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Trombonist Wayne Wallace racking up Grammy nods with distinctive record label

David Becker By

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AAJ: You did your education and then pretty quickly had a busy career playing in R&B bands. What made you want to put that aside for jazz?

WW: R&B bands are great—there's a synergy that happens with the dancing and the singing and a really great song. But the lack of improvisation really limits you. You just don't get as many chances to express yourself. I was always looking for something where you could still create that synergy with the audience but also have room to improvise. Even just to change the arrangements on stage. I found Latin jazz and salsa allowed me that. You can reshape lines on the spot, change arrangements—it's pretty cool.

AAJ: What was your entry into Latin jazz?

WW: I think when Pete Escovedo asked me to sub for his trombone player back in 1970. And as soon as that happened and other people saw I could play this music, I started getting asked to play with other bands.

AAJ: Was it tough to pick up the different kind of rhythms?

WW: Oh yeah. There's a whole cultural ethos effect; if you don't grow up hearing it, you have to do a lot of homework to wrap your arms around it.

AAJ: You've been to Cuba a number of times. Now that relations with Cuba are normalizing, are you concerned that will change the music scene there?

WW: I've been afraid of that since 2000. That's why I'm so glad I went in the 1990s. I was able to experience the real roots of the music before it got overly commercialized. Commercialism just tends to degrade the culture.

I was very blessed. In my life, I've always had good timing, whether planned or things just happen serendipitously. I was so lucky to be there when I was and meet Chucho Valdes and all these different people who were the real fathers of what popular Cuban music is.

AAJ: Every jazz musician seems to come up with own mix to make a career out of it. You teach, you do a lot of arranging—how easy is it to go back and forth between the different roles?

WW: It's not easy. I'm a teacher at Indiana University, so going back and forth between academia, arranging for people, recording and performing—it can be a handful sometimes. To where it tends to be overload on some level.

AAJ: You spent many years playing in the background. What was it like to step out front as a band leader?

WW: I had done a lot of writing and what I wanted to express with my writing—{{m: Art Blakey} is a perfect example —I could write differently for what I wanted to do, as opposed to working with all the other bands. And I could hear some of the other styles I had been working on—more jazzy, similar to the blues—and see where the intersections of those streams lie. It's taken a while, but I think Canto America is a full-blown manifestation of all those years, for myself as well as for Michael Spiro, of working as sidemen in other people's bands.

AAJ: So it's not just a matter of chops but developing that kind of communication?

WW: Communication, and I think there's this real talent to being able to conceptualize what you want to do with the music and the larger artistic statement you want to make. Everybody at a certain point learns that there's always going to be gigs, but the problem with being a sideman is that you're always waiting for the phone to ring and all of that. You have to go forward and make your own identity and your own brand, which can help make more gigs.

What I'm seeing now is that we all have to do that. Everybody I know does something on the educational level. Everybody needs to find a good mix of roles. It's kind of like a stock portfolio—you have a focus, but you're also diversified. As a musician, you have a main gig, but you create other opportunities. And all that goes double the more of an improviser you are.

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