When American Jazz Pros Meet Spanish Jazz Kids
It isn’t unusual for American jazz masters to ply their musical skills elsewhere in the world, playing to audiences in any number of countries and cultures who nonetheless appreciate the genre that was born and evolved in America. It’s been going on since jazz has existed. So, then, what happens when American jazz veterans travel to Barcelona to play with a big band comprised of children and teenagers?
More often than not, magic happens.
This magic has graced the Sant Andreu Jazz Band for over a decade, as founder and director Joan Chamorro knew in the early days of the project that bringing in veteran musicians to play with his young band would be a win-win for everyone: The experienced pros would pass along some of their knowledge and stories accumulated throughout their long careers, and the kids would learn a few tricks as they watch, listen, and emulate their guests in concerts and studio recordings. Musical growth by osmosis, if you will.
Even as they might have a few challenges poking holes in the language barrier, the SAJB and its American guests find music to be the truly international language they can understand and use most easily to speak to each other.
In the project’s earlier years, Chamorro invited local musicians and/or teachers he had known and played with for years to join the band’s performances in and around Barcelona, giving audiences a satisfying mix of the young, up & coming kids and those with considerably more experience. Perico Sambeat, Ricard Gili, Toni Belenguer, Carlos Martin — to name just a few — have taken part in SAJB concerts, as well as noted musicians from elsewhere in Europe.
Within a few years of the band’s creation, audiences began to see more American jazz veterans taking the stage as guests, even if most of the musical guests hadn’t been familiar with the project before receiving the invitation to make the trans-Atlantic visit to Barcelona. The tradition began with multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, who first played sax as a guest with the band in 2009. Saxophonist Dick Oatts also became a frequent guest beginning in 2010, and played with the SAJB most recently at the 2020 Jazzing Fest.
Robinson said of the SAJB during a visit in 2014, “You know, it’s unbelievable. He’s got kids who are eight years old not just playing their instruments great, but playing really with the right feeling, and the right kind of swing. It’s incredible, it’s very rare to see that in America, which is the birthplace of jazz, so to see it here in Cataluna is something breathtaking…so for me it’s just an honor to be involved in any way with something like this.”
Roman Tort’s 2012 documentary, A Film About Kids and Music, includes performances and interviews with American musicians Terrell Stafford, Wycliffe Gordon, and Jesse Davis, all of whom participated in the band’s set at the 2011 Barcelona Jazz Festival (as seen in the film) and expressed their amazement at the quality of music the kids of the SAJB were producing.
Trombonist Gordon observed, “They’ve really captured the essence of jazz music. The inflections that they play with — seems like they have a great understanding that only comes from someone who’s either lived in the situation, or who listened to a lot of the music…And it’s great, and refreshing, to hear young people play with such authority and command of their instruments, and to have that great of a control of the jazz language.”
Trumpeter and educator Terell Stafford was also moved by seeing such young musicians entering the jazz world. “To walk in yesterday and to see a six-year-old holding a trumpet that’s almost taller than her, almost brought tears to my eyes. It was probably the most joy I’ve ever experienced as a musician. To see that the music I’ve loved so much, and I’ve tried to express the love and passion that I’ve had for the music — to see it in people that are so young — and not only do they have the joy of playing music, but there’s a passion, and there’s a desire, and there’s feeling, and there’s emotion. And you can tell that every student has taken an ample amount of time to listen to the music, and it comes through them. It comes through their pores. And it affected all of us yesterday. I mean, we were all in shock.”
The tradition of welcoming American jazz veterans to the SAJB continued in a big way when Scott Hamilton made his first journey to Barcelona. Hamilton, a tenor sax legend who found himself playing with Benny Goodman’s band as a twenty-something in the mid-1970s, has had an enviable career, recording over 75 albums under his own name, and playing big venues and small with a Who’s Who of the greatest jazz musicians in history. It often comes as a surprise to many new SAJB enthusiasts to see him playing alongside the band of young musicians, as he has done on numerous occasions in the past decade.
He first took part in the famous showcase for Andrea Motis at the Jamboree Club in April of 2013, followed by his first concert with the entire SAJB, outdoors at the Plaza Reial.
“Yes, that [Plaza Reial concert] was all done the same week we did the videos and album with Andrea at the Jamboree Club,” he explains. “Basically the connection was that I was a longtime colleague of Esteve Pi, Ignassi Terraza, and Joan Monne. Esteve called me because I knew he was working with this teenage girl [Andrea] who was a big star in Spain, and they were getting a lot of concert dates. He called and said, ‘would you come and play for a week at the Jamboree?’ And I said yes, we’d love to come…And on the Saturday of that week, they asked, ‘would you come out early and do this outdoor concert at the Plaza Reial and meet some of the kids?’ And that’s how that happened.”
Like all of the veteran musicians who have played with the SAJB as special guests, he was quite impressed by what he saw and heard.
“It’s astonishing,” he says, “because I’m not a teacher, I haven’t spent a lot of time around people trying to teach jazz to young people, but this was different than any sort of jazz education that’s ever existed before, in the sense that everybody there had a natural enthusiasm, and natural kind of understanding of the music, and a natural feeling of the music. And that’s something that you only ever saw in individuals before this, never a group of people who played individual styles and had this kind of spirit and abilities.”
When playing with the band, Hamilton has confidence that the young musicians know what they’re doing, and there is no need to wait for them to “catch up” to him.
“No, not at all,” he says. “To tell you the truth, when I’m with them, its always a question of trying to keep up with the new material that’s being presented each time, so my attention is trying not to ruin the take for them. I’d say I’ve done very little rehearsing with them, but there have been times when it probably would have gone better if I had done more rehearsing, but I’m not a very good rehearser. These days I just try to really pay attention, and if I concentrate, and keep my ears open, usually we have a chance! But they’re very professional and there’s never a problem with that, ever.”
And, even as a musician of his experience and stature, he still finds himself learning on his feet whenever he plays with the SAJB. “The biggest problem−it’s not a problem, it’s actually good−as far as repertoire goes, I’m familiar with 65% of the repertoire that they play, at least in terms of knowing how the song goes−except for the big amount of Brazilian music that they play. I really like it, but I don’t have the background that they do. And so a lot of these songs are brand new to me, and that’s a really good thing, because I’m learning a lot of music. They sing very well in Portuguese!”
In addition to his guest appearances with the big band, Hamilton can also be found not only on Andrea’s live CD at the Jamboree, but also on The New Quartet Featuring Scott Hamilton, and on Elia Bastida’s CDs The Magic Sound of the Violin and, of course, Elia Bastida Meets Scott Hamilton.
Another accomplished American musician to make his mark in the 15-year history of the SAJB is Joel Frahm. Nicknamed ”The Beast” by many for his aggressive and lightning fast runs on his tenor sax, Frahm has nothing but gushing admiration for the SAJB musicians, and for Joan Chamorro himself. He has described the project as “incredible” and “amazing,” along with other superlatives.
“I didn’t know anything about them when they called me,” he said in a 2020 podcast interview, “but Andrea Motis, who’s an amazing young vocalist and trumpet player, saw me playing on YouTube, and went to her teacher Joan and said, ‘I’d like to bring this guy over to the band so he can play with us.’ So I get this phone call from Barcelona one day, and he said, would you like to come over and be a guest soloist with this ensemble? And I really didn’t know anything about it, and I went over, and I heard them for the first time, and it blew me away. I mean, these kids are just incredible…and Joan’s one of the most remarkable jazz educators alive today, as far as I’m concerned.”
When it came time to rehearse with the band, Frahm was especially struck by their version of the Jobim classic ‘The Waters of March,’ as sung by Alba Armengou and Rita Payes. “We did this incredible version of ‘The Waters of March,’ and it’s just lovely.” The rehearsal video shows him genuinely moved by the rendition, as well as the subsequent performance for an audience.
“This particular performance brings tears to my eyes every single time I’ve heard it,” he says. “I think it’s had a couple of million views on YouTube. They’re just remarkable. [Alba is] a remarkable young trumpet player and singer. The attention to detail paid by the band and vocalists is second to none. The joy and emotion in tandem with the hard work they’ve put in makes them an ensemble like no other I’ve encountered. I can’t tell you how proud I am of having been asked to play with Joan and his marvelous young musicians.”
Frahm continues to pay attention to some of the latest efforts by the current and former SAJB members, as evidenced by his comments posted in November, 2021 for Rita’s “Nunca vas a comprender” video: “Rita!! You are incredible. I’m so impressed with what an amazing musician you’ve become. Congratulations!!”
New Jersey native and clarinetist Allan Vache has fond memories of his time with the SAJB as well. His older brother Warren has been a journeyman trumpeter and teacher for decades (and who often teamed with Scott Hamilton in the ‘70s and ‘80s). Allan spent nearly two decades with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in San Antonio, Texas, and has performed with countless jazz legends around the world.
“My first introduction to the SAJB was an email I received from Andrea Motis,” he says. “She told me that she had been listening to my recordings since she was a little girl and greatly admired my playing. She sent me a video of the group playing ‘Louisiana Fairytale’ that I have recorded with my ‘Big 4' group back in the ‘90s. They had taken my improvised solo and scored it out for 4 saxophones. I was really honored and impressed that they did that.”
He thanked Andrea and told her how impressed he was with her playing, and that of the group. He also kept in touch with Chamorro, who further explained to Vache about the SAJB and how they’ve used many of his recordings as an instructional tool.
Vache, in turn, spoke to Chamorro about his good friend John Allred, who picks up the story:
“Allan had gone over there and done a concert and master class, and he referred my name to Joan, who contacted me out of the blue. Allan hadn’t warned me — he just dropped my name. But I looked Joan up online before I went over there, and was very impressed with the organization for one, and just the city supporting that kind of educational program, just blew me away. So he hired me to come over there. We did a rehearsal the first day I was there, and then played a couple of performances.”
The band had a little surprise for Allred after that first concert. “When we did that, it was my birthday, so after the concert we went to this piazza and we sat down at a big table, and they brought out a cake and we had a little party. That’s the kind of guy Chamorro is. He’s just very thoughtful and accommodating, and all the kids showed up! They were all really into it, which was really neat.
“I was very thankful to Allan for mentioning me to Joan, because I’m interested in that, I do clinics here & there in the States, but its rare to find kids of such varied ages so completely immersed in the music like they are, and really picking it up and becoming very talented players in the process.”
A few years later, in 2018, Andrea contacted Allan Vache again. “She asked me if I would be willing to come to Barcelona and play with them on some concerts. They were also inviting John Allred. I, of course, agreed, and John and I flew to Barcelona. We played one concert at a theater in Barcelona. It was a featured concert for Andrea. She was marvelous. Singing and playing both trumpet and soprano sax. We did some Dixieland tunes and some other stuff. It was great concert and it looked like it was almost completely sold out. The rhythm section was Joan and those great guys he always uses [Ignasi Terraza, Josep Traver, Esteve Pi]…they are terrific.
“That night I met Elia and Andrea’s sister Carla, and some of the other kids that play with the band. They were all so nice and treated me like some kind of celebrity. Quite humbling and gratifying to this old clarinet player whose career is, pretty much, winding down.”
The next day, he and Allred got on a bus with the band and headed to seaside resort of Platja d’Aro, where a stage awaited them for an outdoor concert.
Allred recalls, “We did a concert with them at this gorgeous beach, and it was just amazing. We actually had to ride a couple of hours or more with the kids on this big bus, so everybody’s having a good time, and it was a lot of fun.”
He got to know and observe his young fellow musicians on the bus ride.
“We were thrown right in the middle of them. Normally, in the States, you’d get thrown in with a band of kids and they just clam up, ya know, and they don’t know what to say to the ‘old guy,’ but these kids are very open and curious about everything, and ask questions, just having fun, using their English, telling jokes, and I think they get that personal relation with people through music, and most importantly through Joan Chamorro, ‘cause he’s taught them that. He impressed me very much that way. When the kids are messing around on busses and stuff, they’re talking about a solo they played, or something about music… this is not your typical band of teenagers!”
Allred naturally gravitated toward his fellow trombonists. “Rita, and also Joan Codina were like my ‘buddies’, we’d be hanging out in the background, and I was teaching them licks and stuff like that, but I was taken aback, listening to Rita play a solo, I’d go, ‘Man, I would have played that…oh, and I would have played that, too!’ It was like she was playing all my licks, which is like my ultimate compliment to another musician, you know. ‘Wow!’ Something that I would have considered difficult to play, even now, was like something she was doing, ‘cause she just learned it. She can do it. It was like ‘Wow, okay, you’re way ahead of the game!’ ”
Unfortunately, the weather for the concert was not cooperating. Vache recalls, “We played the concert and the band sounded great. John did a few numbers with them, then Joan had me come up and play with them. Unfortunately. in the middle of my second tune it started to rain. We stopped for about 20 minutes, then the rain stopped so we started up again. We played about 2 or 3 tunes then it started to rain again, so the rest of the concert was cut short.”
But the rainy weather did not dampen Vache’s enthusiasm for the band. “I must tell you how impressed I was with all the young musicians in the group, and how lucky they are to have someone like Joan to properly instruct them. Many of us who started out in this business didn’t have that kind of advantage when we were their age. It does my heart good to see these kind of younger generation musicians playing the music I love and have devoted my life to. It renews my faith that after so many of us are gone the music will still live on.”
A few years ago, Vache returned the courtesy Andrea had first extended to him. “I invited Andrea to play on our Jazz Cruise where I am the music director. She and her boyfriend [violinist Christoph Mallinger] came, and she did a wonderful job.”
He still follows the band today. “I always check out the videos of the kids that Joan posts on Facebook, and always find them excellent. I can’t say enough good things about all of them, and I look forward to the next time I’ll be able to play with them again.”
Allred is equally impressed with the band’s professionalism onstage. “One thing that you don’t learn in the music business — until you just do it — is how to present yourself onstage, and how to focus your attention on the person playing a solo, and bow out gracefully and not make a sour face, or say something you shouldn’t after you miss a note, or playing too many notes. I noticed that right away that the kids showed an early development of pretty advanced professionalism as musicians for someone their age. There were some kids, I think, close to 20, and some that were like 13, or a little older, but it’s so amazing, that diverse age group, all the people playing with like mind. It’s pretty impressive! The phrase I would probably use myself would be, ‘Wow, that was surprisingly good.’ You’re used to saying, ‘okay here comes the 13-year old kid, lets get behind him and support him, and wish him well,’ and when he plays a great solo, you say, ‘yes! That was great!’ Joan has instilled that passion in them, it’s so apparent.”
Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, hasn’t personally played with the SAJB (so far), but he has experienced the band perform first-hand. “This band actually opened for us when we played in Barcelona, and they are fantastic,” he says. He also had glowing comments for Chamorro’s submission of the band’s “Sophisticated Lady” performance for the 2020 Essentially Ellington competition, which required video submissions due to the Covid pandemic. The tune features Alba Esteban’s baritone sax solo. “Excellent soloist [on ‘Sophisticated Lady’],” Marsalis gushed upon reviewing the video. “The saxophone section really sounds great. They’re swooping and swaying, and playing with a lot of soul and feeling. …Great bari solo by Alba, fantastic playing with expression, very difficult song — also harmonically sophisticated — good understanding of how to play on these chords.”
Syracuse native Joe Magnarelli moved to New York City in 1986, where his career as a professional jazz trumpeter took off. He has played in bands led by Lionel Hampton and Harry Connick Jr., and has led or co-led many others, sharing the stage with legends too numerous to mention. He was first invited to play with the SAJB in 2017, and he echoes the comments of his fellow pros regarding Chamorro and the talents of his young band members.
“To have so many well trained and talented musicians to come under Joan’s tutelage is miraculous,” he says. “I have been inspired by so many of his kids/musicians. I feel like I am listening to the same records as them. So when we play together there is a level of emotion, which can be beautiful. And Joan is the perfect director, world famous bass player and one of the great baritone saxophonists. His vibe sets the tone. I hope I get to come back, it would be great.”
We’ll leave the closing words to Jesse Davis, who told Chamorro in A Film About Kids and Music, “You deserve a lot of congratulations and credit for doing this, because obviously it’s a reflection of who you are as a person and as a musician. And your dedication is reflected in what the kids do…I’ve never seen that kind of dedication from such small children. Thank you, really…the jazz community worldwide is going to thank you one day. What you’ve done is a great service to this music, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”
Davis speaks for all jazz fans and musicians in America, and elsewhere throughout the world, who have come to know — and cheer for — the Sant Andreu Jazz Band.
Until next time…
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“Josep Traver: Guitarist of all Trades” https://garryberman.medium.com/josep-traver-guitarist-of-all-trades-608296f9d00a
“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.