How and when did jazz take root in Puerto Rico? For years, the question has been a source of fascination and frustration. Several books shed light on the subject including Basilio Serrano’s Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz – 1990-1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (2015), William Sostre Maldonado’s Boricua Jazz: La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño – Desde Rafael Hernández a Miguel Zenón (Spanish, 2nd Edition, 2020) and Quique Talavera’s Metamorfosis Musical De Puerto Rico Del 1959 Al Presente (Spanish Edition, 2020). Also, there are several thesis’s that provide clues, including Warren Pinckney Jr’s Puerto Rican Jazz and the Incorporation of Folk Music: An Analysis of New Musical Directions (1989).
According to Pinckney, “The renaissance of Puerto Rican music in the 1950s and 1960s created a cultural climate in Puerto Rico that enabled jazz to reach its peak.” Several factors drove the renaissance. The Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro’s rise to power and the ousting of the Mafia and the U.S. entertainment industry. Left with nowhere to go, from 1960 to the mid-80s tourists flocked to Puerto Rico and it became known as “The Entertainment Capital of the Caribbean.” The increase in tourism also led to improved economic conditions and the establishment of organizations, institutions, and venues that supported jazz. Among them, The San Juan Jazz Workshop, The Caribbean Workshop, and The Don Pedro Jazz Workshop.
THE SAN JUAN JAZZ WORKSHOP
In 1962, the Portuguese saxophonist Charlie “El Gato” Rodrigues and the American trumpeter Dale Wales founded The San Juan Jazz Workshop.
From the beginning, their “mission” was, “Allow musicians to write, perform, collaborate and present a wide variety of music to the public.”
Rodrigues was born in Massachusetts. He studied music at the Boston Conservatory and the U.S. Naval Academy. In 1949, as part of the U.S. Navy’s Special Service Division, Rodrigues visited Puerto Rico and fell in love with the island. Later, he returned, married, and established himself as a first-call leader and sideman.
Information on Dale Wales (1917-1985) is scant. However, he and his wife, dancer, and actress Liz Sheridan, who is perhaps best know for appearing on the Jerry Seinfeld Show, resided in Puerto Rico and performed regularly (together and apart).
The Workshop started with a membership of eight musicians, which quickly grew to seventy-three including Don Baaska, Monchito Muñoz, Joe Vallejo, Michael Tschudin, Nino Silva, Nestor Torres Sr., Freddy Silva, Carlton Smith, Bob nSmirton, Renee Barrios, Los Hispanos, Pablo Elvira, Charlie Medina, Tommy Corazon, Fernando Arbello, Al Sutton, Dane Jones, Ish Eguarte, Ray Santos, Pito Sepulveda, Luis Hernandez Cruz, Walfred De Los Reyes and the visual artists Lorenzo Homar and Rafael Tufiño, who deserve special mention for their artwork (posters), which documented the venues, performances, artists, and dates.
Workshop members performed at nightclubs, bars, military bases, universities, outdoor plazas, and venues such as El Botella, The Jazz Metro Bar, The Buccaneer Club, The Music Hall Lounge, Al’s Little Club, Francesca’s Pub & Garden Restaurant, El Batey, Danny’s Green Room, Café Matisse, Jack’s Club, and The Place, none of which exist today.
Also, the Workshop hosted a weekly radio show on WIPR on Mondays titled “Taller de Jazz,” and a quarterly “Live, in Concert” series at the Tapia Theater which was well-attended.
THE CARIBBEAN JAZZ WORKSHOP
Musician, educator Paul Neves is another unheralded artist who played a significant role in developing jazz in Puerto Rico. Neves moved from the mainland to Puerto Rico and founded The Caribbean Jazz Workshop. A space where musicians commiserated, rehearsed, participated in jam sessions, and disseminated modern jazz techniques.
THE DON PEDRO JAZZ WORKSHOP
The Don Pedro Jazz Workshop was the brainchild of jazz aficionado Ana Vélez. As the story goes, in 1960, she discovered jazz LPs at her local pharmacy and fell in love with the genre.
The Workshop was founded in 1969 and was located on Esteban Gonzalez Street in Rio Piedras. Its director Ramon Soto Vélez (son of Ana Vélez), viewed jazz and Don Pedro Albizu Campos as symbols of freedom and felt the name would attract Puerto Ricans to jazz.
It is worth noting that Vélez was not a newcomer to jazz. Before he returned to Puerto Rico, he worked at a jazz club in New York City and was a booking agent in Europe. Interestingly, the renowned African-American pianist Mary Lou Williams was the person who encouraged Velez to promote jazz in Puerto Rico.
Under Vélez’s leadership, the Workshop presented clinics conferences, published a bulletin, and housed a rehearsal space and record store. Also, it provided opportunities for emerging artists, such as saxophonist David Sanchez, who made his solo debut under the auspices of the Workshop in 1991.
Vélez was also hosted the series, ‘Pintando al Ritmo de Jazz” (Painting to the Rhythms of Jazz), which combined music and visual art. Also, he produced the radio program El Tiempo a Jazz and Escala Internacional on WIPR TV.
From 1977 to 1980, the Workshop presented Gato Barbieri, Tito Puente, George Benson, Sonny Fortune, Hilton Ruiz, Eddie Gomez, Jackie McLean, Rogelio “Ram” Ramirez, the Heath Brothers, Kenny Barron, Ray Mantilla, John Hicks, Major Holley, George Coleman, Sonny Stitt, Major Holley, Betty Carter, and Clifford Jordan among others.
The Workshop offered performances until early 2000. Its closing marked the end of a significant era in the development of jazz in Puerto Rico.
THE PUERTO RICO HEINEKEN JAZZFEST
It’s impossible to talk about jazz in Puerto Rico without mentioning The Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest. From 1991 to 2017, it presented some of the finest local and international jazz artists. Also, it put Puerto Rico on the map as a jazz destination.
Over the years the JazzFest paid homage to Michel Camilo (1992), Mongo Santamaria (1993), Tito Puente (1995), Ray Barretto (1997), Charlie Palmieri (1998), Poncho Sanchez (2006), Chucho Valdes (2001), Carlos “Patato” Valdes (2002), Gal Costa (2005), Jerry and Andy Gonzalez (2008), Giovanni Hidalgo (2009), Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie (2011), William Cepeda (2013), Ray Santos (2016) and Danilo Perez (2017) among others.
Charlie Sepulveda’s C-Note in Luquillo and Carli’s Fine Bistro and Restaurant in Old San Juan feature jazz. Also, the municipalities host a variety of jazz festivals and trumpeter, composer, producer Humberto Ramirez hosts the yearly, star-studded Puerto Rico Jazz Jam. As I write this, San Juan’s Coca-Cola Music Hall is hosting a JazzFest featuring David Sanchez, Spyro Gyra, Michel Camilo, Paquito D’Rivera, Chucho Valdes, and Aimee Nuvioloa (5/27 to 5/29 2022) and drummer, Henry Cole and Villa Locura will appear at the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferre on May 13th.
Jazz-wise and music-wise, things in Puerto Rico are looking up!
- Maldonado, William Sostre – Boricua Jazz: Desde Rafael Hernández and Miguel Zenón – La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño (Independent, 2019).
- Pinckney, Warren– Thesis: Puerto Rico Jazz and the Incorporation of Folk Music: An Analysis of New Music Direction (2015).
- Ramírez, Humberto – The History of the San Juan Jazz Workshop (www.indice.com).
- Rodrigues, Charlie – El Gato Liner Notes (Dorado Records).
- Talavera, Quique – Metamorfosis Musical de Puerto Del 1959 al Presente (TM Recording, 2020).
- Vélez, Ana – En Torno al Jazz (1978)
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is a work-in-progress. New information will be added as it becomes available.