Kenny Rampton and I called the legendary trumpeter Victor Vitin Paz
As soon as our plane landed in Panama City last Monday night, Kenny Rampton and I called the legendary trumpeter Victor Vitin Paz. He is 83 and currently living in Panama.
“We have a two hour layover before our flight to Caracas. How far do you live from the airport?” we asked him.
“Una hora” was the response.
Damn! Not enough time for a visit.
Kenny had taken lessons with him years ago and I had played shows and done some recording sessions with him when I was like 18 or 19. Just being in his presence is a lesson. His tone is golden, attack pristine, accuracy and consistency definitive, and his ethics and integrity unsurpassed.
When the decision was made to stay in Panama City, we set up an opportunity for the trumpet section, along with Carlos and Juan, to visit Vitin at his home. When we arrive he is sitting in his music room listening to some of his fantastic recordings with Eddie Palmieri and other luminaries of Afro-Latin music. Kenny, Greg, Marcus and I immediately begin peppering him with questions. He takes us deeper and deeper into his unending stream of technical details, informative stories and humorous anecdotes, and regales us with memories of people, places and gigs that stretch across genres, nations and decades of time.
We concentrate deeply and attentively on his every word until we are interrupted by an encroaching, yet fantastic trumpet solo coming from one of the recordings. We stop to hear his solo on a Tito Rodriguez recording from 1964 entitled “Carnival of the Americas”. It featured a lot of heavy hitters: Cachao on bass, Bobby Porcelli on alto, Ray Santos on tenor and the great Mario Rivera on baritone. On one song, Tito introduces each person in the orchestra with a little story before their solo in demonstration of the salutation. Believe me, when it came time for Victor to take his turn he was not playing around.
He goes on to tell us another story about his father who was a musician and a furniture maker. We are fortunate to have Carlos as our translator and historian. He gives Mr. Paz his credentials in the form of who he grew up playing with, listening to and hanging with. Upon hearing this, Vitin is even happier to see us. We talk about everything from the embouchure (his is perfect) to how to write hot arrangements. He tells us that “you have to be clear and spare with the rhythm for something to get hot. Too many rhythms clutter the groove.” He tells us, “It’s like a guy comes into a Chinese restaurant and orders 8 dishes because he doesn’t know what anything is. The waiter looks at his order and says, ‘He’s craaazy!’ And he is.”
The time passes very quickly filled with laughter and much “Oh….we see, Ahhh!! So that’s what that was” and on and on.
Two hours later, his daughter Elia tells us it’s time to eat. His radiant wife of 62 years, Elia Barahona de Paz, has laid out a beautiful spread for us and his son Lito joins us for the meal. They welcome us with the hospitality of kin. Carlos kneels next to Vitin and fills him in on all the different musicians on the New York Afro-Latin Jazz scene. This one has passed away and this one has moved and this one is sick and so on—-the real time grapevine. As we leave (with a good meal and a deeper education) to go teach classes at Danilo Perez’ Foundation, we recall one of our favorite stories. Vitin said his father told him, “If you are observant you will observe. Even if a musician is very bad you will still hear something you like if you know how to hear. Listen carefully to everybody because even the liars also sometimes tell the truth.”
Vitin’s son Lito was saying that he had recently retired and moved down to Panama to take care of his mom and dad. He was running down the weekly schedule and commenting on how much planning and attention it took to make sure his pop was well taken care of. One thing he said really stuck with me: that his father goes out every week to take harmony lessons.
Vitin Paz, one of the great maestros, at 83, is still studying. He is still out here.