Your career in jazz music started in New York City. Could you tell us about your formative years and about the time you worked with Eddie Palmieri in the mid-’60s?
I started playing trombone when I was 14 and was gigging at 15. By 17 I added string bass (a common double in those days). I met Larry Harlow when I was still in high school and the summer I turned 18 I played bass with his Latin dance band in the Catskill Mountains. I started working mainly on trombone by 1960 and the great Barry Rogers, who was Eddie’s trombone player, needed a sub. There were no trombone players playing Latin music at that time except for Barry, but he heard about me, and the fact that I had played bass in Latin bands. So he called me to do the gig. Eddie liked the way I played and added me as a second trombone. I played with Eddie for the next two years and left the band to try to play jazz in Europe. That didn’t work out and when I came back I started playing with Charlie Palmieri, which led to me recording the second Alegre All Star album.
But the biggest impact I made as a trombone player was with Larry Harlow. He formed a trumpet and trombone band that became the quintessential New York salsa line-up. I wrote the first charts for that instrumentation and starting the practice of power trombone solos after the massed brass mambo section. I left the Latin scene and worked with Herbie Mann for a number of years. Chick Corea was the piano player and that led to his recording ‘Cuban Roots’ with me.
‘Cuban Roots’ released in 1967 is a jazz classic – could you provide us with some insight into the recording of this milestone in jazz history?
I was well-known on the Latin scene and playing with Herbie gave me some extra status. I approached the legendary Latin producer Al Santiago, who had produced the Alegre All Star albums with a demo of the music for ‘Cuban Roots.’ He produced the date for me, despite the fact that the company he was working for, Musicor, was a rather conservative Latin dance music label.
We recorded the album with one rehearsal in one three-hour session. Al was rushing me like crazy and didn’t spend any time getting a good recording sound. We were in a small room and all close together so there wasn’t enough separation to record stereo. We did every tune in one take. As we were finishing the last tune I saw a commotion in the engineer’s booth. It was the owner of the company freaking out over the music. I was sure the album would never get released. And I never participated in the mix. But I was very pleasantly surprised when Al called me to take picture for the cover and give him info for the liner notes. The album came out in ’67, was printed in 500 copies and died a quiet death.
Nine years later Larry Harlow called me and asked me if I had a sealed copy. I had one left. I gave it to him and ‘Cuban Roots’ was released around 1976 on the Artol label. It was the Artol version that most made the first impact on other musicians. Unfortunately it had a flaw right at the beginning of Chick’s solo. Fortunately this is corrected in the Japanese re-release.
What did you wish to capture during the recording of ‘Cuban Roots’?
Barry turned me onto Cuban folkloric music, both the secular music, rumba and comparsa and the sacred music, toques de santo. Although I was making my living playing with dance bands I was very active in the jazz scene, playing with a number of big bands and playing jam sessions and gigs with some of the guys experimenting with free jazz. I felt that the folkloric rhythm sections and tunes were a perfect background for the kind of jazz that I was experimenting with – extended modal improvisations and harmonies as well as the king of raw sound and powerhouse approach that was at the cutting edge of New York jazz at the time.
Who are some of your influences in jazz and perhaps in the other arts as well? And what inspires you to write music?
The albums that had the most direct influence on ‘Cuban Roots’ were two folkloric albums, ‘Carnival In Havana’ on the Washington label and a Cuban album called ‘Afro’ on the Orfeo label. The ensemble sound was based on my love of ‘Mingus Ah Um.’ I listened to jazz constantly all through my 20s. My favorite albums were ‘Charlie Parker All Star Sextet’, ‘Miles Davis In Europe’, ‘John Coltrane and Duke Ellington’ and ‘Money Jungle’ with Mingus and Ellington. I loved Sonny Rollins and the few tunes he recorded with Thelonious Monk were a model for how to build a solo. I loved Monk’s trio albums, especially the album of Ellington’s music.
My first wife, the painter Joyce Ellen Weinstein, introduced me to painting which was always very important to my sense of being an artist. Having confidence in the work and a commitment to persist despite discouragement. Something that failed me when I stopped playing but that has carried my through the last 30 years as a jazz flutist.
What was your favourite album from the 1970s period? Could you tell us about it?
As you can see from the last question, my favorite recordings were from the 60s. By the 70s I was more concerned with getting my PhD in Philosophy and then playing the flute. I never progressed much in my listening, but stayed with the recordings I loved and actually went backwards over the years. When I started listening for pleasure I turned to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith and especially Art Tatum. For a period of time when I was driving around with a car with an AM radio I listened to Frank Sinatra who became my model for how to play a melody on flute.
What was your opinion of the jazz-fusion movement of the 1970s?
I got a chance to play trombone with some of the experimental bands that led to the jazz-rock bands like Blood Sweat and Tears. Had I stayed in the business that’s where I would have gone (the gig that I turned down when I decided to stop playing and concentrate on doctoral studies was to put a horn section together for Janis Joplin). I never liked Miles’ later albums as much as the classic albums of the 50s and 60s and I really never paid much attention to bands like Return To Forever or Weather Report. Part of the reason was that I was broke, divorced and supporting an ex-wife and two kids on part-time teaching so I didn’t buy any new albums. But I did have girlfriends, so I listened to more rock and roll, which I preferred straight up; Jimi Hendrix for sure, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin’s album ‘Pearl’ and the Rolling Stones and my favorite Blues player, Albert King.
How has Latin jazz evolved or changed over the last 40 years or so – or has it changed? Could you provide us with a short history of the music?
The early influential Latin jazz bands were Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader and Herbie Mann. Two experimental albums in the 60s influenced the New York guys, my album ‘Cuban Roots’ and Sabu Marintez’s album ‘Jazz Espagnole.’ Also influential was Cachao’s Cuban jam session albums and of course the Alegre All Stars. But the most influential band was Tito Puente. When the big band business dried up Tito had to work with a small band and so let guys stretch out and be featured as soloists. Mario Rivera was very important as Tito’s main soloist and his effect on Latin jazz was enormous as were the Gonzalez brothers and the Fort Apache Orchestra. The Cuban band Irakere had an enormous influence on the music and the generation of Cuban musicians that included Paquito de Rivera and Arturo Sandoval brought Latin jazz to a very high level.
Although Eddie Palmieri was more rooted in dance music, his influence on the many great Latin jazz players that played with his band such as Conrad Herwig and Bryan Lynch was an important part of the development of the music. There are too many guys playing Latin jazz today to even begin to mention, but Bobby Sanabria was and is a major force on the music on the east coast as is John Santos on the west coast.
Recently, as a jazz flutist, I have been playing with the latest generation of Cuban musicians in New York including the extraordinary percussionists Pedrito Martinez and Mauricio Herrera and two phenomenal young pianists Axel Laugart and Aruan Ortiz, plus of course my work with Omar Sosa.
There is another thread to Latin jazz coming out of Brazil. I have recorded a number of albums in that genre playing with such masters as Romero Lubambo, Cyro Baptista, Paula Braga and Nilson Matta.
For more information on Mark Weinstein’s recordings, go to www.jazzheads.com