Arts & Entertainment

Q&A with San Francisco jazz legend Wayne Wallace

Wayne Wallace, a Grammy-nominated trombonist, has released a new album. (Courtesy of WayneWallacelatinjazzquintet.com)

Wayne Wallace is a versatile and important Bay Area jazz figure. The San Francisco trombonist has donned several professional hats — such as composer, arranger, songwriter, educator, and record label owner — and he wears each of them well. His label Patois Records recently released The Rhythm of Invention, the latest album by his Grammy-nominated Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet.

Wallace, 67, is a five-time Grammy nominee. In a career that has spanned decades, he has worked with countless musical giants, including John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Max Roach, Tito Puente, and Santana. Wallace has fused his recordings and performances with Latin jazz and other genres, sometimes using music to confront complex topics such as the African diaspora.

More information about Wallace and his new album can be found online at www.waynewallacelatinjazzquintet.com.

Bay City News recently spoke by phone with Wallace, whose wide-ranging comments included his love of baseball, the origins of Bay Area jazz, and the enduring appeal of Afro-Cuban music. The following Q&A based on that conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

How did growing up in San Francisco affect your musical growth?

I’m a native San Franciscan. My experience is unique to me. From a general standpoint, anybody who grows up in a port city experiences a bunch of different cultures, to the point that they become multi-lingual. If you’re a musician you become multi-lingual, musically, when you’re exposed to different cultures and styles intimately. It’s experiential. I’ve played with musicians with many different styles from many different places, from Western Europe to Cuba to Africa to Asia to New Orleans, and I’ve played with many different kinds of people. So, I carry a lot of musical styles with me. I love all kinds of music, actually. I love any type of music or person who creates a visceral feeling when I listen.

How did you start playing the trombone?

When I was going to elementary school back in the early 1960s, the San Francisco public school system offered music to students. All we had to do was rent an instrument. I went to Jose Ortega Elementary School in Ingleside. I was already taking piano lessons, and I asked my parents if I could rent a trombone. They rented it for me and I still play a trombone.

Wallace says he was offered musical opportunities while attending San Francisco schools. (Courtesy of WayneWallacelatinjazzquintet.com)

Who were your musical heroes? 

People who mentored me. Bishop Norman Williams taught me a lot. He was a saxophonist, great player, excellent musician, and a good man. I studied with (renowned vibraphone and marimba player) Bobby Hutcherson. And Sid Walker, who was a music teacher at Balboa High School in San Francisco. He taught orchestra and jazz at Balboa High School. He gave all of us an opportunity to stop by his office and listen to John Coltrane and the other greats. Also, Ned Hardin was the vocal instructor there. They had an open-door policy, and always let us stop by their office to listen to music.

What really happened is I had a very nurturing environment, and people were exposing us to influences. I hope that’s still happening in those schools.

There’s been lots of talk of how San Francisco is no longer a good place for artists and musicians. What keeps you there?

Well, first of all, I was born here, and I kept my house here in San Francisco. My roots are here. I didn’t get caught up in the dot com thing. But I don’t think of myself as old school because I know people who have been here longer than I have.

A number of your compositions are about the African Diaspora. How do you mesh that topic with your music?

I think if you’re a student of any artistic endeavor you never stop learning and never stop exploring. You continue studying, because nobody knows everything. It’s impossible. Even if someone tells you they know everything, they’re wrong.

Wallace has worked with icons like Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey, (Courtesy of WayneWallacelatinjazzquintet.com)

I started out with R&B in San Francisco. Then, by associating with musicians from other cultures, people like Pete Escovedo, Eddie Palmieri, and Cal Tjader, the knowledge kept accumulating. I was very fortunate, I was able to read music so my knowledge grew. I was able to study more of this music when I wanted to. I traveled to Havana and visited the International Cuban Music School and things expanded from there. I was accepted into the Cuban music scene, the Afro-Latin scene, and I met people like Tito Puente and Count Basie.

At some point, I worked as a side man with so many different people: Basie, Puente, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Sammy Davis, Jr., Pearl Bailey, even the Smothers Brothers. Those are iconic figures.

Is there a political component that you’re mixing with the music?

All music is just music, period. It can be used for political ends, but intrinsically it speaks for itself as an art form. I teach at Indiana University in Bloomington, and we just had Austrian students come for a residency. They had listened to jazz and hip-hop but not Afro-Cuban jazz, and they were enthralled by it.

If you’re an artist, you’re basically a seeker of truth. The thing about playing jazz is you can’t fake it, it’s too damn hard. You’re always throwing yourself back into the fire every time you play. It’s a way of keeping yourself honest. Jazz has no political motive, you just speak the truth. You could say jazz is a political type of music, but even someone like Richard Nixon loved Duke Ellington. In that respect, it cuts through all of that. Good music is good music. People can do what they want with it. Jazz is like The Force in Star Wars: it is what it is.

I was listening recently to Stravinsky, Bernstein, and Bartok, and I found it to be very emotional. Their work transcends the intellectual part. If you ask jazz musicians about classical music, and conversely, classical musicians about jazz, they hold it in high reverence, even if they can’t play it.

Why does Afro-Cuban music endure?

I think they’re all related to each other. The way to describe jazz in a modern context is that no matter what country you’re in, people wherever you are have taken their folkloric music and mixed it together with jazz. It’s a way we communicate.

Wayne Wallace (Courtesy of WayneWallacelatinjazzquintet.com)

There’s a common language between the cultures (with which) we can communicate. It’s a little like salsa. Salsa is a combination of music from four different countries. You can say the same thing about jazz. It’s regional. And it depends on how you look at it and what social purpose it’s trying to serve. In New Orleans, for example, it has a specific purpose, like when you look at the funeral parades and the second lines. But I don’t care about the style of jazz, as long as I can connect with it emotionally. The emotional context is what I’m interested in.

I love all kinds of music, actually. Any kind of music or person who creates a visceral feeling when I can listen.

What can we expect from your new album, The Rhythm of Invention, that was released on June 7?

I did an album called Canto America with (percussionist) Michael Spiro. It was a large-scale work with 40 to 50 musicians. We were nominated for a Grammy. It was some of the best work I’ve ever done. So, I wanted to take the best elements of that work and reduce the scale. We had the concept of taking music from South America and using a string quartet and woodwinds, as well as music from North American jazz, including using acoustic piano, electric bass, and other instruments. And we tried finding a common ground to make music, in trying to find the commonalities of North and South America and the Caribbean.

With this approach, we took American jazz standards and re-imagined them. Songs like Take Five, All the Things You Are, and So What.

I wanted to avoid navel gazing. You can get into your own thing so much that nobody knows what you’re doing. Without pandering, I want them to walk away humming. The music shouldn’t be dumbed-down, but it also shouldn’t be so over the top that the audience is confused about what’s happening. It’s important to strike a balance. I’m a big fan of melody and sometimes jazz has energy. It’s important to me, to connect with the audience in some way.

You are a composer, arranger, musician, and producer. Why wear so many hats?

I like the variety it gives me. It makes me pay attention to the different aspects of the music business, to appreciate what it takes to get the job done. I marvel at (successful musician and producer) Quincy Jones, who knows what it takes and sees the big picture. I love all those things because they complement each other. Playing music is like yoga; it makes you breathe as you exercise. It’s the same thing when I play. It makes you feel better, it invigorates your body. So, it all keeps me fresh, even doing interviews because it makes me think. I like to reflect on what I’ve done and ask myself, ‘How can I do it differently?’

What’s next for you?

We have new albums coming. And as an educator, I’ve studied the history of jazz. One of my next projects is to dig up the early roots of jazz in San Francisco and the Bay Area. In jazz’s early days, there was a pathway of musicians — including (pioneering jazz pianist) Jelly Roll Morton — from New Orleans to the Bay Area, by way of train. There were only so many places black musicians could play at the time. There was a circuit and the Bay Area was one of the stops.

What are some of the things that have changed in jazz over the years?

The lack of mentorship and the number of live gigs people can play. Also, when we were kids, we had to go track down jazz. It took work. Today, all you have to do is open your computer. That paradigm has changed. Change is natural, but you want it to improve things, not make them worse. It’s like with baseball. The changes in baseball I have problems with, aesthetically. People say the game moves too slow. But that’s the beauty of the game. It could go on forever, until someone wins the game. Is everybody in a hurry? If you’re in a hurry, don’t watch the game.

There’s a joke that all jazz musicians tell: “How do you make a million dollars in jazz? Start with two million.”

It’s true. Nobody goes into this to make money. People play jazz because they love it and it feeds their soul.