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Jazz en Dominicana: Interview with Dominican Percussionist Alex Díaz

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Dominican Percussionist Alex Díaz
Dominican Percussionist Alex Díaz - Photo courtesy of Jazz en Dominicana

Shortly after starting the live jazz venue Jazz en Dominicana in Casa de Teatro in Santo Domingo, our percussionist friend Julio “Julito” Figueroa visited us accompanied by a Dominican percussionist who lived in New York named Alex Díaz. That night began a great friendship while sharing about jazz, but above all listening to his experiences about the great Mario Rivera.

Starting this year [2024] I asked Alex if with his Dominican group and accompanied by his dear friend, Puerto Rican saxophonist Iván Renta, they would play at the Fiesta Sunset Jazz (a live jazz venue in Santo Domingo) on April 26th, to celebrate the anniversary of International Jazz Day to the rhythms of Merengue Jazz. In that conversation, the idea arose of doing an interview in which there would be no limit or filter to the answers.

So here is the interview, resulting from several telephone conversations between us. Before we start, let’s share a little about Alex.

José Alexis “Alex” Díaz was born in Baní, Dominican Republic. At 16 years old he was already playing with Los Juveniles del Sabor, a band that included Rubby Pérez and Aramis Camilo. In 1980 he moved to New York where he joined Hilton Ruíz’s band, thus becoming known as one of the best conga players in the city. This resulted in invitations to play with Tito Puente, José Fajardo, Chucho Valdés, Mario Bauzá and his Afro-Cuban Band, Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nations Orchestra, Xavier Cugat, Celia Cruz, Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros and Mario Rivera.

Heir to the concept of Merengue Jazz from his mentor Mario Rivera “El Comandante”. His projects Son de la Calle, The Bebop Boogaloo Kings, Alex Díaz & His Merengue Jazz, and Alex Díaz & Santo Domingo AfroJazz have continued to make exquisite fusions of traditional Jazz jewels with merengue, as well as their own compositions and arrangements.

With this introduction I begin this interview with Alex Díaz.
– Fernando Rodríguez De Mondesert

Alex Díaz - Photo courtesy of Jazz en Dominicana
Alex Díaz – Photo courtesy of Jazz en Dominicana

Jazz en Dominicana (JenD): Who is Alex Díaz according to Alex Díaz?

Alex Díaz (AD): Alex Díaz is a Dominican musician from the province of Peravia and San Juan de la Maguana, a descendant of the last chief who existed in San Juan de la Maguana, the great Guacanagarix. My Taíno roots and Taíno blood emigrated to the United States with the intention of continuing in music and continuing to learn more music. I had the great opportunity that maestro Tito Puente came to my house to give me music and vibraphone classes, as well as the great maestros Mario Rivera, Patato Valdés, Mongo Santamaría, Daniel Ponce, Dizzy Gillespie, Emil Latimer, Baba Olatunji, Jerry González and Andy González, among others.

JenD: Where were you born and raised?

AD: In Baní, until I was 20 years old, that’s when I emigrated to the United States.

JenD: How did you get started in music?

AD: I studied music at the José Reyes de Bani Music Academy, there I studied music theory and drums, I already played in the Baní Music Band at the age of 12, from which they paid me for my services. In Baní I played with Julita del Rio in El Bosque, a famous restaurant and place to dance every Sunday. Also with the Antillanos del Sabor; the Juveniles del Sabor; with Aramis Camilo and Rubby Pérez, the musical director was Luichi Herrera. My first gigs were with Nina el Gago, famous throughout Baní; Yeyén, bassist from my town, after that I emigrated to the United States.

JenD: Why did you choose percussion?

AD: Percussion always attracted me, I wanted to study piano but there weren’t many pianos back then.

JenD: Who were and are your influencers?

AD: Ray Barreto, Eddy Palmieri, and La Típica 73, Aldemaro Romero from Venezuela, and Cachao and his descargas (percussion solos) – with whom I was able to play and with Tito Puente in the Village (on YouTube you can see the video: Tito Puente, Cachao and La Tormenta at the Village Gate in the 80s).

JenD: Who or what teachers helped you progress to the levels you have reached today? Where and how were your studies?

AD: Maestro Tito Puente was my teacher of mambo and Cuban music, also of vibraphone which I keep (this was Cal Tjader’s vibraphone that he sold to Tito and then he sold to me); I also have some timbales and shékere, and the Batá drums that Julito Collazo made for Tito to use on his famous CD Tito Puente en Percusión. After Mario Rivera gave me percussion and jazz lessons to learn to play different rhythms from around the world, and vibe lessons; also African rhythms lessons with Mongo Santamaría, who gave me his famous red congas that he used in his best recordings. With Daniel Ponce I took Cuban songo and rumba lessons (Arturo Sandoval played in my first group – the Kabiosile group – in which Tito Puente played and lent me his orchestra for that recording. Chocolate Armenteros also participated). Patato Valdés taught me how to play congas, two threes, four and five congas and how to tune them all. I met Dizzy Gillespie at the Village Gate along with Baba Olatunji, and they also gave me lessons and played with them at the Village. In short, there are so many people who helped me become a better musician that I can’t mention them all. I also studied African rhythms with the djembe in Buffalo, New York and worked there with an African dance group; In Bani I played with the Tacitus who were number one in Bani.

JenD: What albums have influenced you?

AD: The album Cocinando Suave by Ray Barretto, Cachao y sus Descargas, Tito Puente en Percusión, Dizzy Gillespie Night in Tunisia; Thelonious Monk Piano Solo, Miles Davis Kind of Blue and the Irakere Group, Miguelito Cuní, Arsenio Rodríguez, Hank Jones Piano Solo and Tommy Flanagan Piano Solo.

Alex Díaz - Photo courtesy of Jazz en Dominicana
Alex Díaz – Photo courtesy of Jazz en Dominicana

JenD: From Baní to New York, what is the story like?

AD: When I emigrated to New York, my wife at that time paid for my trip to come to the United States, the route was Haiti and Jamaica – that was where I met Bob Marley at the Montego Bay airport, from there we went to Bahamas and finally to Bimini which is the island closest to Miami, we went by boat and swam to Miami, from there a plane to La Guardia Airport and the rest is history.

JenD: How do you meet Mario Rivera?

AD: I saw Mario Rivera for the first time at the Cinema Centro when he went to the Dominican Republic with the group Los Salsa Refugees, which which was made up of Jerry González, Andy González, Hilton Ruíz, Steve Berrios and Catarey was playing the tambora.

JenD: What was and is Mario Rivera’s concept of Merengue Jazz?

AD: The concept was to take the straight ahead jazz songs and put Dominican percussion on them: merengue, pambiche, palos too, and take our merengues and adapt them to jazz.

JenD: Where does the nickname La Tormenta (The Storm) come from?

AD: The nickname of La Tormenta Díaz comes from a drumroll combined with conversational accents with the piano and bass within the same drumroll and Maestro Tito Puente baptized me as La Tormenta, since it was like a storm knocking down everything that was in the path.

You can hear it in the song: “Fly with the Wind” on my CD Seven; and live on YouTube Live in Miami on the song “Mambo Mongo.” La Tormenta drum beat is a complex drumroll because it involves the entire rhythm section (Mambomongo by Alex Díaz at the South Florida Dominican Jazz Fest 2015 produced by Peter Landestoy)

JenD: You’ve been playing for a long time, and in many styles and genres over all these years. How have these musical adventures been?

AD: Everything has been like a university of music from around the world, blues and jazz, bossa nova with Airto and Flora Purim; Afro-Cuban with the Cubans Chucho Valdés, Paquito d’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval; Spanish music with the Xavier Cugat orchestra; of the Latin world in NY with Tito Puente.

JenD: Name some of the groups you’ve played with, their styles or genres, and what were they like for you?

AD: Tito Puente (the mambo, cha-cha-cha); Daniel Ponce (the rumba); with Patato Valdés, Latin Jazz, as well as with Tito Puente, Xavier Cugat; played with the Ronny Mathews Trio, Hilton Ruiz who won the Charles de Gaulle award in Paris, France in 1984.

JenD: In addition to playing with Mario, you have played with a “Who’s Who” of jazz, Latin jazz, salsa and Latin music. What did it mean to you to be able to play with Tito Puente, José Fajardo, Chucho Valdés, Mario Bauzá and his Afro-Cuban Band, Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nations Orchestra, Xavier Cugat, Celia Cruz, and Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, among others?

AD: I have played a lot and with many…it is a long list, here I will put some of the most significant for me…

I’ve played with Cedar Walton; Ronny Mathews Trio; Hilton Ruiz – on the album El Camino with which we won the Charles de Gaulle award in Paris as the best Latin jazz group; I also won the award for Best Jazz Percussionist 2017 – The 39th Annual Jazz Station Awards.

In 2012 I recorded the CD Beyond 145th Street in which the musical level of the Dominican Republic was raised, and for which UNESCO recognized me as the missing link for merengue to be considered a world heritage music, since others had done their part, but jazz was missing, and thus I completed the cycle to give that world heritage status to merengue, just as Brazil did with his Bossa Nova.

I also performed with the Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz; I recorded the CD 944 Columbus Ave with Maestro Mario Bauzá; with Tito Puente # 87 Salsa meets Jazz; with jazz group One for All, recorded live at Smoke Jazz Club. As well as with Lionel Hampton, a CD made by Tito Puente; and I got to play with Tito Puente and Max Roach (great drummer) and Art Blakey, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. Also played with the Roy Hargrove Septet and Big Band.

I worked in the 80s with all the jazz schools, which sent the students to the jamming that took place in the jazz nightclubs, I played in several clubs every night where there was a jam, I was in charge of the Latin jazz jam sessions.

I also recorded with Eric Alexander, who is one of the best saxophone musicians and teachers in New York, and with piano teacher Dave Hazeltine.

I also played with Freddie Hubbard, Danny Moore, Arturo Sandoval (who has already recorded on two of my CDs: Black Jazz and Live in Miami at the South Florida Dominican Jazz Festival). With Chucho Valdés in the United Nations for presidents from around the world, I also did it with Tito Puente’s group.

With my salsa group we have played in front of Manny Oquendo and his Conjunto Libre, also hand in hand with Maestro Joe Cuba. I recorded with Mexican jazz trumpeter Manny Durán, who was the trumpeter for Ray Barreto, a great composer.

I also played with the East Senegal African Dance group, played djembe in Buffalo, New York with Emil Latimer, a great African percussionist. And… thinking back, I also remembered that I played with trumpeter Chuck Mangione.

Alex Díaz - Photo courtesy of Jazz en Dominicana
Alex Díaz – Photo courtesy of Jazz en Dominicana

JenD: Alex Díaz recently performed in the Dominican Republic on April 26 and 27, both days for the celebration of International Jazz Day 2024.

The first day it was at the renowned venue, Fiesta Sunset Jazz in Santo Domingo, and the second at the Centro Español, Inc. in Santiago. They were top-notch concerts, very special nights. From New York the highly recognized and beloved musicians Alex “La Tormenta” Díaz, percussionist from Baní, and his partner of a thousand battles Iván Renta, saxophonist from Coamo, Puerto Rico, delivered a concert of Merengue Jazz and more with the Santo Domingo AfroJazz ensemble at Fiesta Sunset Jazz on Friday the 26th (April).

The heir to the concept of Merengue Jazz, from his mentor Mario Rivera, continues to make exquisite fusions of traditional jazz gems with merengue in original arrangements, as well as his own compositions. For this concert Alex and Ivan will be accompanied by his group in the country, called “Alex Díaz y la Santo Domingo AfroJazz”; which is made up of local musicians Miguel Montas on drums, Daroll Méndez on bass and Samuel Atizol on piano.

For the concert in Santiago, Cuban saxophonist, based in the Dominican Republic, José E.P. Montano replaced Iván Renta.

Let’s continue with Alex’s answers to our questions, as a result of our long conversation!

JenD: Do you practice a lot? What routines do you use and recommend to improve musical skills?

AD: Practice makes perfection! In my youth I practiced for hours and hours without resting. Once at Mario Rivera’s house, I remember that Dizzy Gillespie arrived and we spent 3 days without rest playing jazz, we made a merengue that Dizzy composed and I played the entire percussion.

JenD: Who is Iván Renta and what does he mean to you?

AD: Iván Renta is a saxophonist from Coamo, Puerto Rico. Mario Rivera commissioned me and Iván to continue with his merengue jazz or jazz merengue project. Iván was an essential part of all my projects, for which I will be eternally grateful for all his help, I consider him as if he were my son.

JenD: Your most recent production was Alex Díaz & Santo Domingo Afrojazz – Merengue Orgánico. What did this album mean to you? What do you highlight about it?

AD: In this production we were the first to make merengues with the Hammond B3. The group does not use a bassist since the bass used is the one that comes with the organ and this is played with the feet. We have made, in this format, the tribute to Johnny Pacheco and we are collecting the music with Alexis Méndez to remember maestro Papa Molina.

Alex Díaz & Santo Domingo Afrojazz: Merengue Orgánico
Alex Díaz & Santo Domingo Afrojazz: Merengue Orgánico [album cover]

Alex’s jazz discography:

  • 1990 – Alex Díaz and Son de la Calle – Black Jazz
  • 1995 – Alex Díaz – Sitting Bull Dance
  • 2004 – Alex Díaz and Son de la Calle – Live
  • 2006 – Alex Díaz & The Bebop Boogaloo Kings
  • 2009 – Alex Díaz and Son de la Calle – Merengue Jazz King – Tribute to Mario Rivera
  • 2011 – Alex Díaz & His Merengue Jazz – Beyond 145th Street
  • 2013 – Alex Díaz – Seven
  • 2016 – Alex Díaz & Santo Domingo AfroJazz – Live – South Florida Dominica Jazz Fest 2015
  • 2017 – Alex Díaz & Santo Domingo AfroJazz – Organic Merengue (Organic Merengue)

JenD: Is there a new album on the way?

AD: Yes, Remembering Papa Molina, His Legacy.

JenD: What music are you listening to these days?

AD: A lot of jazz, blues and bossa nova.

JenD: What, for you, is the balance between music, intellect and soul?

AD: Music is joy and it is the best thing for the soul to have fun.

JenD: Alex, in your opinion, how do you see the talent that is emerging in the Dominican Republic? What do you think of the opportunities in the country?

AD: There is a lot of future in the country, but the rulers do not help and do not give opportunities to Dominican talents in jazz, they believe that bringing musicians from outside, in other and diverse genres, is enough. Myself… I have never been invited to any festival in the Dominican Republic and those who have none contribute anything to the culture or rather to our Dominican culture… because none of them respect merengue or Dominican music, it is a small mafia-style group that they want to see x artist and they take him to give themselves the pleasure that they saw him, then they take them to their homes and do private concerts for them to satisfy their ego and their taste and photos here and photos there, a great waste are the festivals, they are for a little group.

Dominicans outside the country are not given tickets or hotels or anything (except for our great pianist), if you want, come and fuck yourself, while non-Dominican musicians are paid tickets, good money, good hotel, good food. Like a festival where they invited me, alone, not with my group… they would put together a group to accompany me there… they told me to come and play, they didn’t give me a ticket, nor a hotel or anything like someone who says screw you… while the foreign percussionist who was there was paid good money, a hotel, a first class ticket, and a newspaper report, and with what they paid me I couldn’t take, pay anyone, or form a group because it was a pittance – I had to play alone. The luck was that some of the musicians present were sorry and a bassist and pianist appeared and played two songs with me out of pity, that’s how they treat their musicians, the Dominican Republic… those from outside, the foreigners are the ones who are worth it…

JenD: If you could change something in the world of music, and it could become a reality, what would it be?

AD: The Ministry of Culture is there to support Dominican musicians and their music in the Dominican Republic, but it does not help the musical or jazz culture in the country.

It hurts me that with so many recordings made, with so much time playing in the United States, always representing my country, ensuring that our folklore is known through the fusions I make with jazz… I’m not taken into account, don’t invite me to play… I dream of the day that happens.

Alex Díaz - Photo courtesy of Jazz en Dominicana
Alex Díaz – Photo courtesy of Jazz en Dominicana

JenD: What do you see as the next musical frontier for you?

AD: I’m getting tired of the fact that our voice is no longer heard and it’s always the same.

Opinions:

JenD: What is your opinion about the state of jazz today in our country?

AD: If the Ministry Culture does not support we are not going anywhere. Only Jazz en Dominicana helps, without having support from anyone in the government, nor from the Ministries of Culture and Tourism, which are there but do not help.

Their festivals, their live jazz venues?

AD: For me, there is a lot of mafia at the festivals, they do not help the Dominican musician who lives there or those who live outside the country.

The media and jazz (written, radio, digital and social)?

AD: There should be more jazz and blues radio programs, and for me the media does not support anything.

JenD: What other plans are there for Alex Díaz in 2024?

AD: Finish maestro Papa Molina’s project, but the reality is that no one contributes anything.

Alex in your words – what would you like to add and share with our readers:

AD: Let’s support jazz mixed with our folklore and the people who really do their best to have jazz like Jazz in the Dominican Republic, among others, doing it without having funds!!

We thank Alex “La Tormenta” Díaz for the time he dedicated to us in the conversations held for this interview. We are proud to be able to share this series of questions and answers with our readers. To say goodbye we leave you with the Spotify link to the record production Merengue Orgánico by Alex Díaz & Santo Domingo AfroJazz – enjoy this work.

Jazz en Dominicana is a project created by Fernando Rodríguez de Mondesert in 2006. Since its beginnings it’s been promoting Dominican talents in the Jazz genre. His blog has published more than 2,350 articles, reviews of concerts and festivals, interviews, biographies, photographs and more about what he calls “the patio musicians.”

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