The government of Ecuador is known most recently for providing NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden with travel documents so he could get from Hong Kong to Moscow, and offering asylum to WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange. Before that, many citizens of North America were hard-pressed to locate Ecuador on the map.
But now I can tell you that Ecuador is also a great place for jazz musicians to find their own musical asylum, as I have.
I first visited there in 2009 in order to participate in some shamanic ceremonies in the mountains north of Quito. (For more information, see my book “For the Curious.”) On a subsequent trip the following year, I began to meet some local jazz musicians and secured a small apartment in Cuenca, a colonial city whose historic downtown has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador. The only problem was, most of the jazz was in the first two, Quito and Guayaquil.
In this case, luck was a lady. Just last year, pianist Jim Gala and his wife Deborah relocated from the Philippines to Cuenca and founded the Jazz Society of Ecuador, “a volunteer society of jazz musicians, teachers, and enthusiasts in Ecuador for the purpose of presenting and promoting live jazz performances, events, and festivals throughout Ecuador.” The Jazz Society Cafe has already outgrown its initial location and is now operating Wednesdays through Saturdays on Luis Cordero Street in downtown Cuenca (“El Centro”).
Before the Jazz Society opened, I used to jam and play a few local gigs with a group that included Christian Torres, the principal bassist of the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra. I began coaching Christian in jazz, and when he started playing at the Jazz Society Cafe with Jim Gala (who hails from Rochester and is of the Bill Evans school), he started to evolve into a really fine jazz bassist. Jazz education is a big part of the JSE’s mission, and Ecuadorian musicians seeking instruction in the art attend workshops there. Jim has also taken up the challenge of training a roster of rhythm section players.
“I’ve been tutoring two new drummers and one new double bass player during the past two months and they’ve all made significant progress, although it’s been a lot of work,” says Jim. The Jazz Society currently has over 650 members and is attempting to unite the major cities of Ecuador in a jazz circuit.
In Quito, the capital, there is an annual jazz festival organized by the Teatro Sucre. The main jazz club is El Pobre Diablo, established in 1990. A suburb of Quito called Cumbayá is home to the Instituto de Música Contemporánea (ICM) at the University of San Francisco, whose jazz department is a sister school to the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston.
I attended a jam session a couple of years ago in Cumbayá, not far from the ICM, and heard several of the fine musicians coming out of the school. Most of them were students of trumpeter/arranger Walt Szymanski (a member of Local 802), who was teaching at ICM at the time, having just finished a stint as conductor and composer in residence at the Teatro Sucre Nacional in Quito. Walt began vacationing in Ecuador several years ago, always with his trumpet, of course. He soon ended up playing in the local clubs and tutoring young musicians seeking to become proficient in the art of jazz music, leading the Teatro Sucre to offer him an official position.
The elder statesman of jazz in Quito would be none other than Marvin “Doc” Holladay, an octogenarian saxophonist who emigrated to Ecuador with his wife eight years ago. Doc is a former New Yorker who later went to Michigan and established the first jazz program in the state, at Oakland University. His book “Life, on the Fence” chronicles his coming of age in the 1960s jazz scene, his time with some of the notable jazz orchestras, including Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, and much more. Doc has also been active in mentoring young musicians in Ecuador, some of whom have become professional musicians.
In Guayaquil, a major port and busy metropolis, the reigning jazz monarch is pianist Francisco Echeverria, who founded the Guayaquil Jazz Festival and puts on a number of events each year. Compelling in performance and charismatic in person, Francisco is one of the leading forces on the Ecuadorian jazz scene, providing opportunities for aspiring Ecuadorian jazz musicians to learn and perform.
Spending a considerable amount of time in Ecuador over the past several years, I eventually obtained an introduction to the cultural affairs director at the U.S. embassy in Quito, who enlisted me for a U.S. State Department tour which was completed this summer. On board for that project were Walt Szymanski and an Ecuadorian rhythm section composed of ICM faculty pianist Miguel Gallardo and two ICM students: Daniel Toledo on bass and Raul Molina on drums. I called the group “Jazz del Norte y del Sur” in order to highlight the collaboration between North and South American musicians.
In addition to performing at the Quito and Guayaquil 4th of July events – in which our group was augmented by Ambassador Adam E. Namm, a fine jazz pianist as it turns out – our tour consisted of concerts and workshops in several cities.
All of the concerts were packed. In Ecuador, many cultural events are sponsored by town or national governments and are free to the public. At the workshops we conducted at schools, we found the students – some as young as 4 – to be fascinated by improvisation and jazz. From the very youngest all the way to the university students, they eagerly joined us in various playing exercises designed to get everyone more comfortable with improvising while starting to learn basic jazz concepts.
Clearly there is great interest in the art form of jazz in Ecuador, as there is all over the world. Periodic resurrected declarations that “jazz is dead” apparently only make it stronger, as evidenced by the ongoing enrollment of students in the worldwide jazz education programs that have proliferated in the last 30 years. If the musicians can organize themselves while the development of public jazz performances is in its initial stage, their power in the marketplace will obviously increase.
I asked JSE founder Jim Gala, who is not only an excellent pianist but also a veteran jazz club owner, whether he thought a musicians’ union would be feasible in Ecuador. He is open to the possibility. He replied, “Regarding a union, I don’t know if there are enough jazz venues in Ecuador to warrant one…perhaps the JSE could develop into a sort of umbrella organization to organize events, book, and negotiate on behalf of the jazz musicians here.”
Jazz has always benefited from the activities of its passionate adherents, whether they be musicians, club owners, promoters or listeners. When all of the above can join forces, real progress in securing artistic and financial opportunity in the jazz world is a certainty.