me to help arrange. I know Finale like the back of my hand, so I said, “Alright!" That actually started a really cool team—I was at the MIDI keyboard and he was at the piano composing. We would just work together. We would record everything, lay it out, and then arrange it for eight horns. Little by little, we started getting cool opportunities. At the time, he was doing an internship at The Hothouse, and they gave him an opportunity to bring a band to open up for the Jazz En Clave Festival. It was amazing; we just came out with a bang. We had already done it in Miami, but it was kind of on the backburner—who's going to pay for a big band? It went great. Then we had all this music that was just sitting there. We were like, “Man, I hope we can play it again someday!" Luckily, we're playing it now.

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