Joan Chamorro and the SAJB: Past, Present, and Future

What is it about music that has such a unique power over us? We turn to it in joyful moments of celebration, we often cling to it in moments of mourning and sorrow, and we instantly remember personal events and people from years ago when we hear a particular song by chance. And, there are those who play, live and breathe music, and know to share it and teach it to younger generations, in order to keep it alive — even if that music was first created and performed decades before those younger generations were born. Such is the case with Joan Chamorro and the art form known as jazz.

When the year 2021 came to a close, so did a series of several musical celebrations commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band, the educational project in Barcelona that has gained worldwide recognition and admiration among jazz lovers for teaching and presenting young —in many cases, very young — musicians and singers to play classic jazz, bossa nova, and other genres with astonishing skill, polish, and feel for the music far beyond that which seems possible at their ages.

Joan Chamorro created the SAJB in 2006 when he was teaching at the Escola Municipal de Musica de Sant Andreu. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, he wanted to introduce the music students to his beloved world of jazz. Today, he continues to recruit new musicians to the project, directs the big band ensemble and its smaller side groups, produces their vast catalogue of CDs, and tours much of Europe and beyond with various incarnations of his student musicians.

The SAJB and guests let off some steam at the 2021 Jazzing Fest.

The big anniversary year was highlighted by the SAJB’s annual Jazzing Festival in September, which included special guests Scott Hamilton and Dena DeRose, Russian trombonist/singer (and honorary SAJB member) Anastasia Ivanova, and several former SAJB members. One concert at Jazzing served as a tribute to trombonist Toni Belenguer. “It was really very emotional,” Chamorro recalls. “Toni had left us a few months before, unexpectedly. He was a great friend, an incredible musician and we were very saddened by the news. The concert was super nice and we had the presence, apart from the entire Sant Andreu Jazz Band, his colleagues Francisco Blanco Latino, Perico Sambeat, Carlos Martin, as well as Andrea Motis, Rita Payés, Èlia Bastida, Eva Fernandez, Marc Martín , Joan Már Sauqué, and other musicians who had collaborated with Toni.”

Later in 2021, Chamorro was honored by the Barcelona Jazz Festival for his ongoing work. “The 15 years of the SAJB and being able to celebrate them with the Artist Portrait that the Barcelona Jazz Festival dedicated to me has been something wonderful.”

He cites the five concerts, beginning with the gathering in October of all SAJB musicians who recorded their individual CDs as part of the Joan Chamorro presenta… series. He was thrilled “to be able to bring together all the musicians with whom I have recorded a presentation CD, on the same stage, with a special repertoire for the occasion and for everyone to come. It’s something amazing. And to be able to record it on a new CD… The concert was a success and it really made me very happy.”

Next came the November 17 concert with his first protege, Andrea Motis. “The concert with Andrea was like a farewell concert for the quintet, since they are working on a new project with different musicians. It was a very special concert because Andrea had hoarseness and couldn’t sing. She surrounded herself with great musicians who made the concert a success — great moment also for 2021. After more than 10 years working together, seeing how Andrea each year that passed was more solid musically, more mature, a better improviser and with a more personal voice every day, I think it was time for her to seek new paths. We continue to work together and I am sure we will always do so.”

The quintet (l. to r.): Chamorro, Ignasi Terraza, Andrea Motis, Josep Traver, Esteve Pi.

There was also the presentation of the new CD Èlia Bastida Meets Scott Hamilton, the recording of which was completed in October, after a long delay due to Covid. Chamorro describes the concert as “quite a tour de force. The new album is a success and we have already reissued 500 more. The music sounds great and I really think we have recorded a wonderful, different, special album. As a co-producer and musician and promoter of the idea, I feel really very happy.”

The big reunion concert of all former SAJB musicians on December 10 was “the most emotional concert. Also the most complex concert to carry out. Gather almost 70 musicians on stage and be able to make a coherent, interesting, balanced concert, etc.The result was a super concert where the public left very excited and I, personally, very happy. It will always remain in our memory as something unique.”

Finally, there was the showcase concert for baritone saxophonist Alba Esteban. “It has been very important for several reasons. We recorded her presentation CD. I have known Alba since she was 7 years old and she has been my student since then, until she started studying higher grade at the Lyceum. She will still be part of the SAJB for one more year. It was a concert called Baritone Rhapsody, and in it I have rediscovered my main instrument, the baritone sax. It has also made me very happy to be able to finish the Portrait of Artista with Alba and my baritone sax.

Long-time sax section stalwart Alba Esteban (center) has her day, and well-deserved.

“I feel really very happy to have been able to do all these things, because with the situation caused by Covid, being able to carry out all these is like a miracle. I feel happy and very, very grateful.”

Now that he and the band have concluded their landmark 15th year, Chamorro has graciously taken the time to answer in detail a number of wide-ranging questions related to the SAJB, as he reflects on the history of the band, the past year of celebration, and future plans.

“Fifteen years of the project [have gone by] very fast,” he says, “but taking into account that we are a totally independent project and that we do not have any type of help, I think it is something remarkable. More than 70 musicians have passed through the orchestra and most of them are dedicated to music, many of them with great success and some with international careers.”

In 2008, with their most rewarding days together in the SAJB still ahead of them, young music students Eva Fernandez, Andrea Motis, Carla Motis, and Magali Datzira had already formed lasting friendships.

Some of those musicians include prominent SAJB alumni Andrea Motis, Rita Payes, Joan Mar Sauque, Eva Fernandez, Magali Datzira, Joan Codina, Elia Bastida, Alba Armengou, Marcal Perramon, and many more who have been achieving considerable recognition and success for the remarkable musical talents they honed with Chamorro and the SAJB.

Beginning as a small Dixieland combo in 2006, by the time this photo was taken in 2009, the SAJB had grown into a full-size big band.

Chamorro is loath to speak in terms of “favorites” or “best” when he discusses the former or current SAJB musicians (although this doesn’t prevent fans from expressing their own opinions, praise, and affection for certain individuals who have populated the SAJB’s history). Of course, it is inevitable that in such a setting, one or more students would rise to prominence at a given time — Andrea Motis being the first example, and in whom Chamorro saw tremendous talent and potential as a trumpeter, saxophonist, and vocalist, all when she was still just entering her teens. Rita Payes also arrived with exceptional skills on trombone, and blossomed further almost instantly upon joining the band. But again, Chamorro is careful to give full credit to each and every student who works hard to improve, and who demonstrates a dedication to the music that perhaps only a fellow musician can fully understand.

Instructing Joan Mar Sauque, Rita, and Andrea at the 2015 National Culture Awards ceremony.

“Musically, many of those who come out of the SAJB have a very good command of the instrument and of the jazz language. I don’t like to talk about better or worse. Not even if they surpass me or not. I like to think of music as something that isn’t a race to see who gets to the finish line first. It is a race without end, and during that journey, we musicians learn, improve, evolve, change, etc.

“I like the feeling of being able to make music with all the students and of thinking of them not as such, but as consolidated artists who are still excited about continuing to work and looking for their own path…Many of those who have passed through the SAJB become, (even while still in the project) very capable and even recognized musicians. I am counting on them and I do it, when it is outside the context of the SAJB, with a professional-to-professional treatment.”

A spectacular 2015 working of the classic “Cherokee,” with guests Joel Frahm, Pablo Arias, and select SAJB musicians, with Chamorro himself having a blast on his cherished baritone sax.

“I, as the leader of different projects, hope that they respond as professionals who happen to be and do so, and on many occasions, they are the ones with the leading role in the group. Now it happens with Èlia Bastida, with whom we have recorded Èlia Bastida meets Scott Hamilton. She has become the absolute leader of the project. During this year we are going to do concerts with Èlia, who has more and more personality and more strength playing the violin. Her concerts are really very good and I want to continue working with her.”

Whether the topic is past or current projects within the SAJB universe, there are some values, aside from the playing the music well, that Chamorro has always worked to instill in his young musicians.

Putting the band through their paces at The Jazz House.

“I try to emphasize things like punctuality, effort, commitment, and other values ​​that are important to me, such as gratitude, humility, generosity, sincerity, honesty, etc. Dedicating yourself to music is not just playing your instrument well. We are part of a community and for things to work, we have to be people, as far as possible, serious with our work and respectful in all aspects, with the rest of the musicians and of course, with the public that listen.”

He is relieved that Covid, and its devastating effects on lives throughout the world, has failed to force the SAJB out of existence. But it was close. A full year of lockdown without concerts hurt deeply (ticket sales and CD purchases have always been imperative for the project to survive), with only a slow, gradual recovery in the latter half of 2021. “It is not easy at the organizational level, especially on the economic side,” he concedes. “And sometimes that makes me wonder. Not having any kind of help, our survival depends on having concerts, and these two years have been really hard. I have even come to think that we could not go on. But over time, things seem to be getting better.”

He has not had to handle it all entirely alone; project manager Blanca Gallo Yanez has the task of organizing and scheduling concerts, tours, and other events for the SAJB, not the least of which is the project’s annual Jazzing Fest, during which the band plays a number of concerts with professional guest artists. The accompanying Educational Stage consists of talks and demonstrations of musical techniques that create the jazz sounds fans have found so appealing about the project in the first place.

Chamorro with Blanca Gallo Yanez, the SAJB project manager for the past five years. “When you present me as your ‘right hand’, “ she says, “I feel honored and very grateful to participate in a 360º project, where education, profession, talent, people, joy, passion … come together in a single concept: jazz.”

As of this writing, the SAJB calendar for 2022 is indeed filling up quickly.

“The plans for this year are varied,” Chamorro says. “New CDs that will see the light, and new projects. We will record Joan Chamorro presents Koldo Munné. We will do the Jazzing Festival, which this year we will dedicate to the music of Brazil. We will also play again at the Palau de la Música in Barcelona. Concerts with different groups.”

One of the most popular SAJB side groups is “La Magia de la Veu” (The Magic of the Voice), which showcases the band’s vocalists and musicians in more intimate settings for the most part, to fully emphasize their singing of classics from the Great American Songbook, plus a good helping of bossa nova favorites. The original 2014 release featured Andrea Motis, Eva Fernandez, Magali Datzira, and newcomer Rita Payes, expertly performing standards made popular by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington.

In 2016, the concept expanded with the second edition, bringing the band’s musicians Elia Bastida, Alba Esteban, Alba Armengou, and Abril Sauri to the front line as vocalists.

Drummer Abril Sauri leads the second formation of La Magia de la Veu in 2016. with Alba Armengou, Rita Payes, and Alba Esteban.

Chamorro will continue work on the third incarnation, with an updated lineup, in 2022 — one that will have some of the male members of the group take a more prominent role as singers. “ ‘The Magic of the Voice’ is changing every year,” he explains, “At the moment I also want to work with the voice of Claudia Rostey, and that of Koldo Munné, and also incorporate Perot Rigau, as a new trombonist and possible vocalist. We’ll also give more prominence to the voice of Joan Martí. These are things that will be seen during the year. We already have several concerts for this group.

“The SAJB is very rejuvenated. It’s time to work hard to maintain the same level as always. I’m very excited about it, and also all the musicians.”

Several new members have been welcomed by the band in the past year or two; he detailed how each section is taking shape:

“The trombones have an average age of 15 years. Perot Rigau is a wonderful trombonist who is entering the world of jazz and if he really studies and works well he can be a great soloist. The same with Claudia Rostey, who is also a wonderful vocalist. Luc Martin and Hugo Vlach complete a section of trombones that is already sounding really good, but that has a lot of room to sound super, super good.

The trombone section (l. to r.): Perot Rigau, Luc Martin, Claudia Rostey, and Hugo Vlach.

“On saxophones we have new additions to Koldo Munné, Shanti Ming, Lola Peñaranda, Sander Theuns and Elian Sabogal: they are Pere Company, and Andreu Romero. I have a couple of very young saxophonists that will soon join the orchestra. Alba Esteban, will be a guest in 2022 in the role of baritone and vocalist.

The saxophone section (l. to r.): Andreu Romero, Alba Esteban, Pere Company, Lola Penaranda, Sander Theuns, Koldo Munne, Shantii Ming, and Elian Sabogal.

“In the trumpet section we have Alba Armengou as lead — she has already completed her [official] time with us, but I have asked her to be with us for one more year — Elsa Armengou, along with Gerard Peñaranda, Martha Vives, Max Munné, and the little one from the orchestra, Martí Costalago. It is a section that is already sounding very good but that has a lot of room for improvement. It also happens as with saxophones and trombones. They are young musicians who are clearer every day that jazz is their music, and that they have to work to improve and enjoy each day more, rehearsing and playing in concerts.

The trumpet section (l. to r.): Martha Vives, Elsa Armengou, Alba Armengou, Max Munne, Marti Costalago, and Gerard Penaranda.

There are also two pianists who are fairly new to the band.

“Pau Garcia,16 years old, is a pianist (saxophonist, clarinetist and vocalist) who has become the main pianist of the orchestra. He has the ability to improvise, a lot of musicality and what is more important, a great desire to learn and improve. Anna Ndiaye is quite a bit younger and less experienced, but also, in time, I’m sure she will become an important musician for us. She is working well and is very excited. Both pianists have a vocal part that I want to enhance little by little over the next few months.

“All of them are very excited to learn the language of jazz and we will see the results very soon.”

Many outgoing members leave the band without a real “goodbye,” leaving fans a bit confused about who is still a regular part of the project, and who has gone.

“Normally when they turn 21 it is their last year in the orchestra,” Chamorro explains. “Alba Esteban has this 2022 left. Alba Armengou is a guest, and comes as a professional. Each musician has different circumstances and their ‘farewell’ is different. I fully understand that fans are confused, but there is no fixed rule that is 100% met in these aspects. Some of the musicians who are no longer in the orchestra continue to collaborate with it from time to time. I still work professionally with some of them. And we keep recording new CDs . I would speak of a Sant Andreu Jazz Band universe, which includes the current members and those who are no longer here but continue to collaborate with us from time to time.”

With the influx of so many new, young musicians to the project, could it be possible to also produce a new version of the superb Roman Tort 2012 documentary A Film About Kids and Music, which followed the SAJB kids of that period through their rehearsals and performances?

With filmmaker Ramon Tort at the 2013 Austin, TX premiere for “A Film About KIds and Music”

“We have talked about it once and I really think it would be very interesting. The beginning could be the reunion that we had on December 10 at the Palau de la Música, where Ramon Tort recorded, apart from the concert, images of dressing rooms, etc etc. The question also goes through the economic part. It costs a lot of money to do it and we don’t have it. For the DVD edition of A Film about Kids and Music we made a Verkami [crowdfunding]. It would still be a possibility. But we would really need help to be able to carry out the new film. And other circumstances would also have to be taken into account. In any case, the possibility is not ruled out.”

Chamorro is obviously a firm believer in preserving his work with the band for posterity, not only on CD recordings, but on video as well; there are over 1,000 videos on YouTube documenting memorable SAJB performances in concert (most of which have been professionally filmed by Tort), sessions in his own studio, television appearances, and more. YouTube has, in fact, been essential in spreading the word — and music — around the world. A majority of SAJB followers first discovered the band via these videos (this writer among them), and the number of views for the band’s videos posted on Chamorro’s own YouTube channel is approaching 130 million.

Giving himself quite a workout conducting the band’s extraordinary 2017 rendition of Gordon Goodwin’s “Count Bubba.”

But he is now also using another means to further document his time as director of the project.

Former SAJB singer/saxophonist Joana Casanova sang the Rodgers & Hart song “I Could Write A Book” as part of her repertoire, and for the past year, Chamorro has been doing just that, i.e. writing his memoirs about the history of the band. “It is at a very advanced stage and I think I will present it at the Jazzing Festival this year.” he reports. “I always come up with new chapters and I’m adding. I’m collecting photos from all these years by Lili Bonmati [the official SAJB photographer].” He deliberately waited until the big anniversary concerts had taken place so he could include his reflections of them in the finished work. “These last concerts, especially the one on the 10th, will be well documented in the book. I have already spoken with a possible distributor and all that remains is to finish it and shape it. It really makes me very happy that the book sees the light.”

All of this work would exhaust a man half his age (he’ll turn 60 later this year). “Workaholic” is perhaps the most accurate description of his lifestyle.

“Yes, we could say that my work is my life. Music fills 100% of my life. My house is the Jazz House. My friends are musicians. And this is all by choice. Sometimes I am a bit tired, especially when I don’t have time to study my instruments. (I mean, I would fill my leisure spaces playing more music). But I’m happy.”

Celebrating the SAJB’s 10th anniversary in 2016.

He could probably continue leading SAJB for another 15 years or more, but does he envision anyone else taking over when — and if — he does not continue as the driving force behind the project?

“Looking for someone to replace me is something I do not contemplate. The truth is that this project is something very personal, where only I know the hours of involvement, work, dedication, decision making, etc. that something like this entails. In some way, the project has already been a reference and continues to be a reference for other groups of these characteristics. I think we have left an important mark, and worldwide. The day the Sant Andreu Jazz Band ends, there will be all our legacy and everything we have been sowing at the group level, at the methodology level, at the level of philosophy and love for jazz among the youngest.

“How many years will I continue with the project? The truth is that I do not know. Now I am very excited to continue working with the new musicians. New repertoires, new ideas. Continue to see how they grow and how they evolve and become wonderful and happy musicians with what they do. That is my maximum motivation.

“I hope, for now, to be able to continue for a while longer, but, yes, combining it with my facet as an instrumentalist, especially with the baritone sax. I need more time to study. I am really so motivated to make music, to improve, to enjoy jazz as much or more than my own students. That makes me feel full of life and energy. I think I am happier than ever with everything I do, as a teacher and director of the SAJB and as a musician, both with the baritone and the double bass, with which I also really want to improve.”

His ongoing optimism will not relent, despite these challenging, even frightening times. Teaching, playing, and living music, and all of the rewards that come with it, remain his inspiration.

Live stream video of Jazzing Fest 2021, with the band presenting Chamorro cakes, and a round of “Happy Birthday” to celebrate the band’s 15 years.

“I see people around me happy, achieving really nice things. I see illusion in the eyes of the students. I see positive energy. That energy that, in some way, returns to me and makes me continue to have enthusiasm for what I do. And I get so many messages from all over the world, of gratitude for what I do, that also comforts me and, in moments of doubt, makes me feel that we are doing something really important.”

Until next time…

If you enjoyed this article, please click the “follow” button and follow me on Medium (no charge) for more articles on popular culture, music, films, television, entertainment history, and just plain old history.

You can read my other articles about the Sant Andreu Jazz Band at the links below, and at the “Garry’s Blog” page on my website, www.GarryBerman.com.

“How a Kids Band in Barcelona Rekindled My Love of Jazz” https://garryberman.medium.com/how-a-kids-band-in-barcelona-rekindled-my-love-of-jazz-a20ea8873670

“Jan Domenech’s New Chapter as a Jazz Musician” https://garryberman.medium.com/jan-domenechs-new-chapter-as-a-jazz-musician-e1f0da8b19b9

“Josep Traver: Guitarist of All Trades” https://garryberman.medium.com/josep-traver-guitarist-of-all-trades-608296f9d00a

“When American Jazz Pros Meet Spanish Jazz Kids” https://garryberman.medium.com/when-american-jazz-pros-meet-spanish-jazz-kids-25c7f5023571

“Claudia Rostey: The Life of an 18-year-old Bacelona Jazz Trombonist” https://garryberman.medium.com/claudia-rostey-the-life-of-an-18-year-old-barcelona-jazz-trombonist-d13b82c770a3

“The Magic of the Voice: The Singers of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-magic-of-the-voice-the-singers-of-the-sant-andreu-jazz-band-208dfb629221

“Jobim is Alive and Well in Barcelona” https://garryberman.medium.com/jobim-is-alive-and-well-in-barcelona-d384b40d8c2e

“Did Someone Say Anastasia Ivanova?” https://garryberman.medium.com/did-someone-say-anastasia-ivanova-dd6f67277c64

“Struck by (musical) Lightning” https://garryberman.medium.com/struck-by-musical-lightning-6583ecb0de13

Sant Andreu Jazz Band CDs are available at: https://jazztojazz.com/ , eBay, and Amazon.com.

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.