Wynton Marsalis' Notes From The Road - São Paulo


News | Apr, 6th 2015

After driving all night, we arrive in São Paulo at about 9am on Saturday morning. People who have slept on an overnight car trip look hung-over. So we crept into the hotel looking like we had been through something, while everyone we encountered was brimming with energy in their best morning sunshine.   As Chris checks us in, I try to remember that we’ve actually done nothing to be ashamed of.

Although daytime slumber has always been next to impossible for me, tonight is the 2nd of 4 gigs across 3 nights, so I’m determined to get some sleep this afternoon. After a series of futile attempts, I decide to call my longtime friend Gustavo ‘Guga’ Stroeter.  As a philosopher, historian, vibraphonist, bandleader, club and studio owner, musicologist, optimist and unflinching purveyor of music of all styles for the mind, body and soul, he is always ready to deal with rhythm and tune.

About 25 years ago, we experienced our first truly great international jam session at Guga’s house. He had arranged his band on one side of the living room and our septet was set up across from them. We both traded off and also played together on a range of styles from Ellington to Bossa Nova, to Samba and New Orleans music.  The spacious house was packed with young men and women cooking, dancing, listening and having an epically great time. That first hang at Guga’s was electric, and over the years we had several more that featured a colorful integration of musicians, partygoers and revelry.  

Back then, Guga’s band was called “The Heartbreakers”, and when they were hitting we would go to their club, play with them and party all night long.  Now, here we are (some 10 years later) and within minutes of seeing each other, we’re at his new crib that is across from an outdoor basketball court. Everything in this neighborhood is colorful. After stepping on the asphalt for good luck, we head down the street surveying his new club and studio (which was once an auto repair, mechanic and a body shop) checking out the room where a coalition of 13 big bands in the city called 'The Elephants Movement’ meet and rehearse, seeing where the Santeria masters convene and talking about the National Museum of Brazilian music (that he’s spent a lifetime conceiving). Instead of talking about “Where the party at!” our conversation now centers on how to contribute to the world of music and the world in general.

Guga tells me about a movement of great young suburban musicians that come out of the Evangelical church. He has observed that they are timely and respectful and fantastic readers and players, but that they won’t play Afro-based traditions because the church tells them it’s evil. This leads into a discussion on the similarities between religion in Brazil and Cuba. Guga says that Afro-Brazilians are mainly Bantu, and they and the Cubans have the same Yoruban roots.   Both were also under the dominion of the Catholics (who were far more lenient than Protestants) therefore the Orishas between Brazil and Cuba, are similar in their identities and in their syncretization with Catholic saints. He tells me of a project he worked on that brought both traditions together and we listened to some of his Orishas music. Hanging with him is always informative and of spiritual substance. While surveying some samba artifacts in his house, I realize it’s time for the soundcheck and gig.

[Wynton and Marcus before the gig]

The afternoon traffic dictates that there will be no returning to the hotel after soundcheck. We have played the Sala São Paulo before and the sonorous acoustics demand that we play with control. The home of the São Paulo State Symphonic Orchestra, it is a beautiful space that was converted from a room in the old Julio Prestes train station. The shape and grandeur of this room resembles The Rudolfinum in Prague or Symphony Hall in Boston, except here, it’s easy to get into the audience from the stage. The great Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger has come tonight with Marcelo Lopes, a former trumpeter with the São Paulo Symphony, who is now their Executive Director. I’m always excited when great longtime musical colleagues come out to hear us play (and trumpet players in particular).  For years I have admired Hakån’s playing and what he continues to do for our instrument and for music, so his presence in the hall was especially meaningful. All across Brazil, and particularly in Sao Paolo, there is a tradition of excellent trumpet playing. Through his years of dedicated and fantastic playing, teaching and advocacy, my dear friend Clovis Antonio Beltrami has been a catalyst for continuing this revolution in superior trumpet playing. Because of all this, our whole trumpet section is on edge and on point tonight.

Before we go on stage, I ask Carlos to start “Mood Indigo” as soon as he gets situated. Once that swing has commenced, I go down and begin to play in the house.  I see a little boy of about 10 and tease him by playing to him. He hits me with a selfie. We play to a full house and a healthy response. Over the next two days we will play about 40 pieces ranging from King Oliver to Neal Hefti, from Moacir Santos to Coltrane, from Ted Nash to Chris Crenshaw and to the Blues.  As I go down into the audience one more time at the end of the show, the cats start singing a blues about me busting my behind (because I am always dizzy and uncomfortable walking around on stage). We play two encores and everyone is very generous and responsive. We can’t tell if we’re overplaying the hall, so we’re extra grateful for the support. Before we leave, Marcelo says, “You all are always welcome to come back.” I’m relieved because we will be back tomorrow night.

The next morning it’s Sunday and I’m up nice and (too) early. We are playing a morning concert in Ibirapuera Park and it looks like the impending rain will surely cancel it. We show up at 10 for sound check, but the stage isn’t ready until 10:35.  This is so close to the 11:00 gig time that we have to announce to the already gathering audience that this not the performance but actually the soundcheck. We start laughing and joking saying things to the crowd like, “Don’t listen to this. You aren’t really hearing us mess up Vince’s arrangement. Thank you for coming out, it’s been a pleasure playing for you.” Soon we are into it for real, playing on the masterful architectural soundstage of Oscar Niemeyer in São Paulo’s iconic park.

[The crowd arrives early for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis’ Sound Check]

Playing outdoor picnics, parades, and festivals is second nature to us because so many of us grew up playing them. With these kinds of gigs it’s all about your soundman, and the magnificent Sugar Rob shines. Twenty-five years of working together, he loves the sound of Jazz music and knows the nuances of each orchestra member. With him at the board, I’m confident the music will translate well to the large audience in the park. Rain appears more imminent, but the great Zuza Homem de Mello, the writer, scholar, music producer, student of jazz bass, participant in the New York jazz scene of the late 50’s, Juilliard and Tanglewood attendee who curates this series, tells me, “People are used to this weather. They will come and even if they must bring umbrellas and plastic, they will be very attentive.”

[Wynton with Zuza Homem de Mello]

As soon as we hit our second song, I see exactly how well he knows his folks. The park is packed with people and the sun has pushed the rain right out of the sky. What an audience! They make us want to keep right on playing. Our point guard, Ali Jackson, plays with such spirit, fire and dedication; you would have no idea that he’s under the weather. When Ari Colares, our brother and esteemed colleague for 20 years, joins us with his pandeiro on Victor’s arrangement of Hermeto Pascoal’s “O Ovo” the bandstand starts melting under the intensity of rhythm and tremendous ovation.

On outdoor gigs, you normally play mid to up-tempo celebratory groove pieces with a repeated bass line and some sort of looped percussion groove. This audience wanted to swing!! Every time we went into 4/4 swing they got happy. And when we played slow, they were so quiet it was almost eerie. For an encore we played a rousing rendition of Eddie Durham’s masterful arrangement of  “The Blue Room”, and when people wanted more there wasn’t but one thing to do, some super slow blues featuring Sherman. When he stood up and walked to the microphone, we knew it wasn’t going to go but one kind of way: HIS. He swooped, swayed and swang people into good health, playing at what’s known as a Grown Folks’ Tempo. Both the audience and band left satisfied. What was supposed to be a 75-minute gig ended up lasting two hours.

Later that night, we played a second concert in the Sala. It was extremely festive and featured a finale of us walking out into the hall playing Joe Avery’s “Second Line” with our extended Brazilian family. I’m going to turn it over to Zuza Homem, who will speak more eloquently to our general happenings in Brazil:

“The Brasil Jazz Fest had an unforgettable final night on Sunday, March 29 at Sala São Paulo, the Concert hall of the city with the performance of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. That was the 4thconcert they played in 3 days, the first in Rio at the new Cidade das Artes Hall on Friday. Newspaper O Globo considered it “The Wynton Marsalis jazz class”. They started playing Count Basie’s “Sleepwalkers Serenade” and ran out the performance through Jazz landmarks such as Dizzy’s “Things to Come.”

Mr. Marsalis invited Brazilian musicians to play with the band, such as Victor Santos (trombone) and Mario Adnet (guitar), both from Ouro Negro Orchestra, which performs the compositions of Moacir Santos. After playing “Bebê” from Hermeto Pascoal they closed their successful night in Rio playing “Coisa numero 8” (thing number 8) another Moacir Santos composition in what O Globo called a “2 hours of alive jazz educational and no arrogance, without any imperfection”.

Next day they flew to São Paulo for 2 concerts indoors and one free at the Ibirapuera Park on Sunday with thousands of “paulistas” (born in São Paulo) jazz fans and their families, wives, children as well as many bikers. They simply loved the so casual attitude properly for an air concert.

The final night, on Sunday was a great music party with delirious people for every arrangement or solo from Mr. Marsalis and his musicians. They started from New Orleans old days, and then jumped on 2 Monk tunes “Epistrophy” and Marsalis’s arrangement for the marvelous sax section on “Ugly Beauty.” On Dizzy’s “Fiesta Mojo” Wynton invited another Brazilian musician, Proveta, to play clarinet with the band. His name is Nailor Azevedo, and got the nickname ‘Proveta’ because he started so young and yet so well that musicians called him ‘Bebê de proveta’ (test tube’s child). A brilliant alto sax player as well, Proveta is the arranger and leader of the Mantiqueira Orchestra, a very successful big band in São Paulo. The audience loved this generous attitude that persist in Wynton Marsalis concerts.

The next tune of the concert had 2 more São Paulo’s musicians invited by Mr. Marsalis: the pandeiro (tambourine) player Ari Colares and Vinicius Barros who plays percussion, specially northern triangle and samba’s cuica. They played Latin rhythms and Brazilian sambas as well and New Orleans Carnival rhythm which shows how close it is to the “maracatú” a popular beat from Pernambuco state in northern Brasil.

People at São Paulo’s concert were in ecstasy like in a happy party when musicians played in the rows of theatre. Another master class of the most splendid jazz that closed the Brasil Jazz Fest in pinnacle, celebrating 30th year of jazz in Brasil by the same group of producers and curators since 1985.
Actually this Brazilian deal of the tour was set almost by accident. For more than a year Dueto Producers (from the Festival) were trying to close the deal with the wrong person, and in 2012, my wife Ercilia and I were at the Metropolitan Museum on a Matisse exhibition when she said: Look, Wynton Marsalis is there! I went to him and asked him how was the business for the Brazilian tour going on, but surprisingly Mr. Marsalis did not know anything about it. After that, the conversations took the right direction and the tour was booked.

The tour will be ending in Recife at the capital of Pernambuco State in Northern Brasil, the land of the frevo rhythm that has now the Spok Frevo Orquestra as the very best big band on that superb form of acrobatic dance and perfect music especially for brass bands. Together, Spok Orquestra and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will certainly put fire into the pernambucanos, people born in Pernambuco State.”

Yes, it was a fantastic time and the playing with all of us grooving across culture and time was cleansing and healing. After the gig, I meet so many musicians and trumpet players and take pictures with them all.  Finally, before leaving I get a shot with the great security team at the Sala.  The São Paulo Symphony members jokingly call these guys "the Marsalis family”. Here we are. You be the judge. 

[From left to right: Julio Cesar, Leandro Svet, Sandro Miranda]

On Monday, most of us have a day off. But some of us teach class. Let’s hear from someone who is teaching and always participating, the great Marcus Printup:

“Today, my brother Walter Blanding and I went to teach a workshop at the Escola de Musica do estado de Sao Paulo. When we arrived, we received a soulful greeting from Maria Estela Corea (Cultural Affairs Specialist). 
She was extremely passionate in briefing us on the students. She explained to us that this school was comprised of students from low-income households (the average monthly salary for these families is $500 per month). The age span of the students is from 14 to 25 years old. There is a strict audition process as well.

When we arrived at the venue we were introduced to all the teachers. EVERY one of them was passionate about the kids. Their enthusiasm was very sincere and heartfelt.

Before we worked with the 80+ students, we were briefed with a 15-slide presentation of the program. They have over 40 programs in the lowest of income sections of Brazil.

Once inside the performance room, a special feeling of warmth overwhelmed us. We met all the students individually. One of the young students shook Walter’s hand and began to weep. The first ensemble played Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt” and a traditional Brazilian tune. These high school-aged kids played with such passion that it moved us to tears.

As educators, we learn from our students. These kids healed us today. I told them to always know that as musicians, we are healers. When we play, we must understand that it is more than a performance. We have to make the listener feel the passion WE have for life/music.

Music is powerful. It touches the deepest parts of our souls. Although they all had obviously put in time on their horns, we heard nothing virtuosic today; however, everything we heard was sincere. When music is sincere, it can speak volumes to those who are open to receiving it. That’s what happened to Walter and I today. Of course, we critiqued them and told them how to fine-tune their musicianship. But we also commended them on their depth of feeling and the tremendous heart that they displayed in their performance.  

We invited my friend and great trumpeter instructor, Daniel D’alcantara, to play with us. I met Daniel 12 years ago through a Brazilian trumpet company we both endorsed. He was KILLIN!! Sounded like Fats Navarro. It’s always great for students to see their teachers playing on the same level as the visiting clinicians. We spent an additional 30-45 minutes signing autographs and taking selfies with them. The Brazilians are indeed some soulful people.”

Greg Gisbert describes what happened with him:

“On our Monday off in Sao Paulo, the seeds for an epic trumpet hang were planted by two young trumpeters named Bruno and Otovio. We met in the hotel lobby at noon. After a brief lunch, they took us to a magnificent rehearsal with full orchestra and Big Band playing Choro music from the early 20th century. It was inspiring. From there, three trumpeters went to the home of Otovio for a little trumpet fellowship. My two new trumpet brothers then posted a Facebook message that we were playing trumpets etc.  Within minutes we had 12 trumpet players crammed in one little room playing blues in F. I had the chance to share with them a few exercises Clark Terry had shown me as well as some diminished patterns I learned from James Moody. The spirit of togetherness, mutual interest and love with the São Paulo trumpet crew is something I will ALWAYS remember.”

Ted Nash uses his days off wisely.  He shared some of his thoughts about this leg of the tour:

“Coming to São Paulo is always as much a reunion as it is a gig. Over the years I have met so many soulful musicians and people here and coming back is an opportunity to reconnect.

Some of my favorite experiences have been playing with the Jazz Sinfonica Orquestra. This symphony orchestra includes a full big band, and under the baton of João Maurício Galindo presents guest soloists on orchestrations of the guest’s original music. Like many great things, they are suffering economically. But this strain doesn’t affect the passion and feeling with which the musicians play.

This was evident when I invited Ali Jackson and Greg Gisbert down to one of their rehearsals. We smiled ear-to-ear, listening to them play through a program of choros. The musicians in the orchestra certainly have the discipline needed to play in any classical orchestra, but they bring something extra - this thing you can’t really write out or teach; a feeling, a spirit.

Over the years I have gotten to know Vinícius Barros, a percussionist from the Orchestra. When I got to town I reached out and invited him to our concert at Sala São Paulo. I told him to bring a few “toys.” Backstage I introduced him and his shoulder bag of percussion instruments to Wynton who invited him to join us on our closing number. Vinícius rose to the occasion elevating the groove on the tambourine and later taking an expressive solo on the cuíca.

Collaborating with musicians from other cultures has always been something that enriches all of our lives and creates lasting memories. Ali and Greg were as impressed and inspired as I was. It was a great way to spend an off day.”

Ali started out with Ted and Gizzy, but his day took another turn. Here’s how he tells it:

After Sunday’s 2 concerts and struggling to fight off a cold (compliments of the hotel air conditioner) I was in dire need of a day of rest. On my way to sleep, Ted sent an email asking if I wanted to come check out a rehearsal. Monday morning I woke up feeling much better and with enough time to make the rehearsal.

Vinícius picked us up for lunch and took us to rehearsal. While Ted and I were hanging with him, Greg Gisbert was holding court on the other side of the table with trompetistas.

When we arrived at the Jazz Sinfônica rehearsal (http://www.jazzsinfonica.org.br/) we could see that they were not in an expensive state of the art facility. They were in a theatre, attached to a school, and I knew then that they would sound great. Their organization looks like many arts organization that are scratching and raising just enough resources to stay alive.

Vinícius introduced me to all of the musicians. They were very welcoming and many of them had been to our concert. They invited me to play in the section and/or stand in the section. I thought about it, but decided to take one of the few opportunities to enjoy the sound from the house and truly listen.

Jazz Sinfônica played music from various Brazilian composers. The arrangements integrated Samba, Jazz, Western Classical and West African music elements. They executed with such great rhythm! On Afro based grooves, it is very rare to have strings, percussion and brass play in the same orbit of time. This was fascinating to hear and witness.

On the break, Marcos Portinari, Hamilton de Holanda’s manager, connected me with Vinny, the A&R rep for the largest Fabricator of Brasil percussion, Contemporanéa.
He picked me up in a nice car and took me on a tour of the factory. After the tour, he surprised me with all types of Brazilian percussion instruments.

Afterwards, he took me to a Casa Do Samba named Boemis. The cat that runs it is known as Jåo de Pandeiro. Vinny told me that he is one of the baddest living musicians on the Pandeiro. Jao was super cool! He treated us like royalty, or better, family you love. He seated us in the front, got us drinks and food. The place had the vibe of the small clubs that my dad used to play in Detroit, so I was perfectly at home. It is a neighborhood bar and was basically empty. The vibe and the feeling of the musicians were very high. They played nonstop segueing from song to song and rhythm to rhythm for 50 continuous minutes. This is the core of our belief in the music.

On our way out the club Jao introduced us to his friend Don Hunter, a big brother from Philly, PA. He is an expatriate of 25 years, bringing his love and knowledge of life through basketball. He trains and organizes youth basketball programs primarily in Sao Paulo. We met him on the street and in 5 minuts a brand new hang ensued. Don invited us to his crib for a drink 100m from Boemis. We then went to another club, hanging and vibing on the unexpected channels that open up new energy in life. These are the types of experiences you can’t plan. To explain: the kind of soul and hospitality Vinny displayed was exemplary. This guy picked me up at 3:30pm and is now taking us home at 3:30am…wow, too much!

On Tuesday morning it is time to leave for Recife. I have breakfast with Guga and we discuss all sorts of things. I reflect on what he has told me about the vicissitudes of time and the universality of the true blues that visit us all. Because ten years had passed since we last saw each other, the physical effects of being middle aged were obvious, but the emotional and psychological changes (although they are often a lot more dramatic) are not so easy to see. Everything from the death of parents and loved ones to health issues, to different types of estrangement from kids, spouses and/or siblings becomes more extreme as time gets shorter.

Normally, middle-aged people sink down into a nostalgic yearning for a past that only exists in our memory, but we veered a bit left of this typical center and talked about whose political corruption was worse, US or Brazil, followed by a typical comparison of the erosion of cultural and educational values. But when I asked him about the state of things in his life, he said, “There are things I would surely prefer to be different, but the world is full of opportunities, and to be an adult means that you have to be able to re-construct and reinvent life, and to embrace this cycle of change while cultivating a more realistic understanding of your past.” With that, he saved us from the commonplace and took us both higher. On that thought, we shook hands and agreed. Better not let 10 more years slip away before the next time.


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As soon as we landed at Gilberto Freyre International Airport, named in honor of their homeboy Gilberto Freyre, I knew that Recife was going to be exceptional and the perfect place for the final leg of our month-long tour.

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