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Latin Jazz Conversations: Zaccai Curtis (Part 2)


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Today's crop of young artists are creating music in a very different world than the one occupied by an older generation. The popular music that surrounds them often lowers the bar in terms of musicality, and many people from their generation simply don't value artistry at a high level. They buck the popular consensus though and learn about music in a much different fashion than their elders, spending years piling through musical details at colleges and universities. The schoolroom presents a number of different lessons than the bandstand, and their studies stock them with an academic and advanced toolbox. As a result, their musical output looks and sounds much different than their elders, building upon modern conceptions of harmony, melody, and rhythm. Armed with this musical knowledge, they then need to find a place for their music in a world that often simply doesn't understand it and in many cases doesn't want it. It's an uphill battle for young jazz musicians, who find themselves dealing with a challenging set of issues in today's music world.

Pianist Zaccai Curtis has forged a strong artistic presence on the modern New York Latin Jazz scene, juggling the challenges of the day to build an impressive career. Immersed in music as a child, Zaccai and his brothers Damien and Luques soon became connected to a variety of different musical styles. The brothers all channeled their interests through classical piano and percussion, inspiring each other to push their musicianship forward. The brothers attended saxophonist Jackie McLean's Artist's Collective in Hartford, a local school that provided rich jazz experiences for young people, supplying them with private lessons, big band performance, and more. At the same time, pianist Joe Velez led the brothers in a Latin Jazz ensemble that got them hooked on the music in a big way. The Latin Jazz program soon folded, but the Curtis family kept it going through rehearsals in their basement. As the Curtis Brothers and their group began to grow, the played extensively around Hartford, and then a chance encounter with legendary pianist Chucho Valdes resulted in a trip to Cuba. With his future soundly set upon music, Zaccai headed to Boston, leaping into the New England Conservatory's jazz studies program. He spent several years at the conservatory, working closely with pianist Danilo Pérez to define his own voice in the music. He played consistently throughout Boston's music scene and continued at the conservatory for graduate work in music. Armed with years of performance experience, a thoroughly studied background, and a diverse appreciation for many styles, Zaccai and his brother Luques packed their bags and moved to New York, determined to build a career in the center of the jazz world.

Zaccai Curtis has spent years learning the ropes of the modern musical world, letting his passion for performance push him forward. His strong musical vision and perceptive insight into the world has helped him carve a place for him in the modern scene. In Part One of our interview with Curtis, we looked at his musical upbringing, his time at the Artist Collective, his performances in Cuba, and more. Today we talk with Curtis about the Hartford music scene, his studies at the New England Conservatory, the move to New York, and more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: What is the scene like in Hartford in terms of live jazz and Latin Jazz?

ZACCAI CURTIS: Hartford is actually great. I was there recently with Kristen Anderson and Desmond Douglas. They were having the Monday night jazz series. It starts after the festival is over, so all the people from the festival come over to the club. We were playing at a restaurant called Black Eyed Sally's. It's just a great time.

There's a really strong jazz community, really strong. I was talking to Nat Reeves about this, and he was saying, “It's just so amazing--a lot of jazz fan clubs have just been dying off, and it seems like Hartford's club is getting stronger." It really is. It sounds like it's exaggerating, but it's not. It's really strange; Hartford is really picking up as far as jazz. There are less jazz venues, so that's something that might change with Hartford in the near future. Every time the Curtis Brothers go out to Hartford, we pretty much pack the house or get close to that. There's a lot of people that love it over there. I've been trying to tell more and more people that they should definitely try to book in Hartford, because it's a great place for jazz right now..

LJC: You went to New England Conservatory for college; what were you studying there?

ZC: I went for jazz performance. I did my undergrad and grad work at New England Conservatory. I did both programs, I was there for too long!

LJC: What was the scene like there?

ZC: It was cool. I was studying with Danilo Pérez. I was really happy to be studying with him, that's the reason why I went. When I heard his music, I knew that was the person that I wanted to study with. I never really had a jazz piano teacher before him. I had piano teachers; I don't want to disrespect any of my piano teachers. But I never had a teacher that taught me quite like he did. So I definitely pay my respects to Danilo Pérez. I'm glad I went there, it was school though. And then afterwards it was expensive . . .

LJC: Were you gigging around Boston at the time?

ZC: Yea, all around Boston since the beggining.

LJC: Your generation really got trained in school where older musicians got trained exclusively on the bandstand. What do you think are the benefits or downfalls of a jazz musician getting that training in school?

ZC: It's hard to teach somebody jazz. Jazz is a hands-on experience. A real jazz school would be everyday you come together and you play music with different people. Then people ridicule you, some people don't, and you learn other people's music. That would be a lot like playing on the scene today. But that's not what happens in jazz school.

In a way, you pay so much money to go do something that they've been trying to figure out how to teach. They put together a whole curriculum on how to teach and it doesn't really work. I don't know, in a way, that's why some of the older musicians are so incredible. Musicians like McCoy Tyner . . . they went to school, I don't mean to say that school is bad--school is great. I do think the idea of how jazz school is dealt with is not necessarily helpful to the majority of jazz musicians.

I'm not bashing the schools, but there is something about spending $40,000 on a school each year. Then getting out with over $100,000 in debt that you have to pay back over $500 a month. I've talked to so many kids that are in this position, including myself. A great gig is paying a hundred bucks. You're trying to make around $1,000 a month just so you can pay rent and pay your loans. It is a situation that needs to be talked about and needs to be dealt with. I do think that because of that, it's easy to track it back and say--is this good? Is this good for a musician? Is this good for jazz? Is this good for anything? You find out that it's really not. That's how they deal with other school, which is fine. Because when you get out of school--except for now because it's a different time--but usually, you get out of school and you have a job or something waiting for you in your field. In jazz, the thing that is waiting for you does not cover what you spent. The older musicians did not have that at all. Even if they went to school, they got out and they weren't spending that amount of money. They didn't have to make back that money, unless they got into debt with something else. You don't come out of school with more than $100,000 in debt--that's just insane. So, yea, I'm a little bit bitter about that.

The older musicians didn't go to school and yet they're so incredible. What happened there? What is the situation? They were spending so much more time on their instrument than we are. I'm here trying to do anything that I can to make money, but they had gigs. I talked to so many great musicians and they would tell me that they never even heard of door gigs; that was not even something that came up. What happened was--and this is something that they should teach you in school, but they don't--a lot of the clubs would deal drugs, so they always had their money. The club didn't have to worry about not making money, they always had their money. Then they payed the musicians a flat fee. The musicians would have five gigs a day sometimes, and it would be continuous throughout the night. You would be getting calls for gigs that start at three in the morning. They would do consistent gigs every day, so they were on their instruments consistently. That's why these musicians that never went to school survived. You talk to some of them, and they say, “Yea, I don't know how to read." But they're so amazing. They do it all the time, that's what they did. It's a different time now though.

I don't bash school. I always say to my students, “If you're going to go to college, just make sure that you're not taking out loans. If you are taking out loans, make sure that you're prepared for what is to come." I always have that conversation with all of my students that are about to go to college. I say, “If your parents have the money, go! You're going to have fun. If your parents don't have the money and they have to take our all four years of loans, do not go. Go to a community college that you're going to pay $10,000 a year for. Do not go to one of the larger colleges." That's just my advice, because it's something that is not taught. My parents, like so many parents their age, have the idea that there's no price tag on education. So they'll do whatever they can to get the “best education there is."

LJC: When did you make the move to New York and how was the transition for you?

ZC: I went to New York in 2005. I came here from Boston. I was in Boston for six years. I really wasn't happy at all there as far as music. Maybe it was just me, but I really wasn't happy. I'm pretty adventurous and I wanted to go. I knew New York was the next move. I talked to my brother and he was definitely down; he wanted to go. A lot of people don't want you to go, but that's because they're not going! It's amazing, once we got here, we loved it right away.

There's good and bad things about moving to New York. It seems like everything is more expensive. We're out here in Jersey now. We just moved to Jersey a few months ago. We're closer to Times Square than we've ever been. We're about twelve minutes from Times Square through the Lincoln Tunnel. We're just right outside the city. It's so much cheaper, there's so much more room in our apartment more than ever before.

The good thing is the connections you make, you really can't make them if you're not in New York. People don't even think about it. They want to know if they can rehearse with you. If you play with a musician, if you don't live in New York, they know that they can't rehearse with you, which means that you probably won't be able to play in their band. But if you live in New York, you tell them, “Hey, I just moved to New York, and I know all your music." They're going to know that they can rehearse with you and they're going to be way more interested in working with you. So that is important, to actually move to New York for a musician that wants to work with another musician that's in New York. That was very important for us to do.

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