One night in Buenos Aires is not enough. I can’t believe we didn’t see Fats
When we left Montevideo last Wednesday the weather was spotty. We were set to travel by ferry to Buenos Aires and ended up being delayed by about an hour and a half. As we waited for the skies to clear, we sat in the spacious chairs and had the chance to fellowship with each other. The conversation ranged from a Shorty Rogers record, to the schedule of our next concert season. Due to the fragility and state of support for the arts today, I’m always cautious when speaking about an upcoming season. I’ll mentally substitute the word ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ just to be safe. Once on our way, the ride is easy and soon we are pulling into Buenos Aires at 3 pm with a 5pm soundcheck and an 8 o’clock gig. Not a lot of time but just enough.
My mind falls on the great Argentine trumpeter Fats Fernandez who I always want see and hear.
Dr. Osvaldo Hamburg, his wife Noemi and two of their kids Hernan and Eduardo, meet us at the train station. We have been friends for years and no trip to Buenos Aires has ever been complete without visiting their home for a good meal and listening to some of his great record collection. The last time, too many years ago, we listened to the Terry Gibbs big band swinging all to be damned. I love the tradition of greeting people at the airport or train, as it softens the journey. Our celebrity soundman David “Sugar” Robinson leaves the train station in a car with me. He has to get to the theatre immediately to set up the rapidly approaching sound check and the gig. The band works steadily from about 4pm to 11pm every day. David works from 11am to 11pm and is extremely serious about doing a good job. He has been in communication with the hall for months making sure that all the stage and technical specs are right.
Tonight we are playing the mighty Teatro Colón, famous the world over for its golden acoustics and physical beauty. About 30 min later, we have dropped Sugar Rob at the hall and I am at the hotel where my iron doesn’t work. Suddenly, I get a call from Sugar, “Hey man, the hall is full of students and people who were told the sound check was at 3! What do you want to do?” That question means you need to come down here – immediately. There goes that small window of time.
I walk a block and a half to the hall and the staff is very kind and professional. When I arrive, Maestro Guillermo Scarabino, the Director of Artistic Production is there to greet me. As we walk to the stage, he agrees to translate for the class of students that has assembled; the number or ages of these kids is completely unknown to me. Upon glimpsing the large number of people, conducting the Q&A from the floor instead of the stage seems more appropriate. As we rush onto the floor of the hall, its grandeur startles me. There is a glow of beautiful people who greet me with an abundance of warmth and respect. Everywhere I see people who are smiling, cheering and exceptionally inviting. I try to answer the questions as accurately as possible and probably take too long with my replies.
I’m asked a range of subjects from, “What do you think about when you improvise?” to “Can you teach me something so I can tell my friends I was taught something by you?” I love being on the floor in this hall and Maestro Guillermo who is clearly a pro, does a very good job being both relaxed and authoritative. Walter shows up later to help me out and also speaks and plays. He is especially funny describing how he started playing saxophone. His father told him to pick out any instrument he wanted in a music store. Because his father played bass, he picked a small version of the bass, a violin. His father looked at him and said, “Pick something else.” We all started laughing. Then later, Gizzy joined.
Suddenly, Zulema Scarabino (who handles International Relations) tells me it’s time to get on the stage and begin soundcheck. I like the name Zulema. Just saying it reminds me of the Crescent City. Well, she made sure we understood IT WAS TIME TO MOVE ON. We begin soundcheck even though Ali’s drums haven’t all arrived. We work up Ted’s arrangement of the tango classic ‘Flores Negras’ from the 2000 collaborative concerts and dance we did with Orquesta El Arranque but are uncertain if it’s really ready to be played in front of an audience.
Our dear friends Eugenio and Maribel have come down from Mexico to see this gig. I first met Eugenio here in Buenos Aires over 20 years ago when he was a student of Fats. They’ve come because he wants to be here with us in the Colón. It’s hard to explain the relationship citizens and musicians have to the Colón. For everyone I have spoken to, IT IS A HOLY PLACE. Eugenio tells me that Fats probably can’t make it tonight because he is struggling a little with his health. We exchange recognitions of his greatness and his impact on us as trumpet players and as people. Maribel accompanies me with her typical substantive conversation (this one on Argentine architecture) as I rush back to the hotel, while Eugenio helps Ali sort out a playable drum kit.
While on the walk back with Maribel, we meet a guy who tells us that he has driven for 22 hours to come hear tonight’s concert. His name is Marcel and he has come down from Salta, in the northwestern part of Argentina. He is a trumpet player (so much drive and dedication, of course he plays trumpet) and asks to take a picture with me so that he can share it with his students. I am more than happy to oblige. Meeting someone like Marcel, who is willing to travel so long and so far to hear us play is always special and incredibly humbling.
Now I’m absolutely rushing. I have to eat and iron and I’ve just learned that the show will be two 45-minute halves as opposed to one 90-minute set. There goes the hour’s work to balance the set so everyone solos and the tempos and keys follow some intelligible progression. No way is there now time to reconfigure the sets. We will just have to work it out as we play.
My iron won’t cooperate and I’ve got to get back to the hall. It’s now 7:35 and I’m in danger of being late for real. The backstage crew in the Teatro is so absolutely professional and courteous and someone hooks up my suit as I shave and get ready. This show will be performed without microphones. Just one month before, my friend Leonardo Paz, a violinist son of Buenos Aires from a family of tango, came to a concert in Rose Hall and said, “Don’t use microphones in the Teatro Colón.” It’s purely David Robinson’s call and he has made that decision. Ali will have a difficult job being attentive at all times to Dan’s volume above and Carlos’ presence down below…. while still driving the band. As we prepare go on stage, the cats say let’s play ‘Flores Negras’ as an encore (if we get one). This gives us so more time to stretch on the other songs or I can call one that’s not on the set list.
The band played with a lot of poise and maturity. Though saxophones, trombones, drums and bass are all playing with substitute and inferior instruments, we play dynamically, blend, and try to show our best to the Teatro Colón. Carlos is unflagging in spite of his displeasure with his instrument and Ali is especially impressive in his control and virtuosity. Our audience is receptive and responsive and we return that appreciation by trying to swing harder and play with more feeling and nuance. It becomes apparent that we will play an encore and the Colón is up and calling for some more of that Swing.
We play ‘Flores Negras’, which the audience immediately recognizes, and make it through the intricacies of the arrangement without a problem. As we walk off the stage, Ted says, “everyone was really concentrating”—And we were. The last thing we were thinking about was messing up an original classic tango in front of Argentinians in the Colón in Buenos Aires. People continue clapping and the depth of feeling and intensity of this embrace is moving because this theatre means so much to everyone and a performance here is something special and significant. Even though we don’t exactly understand what it is, we feel it very directly.
After the gig we are told by the backstage crew to wait and meet the General Manager. After a few minutes Darío Loperfido and his wife Esmeralda appear with a group of people who are generous with their praise. Before greeting each band member with a handshake, words of welcome and thanks, Dario says, “Twenty-something years ago, when we (he and I) were both in our twenties, I was a writer for Pop and Rock Magazine and I interviewed you in your hotel room.” He smiled and said, “Fats Fernandez came in and you saluted each other with great feeling and you gave him a present of a trumpet.” He continued, “I am now entrusted with the management of this house and I want you all to know this is also your home.” He then went on to shake each orchestra member’s hand and then we all took a picture. It was glowing and glorious (in the words of Frank Stewart) and I saw another experience come full circle. This was the Teatro and we were being offered a seat at the welcome table. I can’t express the fullness of feeling as I looked around at all of the cats and crew interacting with such ease and friendship and took in the great hall once more before leaving.
Could I have imagined this type of feeling as a high school student in New Orleans practicing like a fool everyday? No. Or as a student at Juilliard? Or playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers? Nope. As a young person traveling the world playing concerts, did I know when meeting young colleagues that they would go on to assume leadership roles at significant institutions and I would be out here long enough to reconnect with them in middle age with such genuine respect and common aspiration? NO WAY. Yet here we were, in front of the Colón, thanking people for coming out and signing autographs and taking pictures and even selfies. It was something I wish my grandmother were alive to see.
Later, I have to decide whether to go immediately to the jam session or out with Osvaldo. It’s hard because our traditional hang is at stake. Here’s Rob to explain about it.
“Not your average lawyer, Dr. Hamburg is also a trumpet player. He would come to NYC for the International Association of Jazz Educators conference every year. Religiously. Since its demise he still makes the pilgrimage to the states in January to soak up the jazz scene, stock up on books and recordings, and visit all the major exhibitions ongoing at the museums.
Always gracious, he never forgets to bring boxes of Alfajores, the delicious dulce de leche treat that is a symbol of Argentinian hospitality. And oh yeah, the latest recording of the master, Astor Piazzolla. He is a purveyor of fine dining and constantly seeks out the best new restaurants that will always insist on picking up the check!
His kindness and generosity knows no bounds. Even at home in Buenos Aires. He lays out a spread of the finest empanadas and argentine meats, complimented by Noemi’s wonderful salads and graced with bottles of Argentina’s finest wines. Then we sit around and play records from his extensive collection. All while browsing through his collection of photos he has taken with trumpet kings of all generations. But true to his bearing of good taste, there are also a few of Harry Carney from Duke’s first visit to Argentina. He and Noemi are the epitome of graciousness and class.”
So the decision is made and Rob and I head out with Osvaldo and Noemi to eat steaks (much too late at night). Hey, it’s Argentina. The restaurant is swinging hard. Cy Touff with Sweets Edison, Shorty Rogers with Doc Cheatham, some trumpet was being played. Normally, Osvaldo comments on different things that he likes and Noemi listens and gives some type of additional “I agree or I don’t think so.” It’s late so we are in more of a festive afterglow. Still, I love the way Osvaldo shakes his head before he speaks when he does not agree. It’s more effective because he is also the most respectful listener to a point he disagrees with. Sometimes you think he is with you and at the end of very attentive listening, with direct and friendly eye contact, here comes the head shake and the deliberate “I do not agree.” Then, he will always come with a well-considered and experienced point of view. He calls my name “Oh Wiiin-TON” in the same sing-songy way everyone used to say it in Louisiana when I was a kid.
After some colorful conversation about the Colón and its traditions, Osvaldo makes me eat some of his dessert. It’s 1:30, time to go to the jam session. In the cab, some young people pull up beside us and salute us for the concert. At the red light they hand me a CD and one says, “This is a CD of my father. He plays trombone!” Hehe. I loved it. Even though I wanted to hang, I decided to go to sleep knowing 7am would be coming fast and furious. But at 1:50 Ali sends me a text: Where you at? Meet me at the other club. Let’s play one tune. Then at 1:52 another text follows with a photo:
These are all trompetistas and they are looking for the old man!!! (That would be me)
As much as it pained me (cause I’ve gotten out of a bed many a night to find the swing) I had to leave my trumpet playing brothers hanging.
This is Ali’s recounting of the session:
“After a sold-out concert at Teatro Colón, Marcus Printup, Vincent Gardner and me went to the Jazz club Thelonius. The club was packed. People are everywhere. There was bandstand of enthusiastic musicians swinging.
We were invited up to play. We played a slow swinging blues, “Bags Groove”. The blues is always common ground, and it always lets everyone know ‘who you are and where you’re coming from’. And ‘have you done your homework?’ People in the club washed themselves in it with Printup and Vincent lavishing soul on everything in sight. We then played an up-tempo rhythm changes. The bass player said that he couldn’t play so fast. I told him to just play half notes. He hung in there, and so did I. We took numerous pictures and enjoyed the ‘hang’, then moved on to the “Black Man” Jazz club. Following a heated rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”, the neighbors called the police at 3:30AM and they concluded the swinging for the evening.”
Kenny also shared his thoughts saying,
“Our time in Buenos Aires was very short, but packed with great hangs, food, friends and music! My old friend and bassist extraordinaire, Pablo Aslan, happened to be back in his hometown to celebrate his Father’s birthday. I’ve known Pablo since I first moved to NY in 1989. We played in a small Latin-Jazz group together through the early ‘90’s. What a great coincidence that his last night in Buenos Aires, before heading back home to NY, was the night we played there. We met up at the soundcheck and the hang was on! After the concert, I told Pablo I wanted to get a serious Argentinian steak and he knew just the spot! He took me, Sherman, Dan Nimmer and Ayano all to a place called Lalo’s, where I had the thickest and most tender medium rare steak of my life! I actually was able to cut it with a fork. It was absolutely delicious and cooked to perfection.
After that glorious meal, we all went to a local jazz club, where most of the JLCO were already there and playing their hearts out. Unfortunately the jam session had to come to a close about 2 tunes after I arrived because neighbors were complaining and called the police. Nonetheless, it was a GREAT hang; meeting local musicians and fans of the music. The people couldn’t have been more open, friendly or sincere. I hope to get back to Buenos Aires soon!!!”
Yeah. Just like the good old days. One night in Buenos Aires is not enough. I can’t believe we didn’t see Fats.
We’re leaving early tomorrow for Rio.