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Guada Expo Conference
Guadalajara, Mexico
August 1-11, 2013
Jazz freaks exist everywhere, Mexico included. Although Guadalajara has no official jazz club, it does have TONICA, a not-for-profit organization and foundation that helps the local youth of and around Guadalajara, and promotes jazz music—or, more generally speaking, improvised music. TONICA, which is an intelligent reference to the tonic, the most important note in a musical piece, seems on its way to powerful social and artistic change in the state of Jalisco.
TONICA was started in 2006 by trumpeter Gilberto Cervantes and singer Sara Valenzuela, both Mexicans who used to be part of the funk band La Dosis (the Dose). This year, from August 1-11, the foundation organized its first major encuentro (congress). It consisted of a series of master classes, workshops, discussions of creative or improvised music, roundtables and concerts.

Major American jazz musicians performed, among them Kurt Elling, Nicholas Payton, Kenny Garrett and Joey DeFrancesco, but so did Mexican bands like Mole (pronounced MOH-lay) and Troker, whose lead trumpeter is Cervantes (who finished his Berklee studies in 2004). Another trumpeter, Brian Lynch, is the director of the TONICA Ensemble, which features students from the foundation, including saxophonist Gerry Lopez, guitarist Nacho Alcantara and chromatic harmonicist Angelberto.

The congress (or summit) incorporated a local jazz and blues festival, seminars, discussions and concerts (some of which were part of the off festival, Festival Alterno) in various venues—Guada Expo (where the International Guadalajara book fair also takes place), Cafe Rojo, the Degollado theater, Candela, Matera Bar, the museum MURA, the Journalism Museum (The House of the Dogs)—with artists like Nicholas Payton, Ben Allison and Jay Rodriguez.

This year's festival was thus about playing music, listening to music, teaching music (Arturo O'Farrill taught classes to younger students), learning music and learning about music, talking about jazz and jazz journalism, writing about jazz, broadcasting jazz and watching jazz movies, since TONICA also organized a music film series. Yes, the jazz scene in Mexico is still new and still needs to organize itself, but TONICA certainly brings hope.

"This time it's really big," said Mexican pianist Mark Aanderud, who was invited to teach and perform at the conference. "They have a lot of events, all those talks.... it changed a lot in the sense that [there are] so many concerts, so many people coming—really a lot of people coming. And I think the new thing is that they have all the different sides of jazz in Mexico here. Not just the teachers, but also the media... people talking about it... which is great."

Nathalie Braux, a French clarinetist/saxophonist based in Guadalajara who performed at the encuentra—and took the workshop TONICA organized with saxophonist Bob Sheppard in 2010—said she has "always been appreciating what either Sara Valenzuela or Gilberto Cervantes have been doing in terms of the promotion of jazz in Guadalajara, which is a city where jazz is not part of the culture." Braux explained that, in Guadalajara, jazz is "just something that is developing, but it's not yet something totally developed or totally 'normal.' Sara has worked as director of the radio program called Solo Jazz for almost 21 years now, ans Gil also has been developing something like a jazz big band."

Braux also described the way jazz can be perceived in Mexico: "Curiously, though in other places they might think that jazz was popular music and linked to brothels, now it is more elegant. It is considered like an intellectual music. Also blues. Just because it is unusual, different and supposedly elevated." But Braux also said she was confident that "TONICA is going to grow."

Diego Escobar, who works for the Jalisco Ministry of Culture and who used to play the drums with Cervantes, explained why the Ministry of Culture supports TONICA: "TONICA is a fabulously ambitious project that does not restrict itself to concerts; it has a very serious educational foundation. TONICA has always maintained an education line. And on the other side, the professional side (with the industry perspective), that the festival is engaging with, is very much something the Ministry of Culture appreciates because it contributes to the city's growing professional musicians' community. And that's very important for us."

Referring to the congress, Escobar added: "This is the most ambitious program yet by TONICA. I would hope that this becomes something that the city expects. And I would like to see that in ten years TONICA will have developed a permanent educational project because that is something the city still lacks."

For Aanderud, in Mexico "there is no general information... It's just like some musicians here, some there. Musicians are just basically doing whatever they can to play and survive (like anywhere else). Still, not many people outside of the musicians' scene happen to organize stuff. " Aanderud is part of the band Mole, which is also the name of a typical Mexican sauce mixing various spices with chocolate.

TONICA is thus an attempt to provide more structure for the improvised music scene in Mexico. Angelberto, the foundation's only chromatic harmonicist, has been attending classes within TONICA for several years. Starting out playing the blues, he was influenced by Belgian harmonicist Toots Thielemans.

"TONICA helped me tremendously in becoming a musician," Angelberto said. "Without TONICA, I would never have been able to meet Antonio Sanchez, Chris Cheek, Ari Hoenig, Donny McCaslin, Ben Street...people who are very important for the contemporary jazz scene. TONICA is very important for the local scene to grow."

Escobar's understanding of the relationship between culture and social development sheds an even more meaningful light on the TONICA project and the context within which it is developing. "In Latin America, people are starting to expect a lot from culture in general- -be that music, arts or community engagement through theatre," he said. "So local governments are starting to not only expect but, I would hope, put their money where their mouth is, and really fund new activities. I'm not trying to say that this is a model in itself, but this is a phenomenon that's parallel to the fact that still in Mexico and Latin America, things are largely funded by the state; but the way the state views culture and arts is starting to change. Columbia, Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico now have a widely recognized, well-known discourse about culture—and not just its artistic merit, but its social potential."

Escobar emphasized the human aspect of a not-for-profit organization like TONICA, as well as the social power the arts have. For him, the arts have the ability "to engage in communities and create contributes to better outcomes—to help the economy to help people have sustained visions for their own lives that go a little bit further than their immediate horizons. If you imagine the horizon of a kid in a marginal, sort of a favela, or in a poor neighborhood in Guadalajara, it's very easy to imagine they don't expect great outcomes there. Maybe they don't have reasons to; I would say that programs that are well-designed, have very clear intentions and really take this side of culture seriously matter—because taking a concert to a poor neighborhood doesn't change their lives at all. It provides a good show, and I'm sure it provides a lot of enjoyment, but you can't assume that's doing the job. You have to do a lot more. You have to design programs. You have to try to put the locks and the gears where they're supposed to be so that change happens."

TONICA is reminiscent of Danilo Pérez's project in Panama. The pianist's foundation has allowed several local Panamanian musicians, such as trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and flutist Melvin Lam Zanetti, to receive scholarships to study in the United States. JazzUv, in Xalapa, is another festival inviting several jazz musicians to perform in Veracruz every November.

Hopefully, such projects continue to thrive in Latin America. Escobar added that "governments are starting to notice that things can be done, but there's still a lot to be experienced and done and researched on how we should do it. So the Ministry of culture right now is doing a lot of work in poor communities in Guadalajara, and throughout the state, to locate the arts and culture into community projects that help develop kids' lives through music, through literature and books and potentially other artistic [activities]."

This year, TONICA's concerts only cost a couple of dollars each, an amazing opportunity for the audience and the TONICA students to enjoy high quality music. Bettye LaVette, for instance, gave an astounding blues performance, and Kurt Elling was breathtaking. If TONICA is able to invite such luminaries, it is certainly on the right track and improvised music will end up thriving in Mexico—especially since TONICA is set on teaching the business side of being a professional musician.

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