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.


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