Miguel Zenón interview: “Identity is a state of mind and a choice you make”

New York jazz master channels Puerto Rican roots in Portland performance this weekend.


Internationally acclaimed alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón celebrates his just-released CD, Identities are Changeable, at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s club at 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 14. Before the New York City-based Miguel Zenón Quartet performs, the Puerto Rican-born jazz master will talk about his Latin-music origins with local Cuban-American songstress and opening act, Jessie Marquez.

Then Zenón and drummer Eric Doob, pianist Luis Perdomo and bassist Hans Glawischnig will launch into compositions from Identities, originally featuring his quartet and a twelve-piece ensemble. They were commissioned by Montclair State University as part of a multimedia project that includes his interviews with seven New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent and a video installation by artist David Dempewolf. (The Portland concert features only music from the album, played by his quartet.)

Last month, OAW’s Claire Sykes talked to the 37-year-old San Juan, Puerto Rico-born-and-raised Zenón, who is a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a Guggenheim Fellow and multiple-Grammy nominee, about his upbringing and cultural identification, how he composes and why jazz matters—and the role music plays in connecting, shaping and changing lives.

Miguel Zenon performs with his quartet Friday at Portland's Jimmy Mak's.

Miguel Zenon performs with his quartet Friday at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s.

Claire Sykes: How did you get into music, and particularly the sax?

Miguel Zenón: I grew up around Puerto Rican music. It was a part of everyday culture, in the neighborhood and the house; my mom was always singing and my dad played percussion. But there were no professional musicians in my family. I started studying music formally at age ten or eleven from someone in the neighborhood who taught the kids solfège, or sight singing, and how to read music. Around age eleven, I was accepted at the Escuela Libre de Música [in San Juan, Puerto Rico], and went there for six years and studied music more formally.

The instrument I was attracted to early on was the piano, but I never studied it. The first day of school I was a little late, and the space for piano was full. Someone in my family had a sax sitting around and it seemed like the logical choice. At the time, I was more interested in music, as a whole, than a specific instrument. The sax was a vehicle for me to play music, and it just grew on me after a while.

CS: How did your music career develop?

MZ: The first four to five years at the Escuela Libre de Música, I wasn’t serious enough about music to think it would be my livelihood. I was also a good student in math and science, and thought a career in that would interest me. For the longest time, that was my goal. What changed for me was discovering jazz music. I was listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. But if I had to choose one that influenced me the most, it would be Charlie Parker because he played the same instrument [alto sax] as I did. I was trained in classical saxophone, and it was all about good technique. He has that in his playing, but also he improvised so freely, so naturally. It had a really big effect on me then, and even now. Jazz made me reconsider what music and playing it had meant to me in my life, and I fell in love with the idea of making music for a living. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

But there were no institutions in Puerto Rico to study jazz formally. I knew I had to leave, but my family couldn’t help me, financially. So from the time I graduated from high school until I went to [Boston’s] Berklee College of Music a year and a half later, I was trying to get scholarships and make money to pay for a plane ticket and enrollment for school.

Once I got to Boston [via scholarship in 1995], first of all, I had an actual structure telling me “this is what jazz is.” Also, I had people around me that were my age, from all over the world, interested in the same things I was. Most of them were a lot more advanced than I was, exposed to jazz and playing it for a long time. They were better than me, and pushed me in a different way.

In Boston, I sought out a Latin American musician known in the jazz world, Danilo Pérez, and he became an important mentor for me. We’d get together at his house and play. Another was David Sánchez, who I met through Danilo. When I went to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music [again a scholarship, in 1998], I introduced myself to David and he invited me into his house, and we’d practice together all the time. He and Danilo were what I was trying to follow, because they were these young Latin American musicians coming from a similar place as I, but also making a name in jazz, while remaining true to their roots and background. Eventually, David invited me to play in his band. That was my first opportunity playing with a working band, and touring. From that, I started playing with other people.

Channeling Puerto Rican roots

CS: What about writing music?

MZ: When I started writing [around 1998], I tried to sound like Charlie Parker, Coltrane or a little more modern. Then I realized I had to go back to the music that surrounded me in Puerto Rico, and listen to it from the perspective of my studies in jazz. And that’s when I started coming into my own music. It felt more natural, so it became evident that was the road I should follow. I’ve always tried to capture some of the elements from Puerto Rican and Caribbean music, and filter them through the jazz perspective.

CS: How do you approach writing music?

MZ: It’s hard for me to write solely relying on inspiration, waiting for ideas to come, or sitting at the piano to find something I like. It’s easier for me to come to the composer’s table with a basic idea, or a very concretely developed seed that I’m going to plant, even if it’s just a three-note melody, rhythmic pattern or harmonic sequence. I need to have something to get me started.

With the music I write, or jazz in general, it’s hard for me to think of it in terms of labels. In the music of major jazz artists today, like Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Chick Corea, I hear elements of music from all over the world. The definition of jazz has become wider and my music is a reflection of that. Even if it comes from a Latin perspective, it’s hard to define Latin music, because it could be from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and all have different styles. It’s just like American music; it’s not only country music or blues.

Puerto Rico could be anywhere

CS: Latin culture literally speaks in your new CD, Identities are Changeable, in which you weave interviews with Puerto Ricans living in New York City into your big band compositions. Tell me about this.

MZ: I’d been thinking of this whole idea about identity for a while. I have family in New York from my father’s side and he lived there before he passed away. I used to come visit them when I was ten or eleven, so I was exposed early to being in a familiar environment where people spoke the same language, ate the same food and behaved the same way as they do in Puerto Rico, but when you look outside things look totally different than at home.

When I moved to Boston and then New York, from an older person’s perspective it was in many ways shocking to me to meet Puerto Ricans, or Americans with Puerto Rican roots, who were almost as connected, or even more, to Puerto Rican culture than some of the people I knew at home, and wearing that national pride on their sleeves, really wanting others to know that that was their roots and background.

Then in 2010 I read a book by Juan Flores, The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning. He conducted 25–30 interviews with individuals from the Caribbean, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. They talked about their relationships with their countries of origin and the effect on their development as human beings, how it forged their identities. That idea tapped into my initial interest. At the same time, I was commissioned by Montclair State University’s Peak Performance series.

I’ve been listening to big band my whole life. I knew I wanted to tackle it, and this project seemed like a good opportunity. Going into it, I listened to a lot of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and modern big bands, trying to find something that spoke to me, as a fan and a composer—something simple enough that I could handle. I did the interviews first, and initially, my idea was to write a piece for each person. Then I started seeing the narratives revolve around themes like home, language and people’s relationships between the Puerto Rican and African communities in New York City; and I decided to compose based on the themes.

The interview excerpts I saw as musical solos. Whenever they come in, everything else goes into the background. And I wanted to represent this idea of identity in the music with something that tied the themes together. I saw how rhythm could do that, with two or more rhythmic dimensions coexisting in each piece—as five against seven, three against two or five against three.

CS: What did you learn from this project?

MZ: The whole project was a learning experience for me. Everything about it was new—the music, the multimedia aspect, the big band writing. It made me more comfortable with all those things, so if I ever do something like this again, I now have somewhere to start. But the biggest thing I gained was the idea that Puerto Rico could be anywhere. What makes your identity has to do with your own, personal experience. Especially if you’re born in the US, but have roots somewhere else, identity is a state of mind and a choice you make: You can ignore your roots or acknowledge them.

Miguel Zenon. Photo: Jimmy Katz

Miguel Zenon. Photo: Jimmy Katz

CS: What does it mean to you to be a Puerto Rican living in New York?

MZ: My experience is very different from the people I interviewed, because I grew up in Puerto Rico. I feel connected to my roots, and my connection has only grown since I moved outside of Puerto Rico, because the things I didn’t pay much attention to in my early years I now see as special and unique.

CS: You stay connected to your roots through your Caravana Cultural project. Since you founded this self-produced project in 2011, I know you’ve done nine free, traditional jazz concerts, performed by your quartet, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. How did you come to do this?

MZ: I’m interested in using music, and jazz in general, to try to better things in Puerto Rico. The availability of culture and being exposed to new cultural experiences are very important in society. Caravana Cultural tries to plant a seed for this idea. For many [in the audience], the jazz they know is what’s on the radio; it’s more modern. So [through the music of traditional jazz artists] I feel it’s important to say, This is jazz and these are the musicians that made it what it is today. Also, just as these musicians first opened the doors of jazz to me, I’m hoping they’ll do the same for these audiences.

CS: What’s the biggest gift you’ve received from music?

MZ: Music can be an effective medium to communicate and reach out to audiences. I’ve seen the power that music has, as a universal language, to connect with people. And it makes me believe in music even more.

The Miguel Zenón Quartet performs at Jimmy Mak’s in Portland, 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 14. Tickets available online.

Listen to a National Public Radio interview with Zenón.

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer in Portland. Copyright 2014 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

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