Puerto Rico Jazz: The Workshops

According to professor Warren R. Pinckney Jr., “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. Additional factors include increasing economic prosperity, the Cuban revolution (1959), the unavailability of Cuban music, and establishing business and organizations that promoted jazz and jazz studies in academic institutions.” Also, some Puerto Rican artists were seeking an alternative to the highly commercialized Latin American dance music that was popular at the time.

Three unhailed entities played significant roles in introducing, developing, and popularizing jazz in Puerto Rico: The San Juan Jazz Workshop, The Caribbean Jazz Workshop, and The Don Pedro Jazz Workshop.

THE SAN JUAN JAZZ WORKSHOP

The San Juan Jazz Workshop was founded by the Portuguese saxophonist, Charlie “El Gato” Rodrígues and the American trumpeter, bassist William Dale Wales on April 8, 1962.

Rodrígues was born in Massachusetts to Portuguese parents. He studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music and the U.S. Navy Musical Academy. He visited Puerto Rico in 1929 as a member of the Special Services Division of the U.S. Navy. Later, he returned to the island married, settled, and worked with Puerto Rico’s top bands.

Little is known about the trumpeter William Dale Wales, or how he and Rodrigues met and what prompted them to create The San Juan Jazz Workshop. Wales was married to the American actress, vocalist Liz Sheridan, who is best known for her portrayal of Jerry Seinfeld’s mother in the series, Seinfeld. Sheridan and Wales resided in Puerto Rico and were together from 1960 until his death in 1985.

According to The San Juan Jazz Workshop’s Charter, its objectives were:

  • To stimulate musicians themselves to greater productivity by affording them the opportunity to write for and perform with a great variety of instrumentalists
  • To present to the serious Jazz listening public of Puerto Rico a wide scope of interpretations of contemporary music.

Workshop members performed at hotels and nightspots such as El Botella, The Jazz Metro Bar, The Buccaneer Club, The Music Hall Lounge, Al’s Little Club, Francesca’s Pub & Garden Restaurant, El Batey, Danny’s Green Room, Cafe Matisse, Jack’s Club and Bob Bower’s The Place, military bases, local plazas, and universities. The Workshop also sponsored a quarterly, “Live in Concert” series at The Tapia Theatre and a weekly television and radio series titled, Taller de Jazz, which aired on Mondays from 8 to 9 PM.

Members of the San Juan Jazz Workshop who gained notoriety include:

  • Percussionists Monchito Muñoz, Ray Romero, Walfredo de Los Reyes.
  • Pianist’s Joe Vallejo, Nestor Torres (father of the famous flutist), Berto Torres.
  • Raymond Concepcion (aka Ray Coen) and Rene Barrios.
  • Trombonist Pito Sepulveda.
  • Arranger Ray Santos.
  • Trumpeter Juancito Torres.
  • Also, the visual artists Lorenzo Homar and Rafael Tufiño, and several photographers whose artwork and photographs were instrumental in documenting the era, the artists, the lineups, and venues that no longer exist.
The San Juan Jazz Workshop - Hotel San Geronimo Hilton
The San Juan Jazz Workshop – Hotel San Geronimo Hilton

THE CARIBBEAN JAZZ WORKSHOP

Another artist who promoted jazz in Puerto Rico was Paul Neves, who moved to Puerto Rico from the mainland and founded The Caribbean Jazz Workshop. The Workshop was a center where musicians met, rehearsed, and participated in jam sessions. Neves was considered a jazz pioneer in Puerto Rico. Also, an educator and disseminator of modern jazz techniques.

THE DON PEDRO JAZZ WORKSHOP

The Don Pedro Jazz Workshop (aka El Taller de Jazz Don Pedro) was the brainchild of jazz aficionado, Ana Vélez, who, in 1960, became enamored with jazz after stumbling on jazz LPs at her local pharmacy. She is also the author of the books En Torno Al Jazz (Volumes 1 and 2).

The Workshop was founded in 1969 and located in a basement on Esteban González Street in Santa Rita, Rio Piedras, near the Tertulia Bookstore (aka “The Burger King of Poets”). It is named after the lawyer-activist, patriot Pedro Albizú Campos, a pivotal figure in the modern civil rights movement in Puerto Rico. Campos advocated self-determination for Puerto Ricans and led the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in the 1930s. Because director, Ramón Soto Vélez viewed jazz as a symbol of freedom from oppression, he adopted the name “Don Pedro” to symbolically reaffirm Campos’ views and to express the historical dilemma of the colonization of Puerto Rico. According to Soto, “Don Pedro Productions is effective in attracting many Puerto Ricans to jazz since the very name imbues the music with symbolic importance.”

Ramón Soto Vélez became involved with jazz while working at a jazz club in New York City in the 60s. Also, he worked in Europe as a booking agent for Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis. As the story goes, it was jazz icon Mary Lou Williams who encouraged him to promote jazz in Puerto Rico. Under Soto’s leadership, The Workshop presented clinics, conferences, published a bulletin, and housed a record store and a rehearsal space for musicians, students, and jazz lovers. Also, it created opportunities for emerging artists, such as the saxophonist David Sánchez, who debuted there in 1991.
Soto also promoted the series, Pintando al Ritmo de Jazz (Painting to the Rhythms of Jazz), which combined music and visual art at various performance spaces and galleries around the island. Some of the artists who took part in the series include Hilton Ruiz, Eddie Gómez, David Sánchez, Jose “Mañengue” Hidalgo (father of the legendary percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo), and featured the artistry of Rafael Tufiño, Augusto Marín y Marín, and Myrna Báez, among others. Velez also produced the radio program El Tiempo a Jazz and the television program, Escala Internacional on channels 6 and 3 WIPR TV.

Between 1977 and 1980, the Workshop presented Gato Barbieri, Tito Puente, George Benson, Sonny Fortune, Hilton Ruíz, Jackie McLean, Rogelio “Ram” Ramírez, Eddie Gómez, Dexter Gordon, the Heath Brothers, Kenny Barron, Ray Mantilla, John Hicks, George Coleman, Sonny Stitt, Major Holley, Betty Carter, and Clifford Jordan among others. When the Workshop closed in 2000, it marked the end of an era.

It’s worth noting the Workshops coincided with the island’s “Golden Age of Music” (1960 to the mid-80s), which, musician, author Quique Talavera documents in the book, Metamorfosis Musical De Puerto Rico Del 1959 Al Presente (2020). Earlier this year I interviewed Talavera. He described the era in a nutshell: “It begins in 1959 with the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro’s rise to power, and the expulsion of the U.S., which included the mob (Mafia) and the entertainment industry. When Cuba closed down the entertainment industry moved to Puerto Rico. From the 60s to about the mid-80s, it was the entertainment capital of the Caribbean.”

In conclusion, the Workshops were the precursors to the Festival de Jazz Tierrazo (1981), the Festival Interamericano de las Artes (1984), the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival (1991-2012), the Borikén Jazz Festival, and Humberto Ramírez‘s Puerto Rico Jazz Jam among others. Also, they were pivotal to the development, growth, and popularity of jazz in Puerto Rico.

This article is a work-in-progress. Additional information will be added as it becomes available.

REFERENCE

  • Maldonado, William Sostre – Boricua Jazz: Desde Rafael Hernández and Miguel Zenón – La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño (Independent, 2019).
  • Pinckney, Warren– Thesis: Puerto Rico Jazz and the Incorporation of Folk Music: An Analysis of New Music Direction (2015).
  • Ramírez, Humberto – The History of the San Juan Jazz Workshop (www.indice.com).
  • Rodrigues, Charlie – El Gato Liner Notes (Dorado Records).
  • Talavera, Quique – Metamorfosis Musical de Puerto Del 1959 al Presente (TM Recording, 2020).

PLEASE CONSIDER SUPPORTING THE PUERTO RICO PROJECT VIA PAYPAL: JAZZDELAPENA67@GMAIL.COM. THANK YOU!

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© 2021 Tomas Peña – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Tomas Peña
A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, 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.

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