The Latin music scene in the Bay Area has produced innovative bands like Mazacote, Michael Spiro’s Tanaóra, Ray Obiedo’s Urban Latin Jazz Project, and the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet. Yet finding gigs is another matter. In the Seventies, there were dozens of Latin music venues like Señorial and Cesar’s Latin Palace, the North Beach hotspot that featured local bands and stars like Héctor Lavoe and El Gran Combo. Today, few venues cater exclusively to live Latin music, although new clubs open and close with regularity. Yoshi’s in Oakland and San Francisco and Ashkenaz and La Peña in Berkeley regularly feature live Latin bands, but many clubs feature DJs spinning CDs.
“Latin music isn’t dying, but I’m pessimistic about the state of playing live music as a profession,” said Tanaóra percussionist Michael Spiro. “We make the same today as we made thirty years ago; the same is true for jazz musicians. You can play the music you love, but you can’t eat. Almost every musician I know is a music teacher, too. Wayne Wallace teaches at San Jose State, John Santos is at the College of San Mateo. … What does it say about our artistic lives when our art is done ‘on the side? ‘”
One bright spot is Coda, a supper club at Mission and Duboce. The San Francisco venue has been booking bands like Mazacote and Kat Parra’s Sephardic jazz group since it opened, and recently recruited Stephanie Dalton of Urban Music Presents to curate a Latin music series called Tu Gusto Musical on Sunday evenings. Concerts continue through May, featuring a sampling of the Bay Area’s wide-ranging bands playing Latin jazz and salsa, as well as groups playing Latin American folk music and funk.
“Everybody loves a good salsa band,” said Dalton. “Latin jazz is harder to book. I’m trying to present the whole Diaspora of Latin and Creole music from Latin America and Spain including tango, flamenco, and Venezuelan joropo.”
When Dalton first moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles, there were lots of places to hear live music, she said. She tended bar in jazz clubs and helped organize PortFest, a world music and jazz festival at the Port of Oakland. She also booked Latin bands at local venues, including Bruno’s in the Mission. “I had packed houses, but after one bad night, I got canceled and replaced by a DJ,” she said.
As she contemplated her next move, Dalton started the Urban Music Presents newsletter in order to “create a community of listeners, dancers, musicians, and media people who love Latin music. [Latin fans] come from every age and ethnicity; the music inspires people to move and get to know one another, so I started a newsletter for the people who signed up at the shows I presented.” The newsletter currently goes out to 3,000 people every week.
Meanwhile, the economy continues to hurt small venues. “They pay the rent by selling drinks; paying bands is often seen as a luxury,” she said. Then she noticed Coda, which is owned by musician Bruce Hanson and Chris Pastena, the chef from Bruno’s. “The club has a great sound system, great terms for the musicians, and they support most styles of music, but their Latin program wasn’t that strong,” said Dalton. “When I offered to consult with them, they were very supportive of my ideas; they paid to print up the flyers and let me book this series as a unit.” Thanks to the Bay Area’s deep Latin roots, Dalton has no shortage of talent to choose from.
While many people consider New York City the birthplace of Latin music in North America, Latino musicians started making music in the Bay Area at the same time the seeds of salsa were being planted in New York. “It’s smaller, but there’s been a Latin scene here for almost a century,” said Latin percussionist and historian John Santos. “The San Francisco Club Puertorriquño was founded in 1912. It’s the oldest Puerto Rican organization in the US and I’m sure they played music. My grandfather was in bands in the Forties when there was a scene led by musicians like Oakland’s Merced Gallegos and Juantio Silva, who were inspired by Machito, Perez Prado, and Tito Puente.”
By the Fifties, there was an identifiable West Coast Latin sound exemplified by George Shearing and Cal Tjader, but the melding of diverse styles that marks San Francisco’s Latin sound was born in the Sixties. The Latin rock of Santana and Malo spawned dozens of less successful bands, while Azteca, with Pete and Coke Escovedo, began combining salsa, Latin jazz, funk, and rock starting in 1972.
Guitarist Ray Obiedo, leader of the Urban Latin Jazz Project, played with the Escovedos in Azteca. “I grew up playing funky music with jazz overtones,” said Obiedo. “Azteca had a Latin hybrid of West Coast Latin jazz, funk, and R&B. Pete’s still doing Latin jazz with an emphasis on the rhythm and groove that isn’t so typical or traditional. That’s how Latin jazz is played in the Bay Area. The New York bands are harder and more aggressive. Maybe it’s the New York vibe. Here, the climate’s more laid back.
Obiedo says his band mates aren’t traditional Latin players. Still, he said, in the Bay Area, “no matter what you play, that flavor is always there. The Urban Latin Jazz Project has elements of Latin jazz, Brazilian, Caribbean and Cuban styles, but in a funky West Coast style.”
The cross-pollination Escovedo pioneered and Obiedo refined is still the hallmark of local Latin bands. “[Bay Area] Latin musicians aren’t afraid to blend styles,” said Spiro. “Maybe because players like John Calloway, Wayne Wallace, and myself are Americans. We grew up listening to [diverse styles] so we’ll play with a Cuban feel, then slip into a samba or funk arrangement. We’re not culturally bound, which isn’t a good or bad thing; it’s just how it is. Tanaóra plays Brazilian, Cuban, and other Latin hybrids.”
Afro-Latin jazz trombonist and piano player Wayne Wallace thinks the relatively small size of the Bay Area Latin music scene contributes to the local sound. “We’re half the size of New York or Miami,” he said. “That fact creates opportunities for more cultural and artistic collaboration. Bay Area musicians are willing to appreciate and learn from Afro-Cuban music and vice versa. The scene here is growing rapidly because so many [Latin musicians] are teaching in high schools and universities.”
For local bands, Dalton’s series is giving fans an overview of the scene with some of the Bay Area’s most vital bands. “It’s a diverse scene with all kinds of flavors from Peru and Argentina, with cumbia, merengue, hardcore salsa, too,” said Mazacote bandleader Louie Romero, who moved to San Francisco from New York 25 years ago. “That’s one reason I moved out here. This series shows that [diversity] in a club with good food and a crowd that dances and appreciates the music.”