When Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto moved to New York full time in 1999, he made an immediate splash. Seemingly overnight, Prieto began playing the likes of Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, and Brian Lynch, showcasing his ability to execute the knotty counterpoint of a full Cuban percussion section with a single drum kit. Since then, Prieto has released seven acclaimed albums as a leader, taught at NYU and the University of Miami, and received a MacArthur fellowship. Prieto has also developed a close relationship with The Jazz Gallery, performing on the “Jazz Cubano” series, writing commissioned works, and most recently, celebrating the release of his Grammy-winning big band album.
This evening, June 12, Prieto will guest on The Jazz Gallery’s online “Words and Music” series. Before joining the conversation, check out the following interview with Prieto where he remembers his earliest days in New York and his musical growth at the Gallery.
The Jazz Gallery: When you first moved to New York full-time, how did you go about meeting other people to play with? You started playing with Henry Threadgill and Brian Lynch seemingly overnight.
Dafnis Prieto: I got to New York in 1999. I already knew a few musicians there, like Brian and Henry and Steve Coleman. I had met them all over the previous five years or so on different occasions. I met Brian at Stanford University during a previous trip to the states for a residency. I met Steve when he came to Cuba in 1996. And I met Henry the previous time I had come through New York on a tour—Henry came to see the band. It was a band that I was part of in Cuba called Columna B and the members were Yosvany Terry, Roberto Carcassés on piano, and Descemer Bueno on bass. So in any case, when I arrived, because I already knew these musicians, I just called them up. Henry had expressed interest in working with me previously, as well as Steve, so I was looking forward to that.
I started playing around with other musicians, too. I think something that was really helpful was that I liked going from one genre to another, even in a matter of hours. Like I could have a more avant-garde gig, or a more straight ahead-jazz gig, and then four hours later had a gig that was completely Latin. I learned how to swim in different waters, and that helped balance my exposure, as well just make a living.
At the same time, in the early 2000s, there were a lot of other musicians coming to New York for the first time. I mean, there are always musicians coming to New York, but at that time, but I feel there was a particularly big wave at that time. One of those musicians was Yosvany Terry, who happened to be a good friend of mine. We had played together in Cuba a lot, and we kept doing that in New York. Yosvany started doing the “Jazz Cubano” series at The Jazz Gallery in 2000 and I played with him there. That was how I first got introduced to The Jazz Gallery and Dale Fitzgerald and Rio.
After that, I started presenting my own projects at the Gallery, too. One of the projects had Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophone, and Henry Threadgill on alto.
TJG: I want to hear that recording!
DP: Yeah! That was a really fun performance. And the relationship with The Jazz Gallery just grew from there. I basically debuted every project I came up with there. It really felt like a laboratory for the musicians, allowing us to experiment and bring things to life for people to experience in the audience. We were really blessed to have a place like The Jazz Gallery that was so open to different kinds of music. I think a lot about the quality with which the Gallery treated musicians. It really felt like a pleasant community, and I think that’s reflected in the quality of the music presented.
TJG: So the Gallery was clearly an important spot for you from the beginning, but you also mentioned that you would play a huge range of gigs. Were there other venues that you played a lot, or met future collaborators?
DP: One of the other big places for me was the old Zinc Bar on Houston Street. I used to play there almost every week, and sometimes two or three times a week! The music presented there was at a very high level. I met so many musicians who would come and hang out because it was one of the places that would stay open until 2 or 3 A.M. People would finish their gigs at 11 or 12 and then come over to hang at Zinc Bar.
TJG: Smalls wasn’t too far from there and stayed open late. Did you hang there as well?
DP: I never did that much at Smalls. I probably played there a couple of times. I mean, I played lots of different places. But in terms of places I would go to almost every week, either to play or check other people out, it was Zinc Bar and The Jazz Gallery.
TJG: I’d like to move on to your work as a composer. Had you written a lot of music before coming to New York?
DP: I had written some tunes in Cuba, and I played a few of them with Columna B. But I wasn’t fully into writing music. I was more into playing drums. When I got to New York, the city really invited me, or challenged me, or inspired me because of the amount of different music happening. I started feeling a sense that I needed to create my own music. I needed to express myself not just in my own drumming, but in composition. I don’t think I would have developed the music that I make now without the New York experience. It helped me believe that I could write music of my own, have great musicians play it, and have it be personal and different.
I was developing that voice through the drums, but I wanted to go farther than that. When I visualize what I wanted to do, I see it as creating my own water to swim in. It became a necessity for me, and it grew more important. New York was the perfect scenario for this growth because I had met all of these great musicians who were willing to play my music.