Home Away: Miguel Zenón Speaks

Written by on July 19, 2020


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Since his first gig at The Jazz Gallery in 2000, Miguel Zenón has been an integral part of the Gallery community. Countless concerts, residencies, events… He and his wife even had their baby shower here. The Jazz Gallery, says Miguel, is his home in New York. Currently in Puerto Rico, Miguel spoke with us via phone about how his life has changed since the pandemic, and got us up to speed on all of his new online projects.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making a little time, Miguel. How are you doing? Are the people you know healthy and safe?

Miguel Zenón: Yeah, we’re okay. I have some friends and some family members who have gotten sick at some point, my brother and his girlfriend actually work in a hospital. They got infected but made it through okay. We’ve had a few friends get it too, but nothing major. My family and I are down in Puerto Rico now, and we’re going to spend the rest of the summer here.

TJG: Walk me back to February, when things started to change. Were you in New York at the time?

MZ: I was on tour. The first cases surfaced in the Seattle area, and I was in Seattle that day, which is how I know [laughs]. We were flying around on the west coast, from San Diego or some place. At first we thought it would be fine, similar to SARS or other big scares like that at the beginning. I teach at Manhattan School and NEC, so I went back home, kept doing my thing, checking in with people, making sure everything was okay. At a certain point, it all shut down. In early March I was playing at Birdland with a student band put together by Berklee College of Music. We were supposed to go to Boston after the Birdland gig, but then the school cancelled the concert and told me that things were about to shut down. Everything started closing. Gigs, schools, everything in the states, overseas. It became obvious that this was a different situation.

TJG: So by that point you were back at your place in New York?

MZ: Yeah, and I didn’t travel again. I might have gone to Boston once to teach at NEC before they closed. But then it was all shut down. The red flag, for me, was seeing how far in advance things were getting cancelled. It was early March and all the summer festivals started cancelling. It was obvious that this is going to last awhile.

TJG: What were some major dates that were cancelled? I know you had a Vanguard lineup.

MZ: A lot, a lot, a lot… All in all, I probably lost $40,000 in cancellations. Everything from international gigs, things with my own band, gigs with other people, pretty much everything. It’s going to be the whole year. It’s a lot.

TJG: With all the cancellations coming in, how did you proceed? Did you just watch the emails flow?

MZ: Pretty much. I checked in with people right away. This is such an unprecedented thing. Most venues didn’t know how to deal with it. A lot of times, if something gets cancelled, you’ll get part of the fee, but this situation has never happened in our lifetimes.

TJG: You mentioned you lost about $40k, does that put you and your family in a tough spot? Have you been able to apply for different grants?

MZ: Of course, we’re in a tough spot. But I have some teaching gigs which kept going remotely. Because of that, I was able to keep that income. Also, I’m an artist-in-residence at the Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University. That was set in stone, and I can do that remotely too. Between those three gigs, I was able to stay above water. And because I was traveling a lot less, I was saving a lot more money. So I was able to balance things out. But there are many musicians who live exclusively off gigs, and those musicians are having a really rough time. Everything got cancelled. If you just live off gigs, you don’t have a lot of options.

TJG: Tell me a little more about the Zuckerman institute.

MZ: That came about last year—I had done stuff at Columbia University before with Chris Washburne, trombonist and great historian/musicologist. He approached me about this opportunity. They bring in a few artists from different branches, like a visual artist, a writer, and a jazz musician. Last year it was pianist Helen Sung. So they reached out to me. The person who got in touch was Michael Shadlen, one of the top neurologists in the world, and a jazz guitarist on the side. He reached out, we met, it seemed amazing. And in retrospect, this saved me, because I had that buffer.

TJG: What do you do with the institute? I noticed a playlist that you put out, what else does your engagement entail?

MZ: I can’t be there in person now, but they set up an office for me, and the idea was that I’d go there and work, do what I do, write music. I’d meet with people, talk to them about things that may have to do with how our brain works, what things effect how we hear and play music, how we perform. I’d been doing that earlier in the year, and planned to have some concerts, some idea exchanges, listening parties. Because I have to do things remotely now, I decided to put together a playlist every week and share it, and have been helping put together online listening parties. I had this event with some of the postdocs, an exercise on rhythm–a lot of the people in the institute are, not surprisingly, musicians or people with musical training. They’re familiar with musical terms. So we do clapping things, explore where the beat is, talk about why we hear things in certain ways, do dance parties and think about how our bodies react to rhythm, those kinds of things.

TJG: That sounds like a lot of fun, and it’s putting you in touch with some great people too.

MZ: Exactly. Also, the residency was supposed to be for this year–it started in January–but because of this situation they extended it to next summer. If things go back to some kind of normalcy, I’ll go back in and work there.

TJG: I saw Elvin, Confirmed with Dan Weiss on Bandcamp. Did you record that in your own spaces?

MZ: Yeah, that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to do more, like a lot of other musicians. Collaborating with people from a distance. Before that, I wasn’t really familiar with doing that myself, I didn’t know how to use Logic or anything. But I said “Listen, I have all this time now, this is the time to do it.” I started learning, little by little. Dan is one of those guys who’s always studying. He came up with this exercise based on an Elvin Jones record that mutates through different triplets, and he thought of me while he was playing it. I thought if I could write a melody that goes along to it, we could record things on our own and combine them. So that’s what we did. We created a guide track that we both played to. The process itself was great, so great that I’m planning to do more. I’m working on doing one now with Paoli Mejias, he’s from Puerto Rico and his main gig is with Carlos Santana. He’s an amazing percussionist, we’ve been collaborating for years. He’s always doing his own recordings, layering things, so I’m working on something with him now.

TJG: I saw you also did a livestream concert with Dan Tepfer, right? I just interviewed him as well, he was telling me about the whole setup. How did it go for you?

MZ: It was awesome. We’ve played a bunch as a duo over the years, and made a record which was supposed to come out now, but we’re holding onto it for obvious reasons. You know what he’s about–he can do a lot of things really well [laughs]. Initially he reached out about doing something with NPR, they were doing a piece on his music and use of technology. I didn’t have the time for that, but I said “If you ever want to collaborate on something that we can put online, we can bring in an audience and have people donate.” He set it up because he’d already been doing that on his own. He probably told you about the software, JackTrip, which is pretty great. Spending so much of my time doing live things on Zoom and working with those limitations, to play in real time with Dan was amazing. We were really playing, like playing for real.

TJG: Another thing I saw was this great conversation you did with Juan Sanchez.

MZ: That’s something I started doing recently, like many people. It’s amazing how this idea of being far away has awakened our need to be in touch with each other, to talk with each other, that kind of thing. I’ve been doing stuff with this theater downtown in the Bowery/Lower East Side, Teatro LATEA. They’re big in the Puerto Rican community. I basically curate a series of concerts for young jazz musicians so they can bring their bands. We also do events around MLK’s birthday every year. I proposed doing some online interviews, and Juan has a relationship with the theater too, so his was one of the first names that came up. With these conversations, they’re usually very biographical. I wanted these interviews to be about current things, and I wanted people to share music and art, not just talk. The one with Juan went great, I’m planning on doing some more. The next one is set up with David Sanchez, who is also from Puerto Rico.

TJG: In your conversation with Juan Sanchez, there was a great moment where he was saying his father had a second-grade education, his mother had a sixth-grade education, and they still encouraged him to go forward into the world of arts, they saw his talent.

MZ: One of the interesting things about these conversations is that you realize how everyone has a very specific way they got into artistic expression. Some people grew up with art around them, with others it’s totally the opposite, their parents supported them, or they didn’t and they rebelled, it’s so interesting.

TJG: Speaking of music, I’ve been really enjoying Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera. It’s a great album, light and cohesive, and it’s been fun listening to the music of your upbringing in Puerto Rico. Now that you’re living in San Juan for the summer, how does it feel being back?

MZ: It always feels nice. We come here often, my wife is from here too, most of our family is here. We come twice, three times a year. It always feels like home. I’ve been in New York since 1998 and I lived in Boston before that, so I’ve lived in the states way longer than where I lived in Puerto Rico growing up, I left at 19. New York is my home, my center. But coming here, it feels like reconnecting to my roots. I’m looking out into the backyard right now, looking at the way trees are here, the way grass looks, the way the weather feels, it’s all very familiar. Even though I only return several times a year, it never feels alien.

TJG: You mentioned that you moved to New York in 1998. At what point did The Jazz Gallery become an important part of your life?

MZ: Wow… So, I moved to New York to get a masters at Manhattan School, and around then I started writing some music. I had friends who would get together to try new music out. Many of those friends are in my band today. When I had enough music written, I said, “I guess I should try to get a gig.”

Yosvany Terry was really good friends with Dale Fitzgerald, and they were starting to do this Jazz Cubano series. I remember going to see him a couple of times, we had gotten close, and he said he would talk to Dale about me bringing a group to the Gallery. I talked to Dale on the phone. He was very proper, asked what my music was like, asked about my vision, he was very specific. But he gave me a gig. That was probably in 2000. It was pretty much my first gig as a leader, anywhere. Since then, as I’m sure you know, I’ve played there for years. I had my baby shower there. We were going there so much that at one point, my wife was like “Let’s just bring a mattress and put it in the dressing room.” I was there four or five times a week, it was my home in New York. It’s been a long relationship.

One thing about the Gallery, and I’m sure you’ve heard this from other people… Because of the type of place it is, the way they do things, Dale and Rio, everyone who now works there, their mentality is always about the music. Music and musicians. It’s obvious when you see what they’re doing now during this crisis. They’re setting up platforms for musicians to make a little money, to interact with fans. That’s not something everyone is doing. It’s pretty unique. The fact that they think about music first not only speaks to their character: They have really good taste in music too. I’m not just saying that because they hire me. You can see it in terms of the quality of what they have. It’s not about selling tickets, which is what you see in most places. You see good shows other places too, but they’re also trying to move product. At the Gallery, they’re specific about what they like, serious about giving young musicians opportunities to come up and play, and they don’t do it as a matter of fact. They’re selective. Because they’ve been an important platform over the years, there are generations of musicians who can call that place home.



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