After having alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and flutist/vocalist Elena Pinderhughes inaugurate our Mentoring Series in April, we’re continuing the series with another woodwind duo in July and August: alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, a MacArthur Award-winning artist who first débuted on our stage back in 2001, will appear alongside tenor saxophonist Mario Castro, a fellow Puerto Rican and Berklee alumnus. Castro released his début album, Primavera, on Greg Osby’s Inner Circle Music in 2012, which Dave Liebman praised as “a real JAZZ recording, [with] no tricks, no games, pure beauty, energy and honesty. For a premier performance it doesn’t get much better.”
Miguel and Mario will appear at the Gallery on two Thursdays in July (the 3rd and the 17th) as well as on two additional Thursdays in August (the 7th and the 14th). We spoke with both Miguel and Mario about their thoughts on these upcoming performances, and we’ll be sharing portions of these interviews over the coming weeks. Here’s part one of our conversation with Miguel:
The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us about how you first met Mario?
Miguel Zenón: I met Mario maybe about 7 or 8 years ago. I had been organizing for the last decade or so some jam sessions in Puerto Rico when I go over during the Christmas holidays. I remember he came to one of the first ones when he was still in high school—still a young guy, but obviously very talented and really into the music.
He was very dedicated and he was always asking questions. He spent a little bit of time studying with David Sánchez, too. He was serious about what he was trying to do, so when we spoke I tried to tell him what I could and he always seemed to be asking the right questions. He always seemed to be trying to get better.
We stayed in touch and he eventually moved to Boston, so we continued to stay in touch when he went to school.
TJG: How did you keep in touch?
MZ: The scholarship he received to go to Berklee was the same that I got when I went there; it’s a scholarship from a jazz festival in Puerto Rico. I’m usually on top of who’s there from Puerto Rico because of this scholarship that they’ve been putting together for the last almost twenty years now. There’s been an influx of Puerto Rican musicians coming into Berklee and also into New York. I’ve been in New York since 1998 or so, and I don’t remember there being such a big community of Puerto Rican jazz musicians at the time. There’s a really big community here now, but for a time it was just me and a couple of other guys, including the older musicians like David [Sánchez] and John Benitez.
I think this program is a really good thing, and it’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to get Mario involved and some of the other guys who are going to be playing, like Ricky [Rodriguez] and Henry [Cole]. I wanted to use it as a platform for this younger generation of Puerto Rican musicians—get them out there and have people hear them. A lot of times it’s all about getting people to hear you because you can spend a lot of time working on your craft, practicing, and writing music, but it’s those moments being on the bandstand that will make you or break you [laughs]. They’ll make you better, really expose the stuff that you need to work on, and give people an opportunity to hear all the stuff you’ve been working on at home.
TJG: Could you say a bit more about the expatriate Puerto Rican jazz community in New York?
MZ: I’ll have to speak from personal experience: I moved from Puerto Rico to go to Boston in 1996, so that’s almost 20 years ago. When I moved from Puerto Rico, there were some musicians there interested in jazz, but it was an almost nonexistent jazz scene there and there were no institutions that taught jazz formally at the time—that was one of the main reasons that I moved.
When I got over here and started getting into jazz, it became very obvious to me that a lot of the music that I heard growing up—music that was more folkloric and part of the culture—was really something that I had to offer in my music and that maybe other people didn’t have. They had other things, so that’s something that I had.
I got really serious about studying Puerto Rican music and Puerto Rico in general: history, how things have happened there. In some ways I have been closer to Puerto Rico now than when I was living there in terms of what’s happening on the island and definitely the music. When I was there I heard a lot of music, but I never listened to music from a musician’s point of view. I never thought about what was happening musically; I just enjoyed the music.
So being over here and seeing it from a different perspective has made me appreciate it a lot more. I think with guys like Mario it’s been a lot of the same thing: they’re serious about music and about jazz music, and I’m sure that in maybe 10 years the influx of Puerto Ricans to schools over here and in general will be even bigger. It creates a chain kind of thing: a couple guys come over here, a couple guys follow, and soon it’s a community.
TJG: When you were coming up, were there many older players working with and mentoring younger players? Has it changed much?
MZ: I feel like it’s changed a little bit only because there aren’t so many older players left. Guys start passing away, so I think jazz is going into a period where there aren’t so many older players. At the same time, when I came up into Boston and New York I didn’t have older players, like 70s or 60s, around, but there were people who were older than me who took me under their wing.
Danilo Pérez in Boston was the guy who became that figure for me. He opened up his house and we got together every week, and he helped me in many ways—not just musically, but personally. And when I moved to New York, David Sánchez was the guy. Same thing: I called him up, I didn’t really know him—I had met him like one time—but he’d invite me over and I’d go to his place all his time. I knew all his music and he ended up making me part of his band—even though he didn’t need another horn—but he saw it as giving a younger guy an opportunity, and that’s how I see this.
It should always be a priority to see yourself in other people and see what you went through so that for younger people like Mario, if you get a chance to give them an opportunity, then you should. It’s like giving opportunities to yourself.
Miguel Zenón & Mario Castro perform at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, July 3rd, 2014. The band features Zenón on alto saxophone, Castro on tenor saxophone, Ricky Rodriguez on bass, and Henry Cole on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $15 general admission, $10 for Members, and free for SummerPass Holders. Purchase tickets here.