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Puerto Rico Jazz: The Workshops

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According to Warren Pinckney, “the ‘renaissance’ of Puerto Rican art music in the late 1950s and 1960s created a cultural climate in Puerto Rico that enabled jazz to reach its peak.” Other factors include increasing economic prosperity, the Cuban revolution, the unavailability of Cuban music, and the establishment of businesses and organizations that promoted jazz and jazz courses in academic institutions.

Enter the Portuguese saxophonist Charlie “El Gato” Rodrigues, who studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music and who visited the island while he was in the Naval Music Academy. Sometime later, he returned to the island, married a Puerto Rican woman, and remained on the island and performed with many of the island’s leading bands. 

Also, the trombonist and french horn player, William D. Wales (also known as William T. “Dale” Wales and Dale Wales), who married the actress and performer Liz Sheridan, mostly known for her portrayal of Jerry Seinfeld’s mother on the TV series, Seinfeld

How Rodrigues and Wales met is not clear. Nevertheless, they were responsible for organizing events that exposed the Puerto Rican public to American Jazz. Also, they co-founded The San Juan Jazz Workshop (also known as The Puerto Rico Workshop), a collective whose objectives were to: “Stimulate musicians and increase productivity by offering opportunities to compose and perform and present a wide variety of music to a genuinely interested audience.”

Workshop members performed in local bistros, plazas, and venues such as The Cellar and the Penthouse. Also, at the hotel’s Dorado, El San Juan, La Playa, the American and El Geronimo and military bases and universities. According to Billboard magazine (October 12, 1962), the Workshop’s monthly performances were some of the most well-attended jazz events in Puerto Rico. Also, the duo and fellow musicians appeared on the weekly TV series Taller de Jazz, which aired on WIPR TV6 on Monday evenings from 8 to 9 PM.

Members of The San Juan Jazz Workshop who gained notoriety include the percussionists Monchito Muñoz, Ray Romero and Walfredo de los Reyes, the pianists Joe Vallejo, Nestor Torres (father of the flutist), Berto Torres, Raymond Concepcion (also known as Ray Coen) and Rene Barrios, El Cuarteto Los Hispanos, trombonist Pito Sepúlveda, arranger Ray Santos and the trumpeter Juancito Torres. Also, visual artists Lorenzo Homar and Rafael Tufiño and a variety of photographers and dancers.

The inclusion of graphic artists and photographers is worth noting—mainly because their artistry (posters) was instrumental in documenting the era, the artists, the groups—also, the names and locations of performance spaces that no longer exist. 

Also, newspaper clippings (ads) which include the names of nightclubs such as The Cellar and The Quiet Village in Old San Juan, which no longer exist and document lineups such as The Charlie Rodrigues Quartet, Renee Barrios, The Workshop Octet, Liz Sheridan, Soni Venturum -Woodwind Quintet, the Dale Wales Quintet, Gwen Cleveland to name a few.  

Another important figure in the advancement of jazz in Puerto Rico is the pianist, Paul Neves who moved to San Juan from the mainland and founded the Caribbean Jazz Workshop, a place where musicians gathered, rehearsed, and held jam sessions. Velez is credited with teaching Puerto Rican artists how to disseminate modern jazz techniques.

Another significant organization that ignited Puerto Rico’s Jazz scene was the Don Pedro Jazz Workshop (El Taller de Jazz Don Pedro). The Workshop was the brainchild of Ana Velez, the author of several books including En Torno al Jazz Vol.1 and 2 (Don Pedro, Inc.) Her fascination with jazz began when she stumbled on Jazz (vinyl) albums at her local pharmacy. 

The Workshop was located in a basement on Esteban Gonzalez Street in Santa Rita, Rio Piedras, in close proximity to the (now defunct) Tertulia Bookstore, affectionately known as The Burger King of Poets. The name, Don Pedro, salutes the lawyer, activist, and patriot, Don Pedro Albizu Campos.

The Workshop was a family affair. The Director was Velez’s son, Ramon Soto Velez and the presenter (MC) was her daughter, Ivonne Soto. 

The Workshop presented performances, conferences, published a bulletin, and it housed a record store, and rehearsal space for musicians, students, and jazz lovers. Also, it gave emerging artists, such as the acclaimed Puerto Rican saxophonist, David Sanchez a platform (he debuted there in 1991).  

For over 20 years, Ramon Velez also promoted the series, Pintando al Ritma de Jazz (Painting to the Rhythms of Jazz), which combined music and visual art at various locales around the island and featured Hilton Ruiz, David Sanchez, Manengue Hidalgo (father of Giovanni Hidalgo) and the artwork of visual artists Rafael Tufino, Augusto Marin y Marin, and Myrna Baez among others. Also, the radio programs Tiempo de Jazz (1977), The Syncopated Note, and Escala Internacional, which aired on channels WIPR TV (channels 6 and 3). 

Between 1977 and 1980 the Workshop presented Gato Barbieri, Tito Puente, George Benson, Sonny Fortune, Betty Carter, Hilton Ruiz, Jackie Mc Lean, Rogelio “Ram” Ramirez, Eddie Gomez, Dexter Gordon, the Heath Brothers, Kenny Barron, Ray Mantilla, John Hicks, George Coleman, Sonny Stitt, Major Holley, Betty Carter, John Hicks, and Clifford Jordan among others. 

The Workshop closed its doors in 2000 however its legacy and impact on Puerto Rico’s jazz scene are formidable. 

The Workshop’s played a significant role in introducing jazz to Puerto Rico. Also, they whet the Puerto Rican public’s appetite for jazz and were the precursors to the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival and the Puerto Rico Jazz Jam among others. 

SOURCES

  1. Maldonado, William Sostre – Boricua Jazz: Desde Rafael Hernandez a Miguel Zenon – La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño (Independent, 2019)
  2. Pinckney, Warren – Puerto Rico Jazz and the Incorporation of Folk Music: An Analysis of New Music Direction.
  3. Ramirez, Humberto – The History of the San Juan Jazz Workshop (www.indicepr.com)
  4. Rodrigues, Charlie – El Gato Liner Notes (Dorado Records
  5. Talavera, Quique – Metamorfosis Musical De Puerto Rico Del 1959 al Presente (TM Recording, 2020)
  6. Wikipedia – Charlie Rodrigues Biography (2020)

ARTWORK: Rafael Tufiño, Lorenzo Homar.

© 2020 Tomas Pena
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.

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