The instrument of a musician is a voice, one intrinsically blessed with the gift to speak any language in the world, wielded joyfully in the ancient market squares of Morocco, the beach-side lounges of the Caribbean, or a hole-in-the-wall jazz pizza café in Mexico City.

The inaugural expedition of Mexico City Jazz Tours – a curated music and culture trip that took place last week – was an unprecedented and innovative cultural experience that provided a handful of San Antonio jazz fanatics a glimpse into the Mexico City jazz scene. It highlighted some of the 21 million musicians who have left their impact on the jazz culture of the vibrant city, Mexico, and the world.

San Antonio businessman and 91.7 KRTU host of Jazz de Mexico, Jorge Canavati, led the voyage and collaborated with Mexico City club owners, jazz musicians, and leaders in the city’s Economic Development Department to create an experience that was not only musically rich but engaged the cultural and economic implications of a city with a thriving music market. The cultural and economic viewpoint of this journey will be discussed in depth in a separate Rivard Report article. 

On the trip, José Fernández, owner of The Jazz Place in Mexico City, discussed with the Rivard Report his connection to Mexico City Jazz Tours, music, and the people that made the experience worthwhile.

“When you get to meet a kindred spirit like that, you speak the same language, it’s just a natural partnership,” Fernández said of Canavati. “We both want to expose our musicians to a wider audience, and there is nothing like listening to a live date.”

Sax man Diego Maroto (center) and Deputy Secretary of Economic Development Ricardo Chelen chat during a break at The Jazz Place. Photo courtesy of Adam Tutor
Sax man Diego Maroto (center) and Executive Director of Advisory for Business Opening  Ricardo Chelen chat during a break at The Jazz Place. Photo courtesy of Adam Tutor

A key part of the journey’s purpose was to shine a light on what Jazz de Mexico really means, how the artists see it, and how they bring an understanding of the music to San Antonio. Fernández has done as much as any club owner in the city to raise up the names of dozens of Mexico’s elite in the jazz pantheon, and the plethora of CDs on display when you enter his venue show how serious he is about his work.

“We’re trying to give the Mexican twist, not to make it Mexican folk, but to give it a Mexican identity,” Fernández said. “In the end, people feel they have an obligation to describe something, communicate what’s going on in the city, in the country, through jazz.”

As it was when jazz was in its heyday in the U.S., a great deal of that identity comes in the form of struggle, Fernández said.

“I think globally we are going through a period of uncertainty, and that is reflected in the music,” he said. “On a lighter note, it’s just a struggle to be happy for a day, and this is a way that musicians can do that.”

For premier Mexican tenor saxophonist Diego Maroto and the cats at The Jazz Place last week, the ferocity of their ensemble sound – tempestuous to purely joyful – may have hinted at the sentiment offered by Fernández, but when sound waves hit eardrums all people did was feel it.

“Mexican jazz is just the way we play jazz,” Maroto said. “It’s not like we have to mix the music with mariachi or bolero or any kind of Mexican music.”

Maroto, surrounded by his bandmates, including close friend and bassist Luri Molina, broke it down quite simply.

“It’s the same as the Europeans play jazz or Japanese play jazz. We play jazz just like people play jazz all over the world, but we have in our minds our culture and the national music,” Maroto said. “So if you’re a passionate musician and you get face-to-face with jazz it doesn’t matter where you’re from.

“If it attracts you, you’re there, and you know.”

While Molina credited Miles Davis’ Round Midnight with turning things around for him as a musician, it was John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things that revealed to Maroto another realm available to him on the saxophone.

“It opened my ears to other sounds, risks. Let’s not talk about a lot of notes, let’s talk about shapes, the harmony,” Maroto said. “I could really say that record changed my life.”

The witness's of Maroto and the first night of the Mexico City Jazz Tours at The Jazz Place.  Photo courtesy of Jorge Canavati
The witnesses of Maroto and the first night of the Mexico City Jazz Tours at The Jazz Place. Photo courtesy of Jorge Canavati

As fate would have it some 20 years later, Maroto found himself performing at jazz festivals across the country with some of Coltrane’s contemporaries, including Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

“I think it’s in very good shape, in the past five to eight years it’s really grown a lot,” Maroto said of the jazz scene in Mexico. “It can get better though, we can get paid more, travel more. We will get to that point – I’m going to die with my horn in my hand.”

Throughout the trip, Canavati was rarely seen without his 91.7 KRTU T-shirt, and there were 91.7 vinyl stickers carefully plastered along the cupboards and table tops and even the bathroom paper towel dispenser. The station’s banner made an appearance on the second night, tied to a hook in the ceiling with a small chain, the perfect backdrop for Canavati’s crew and compadres to soak in the sounds of Omar Gardunho at the unassuming but oh-so-powerful Pizza Jazz Café.

“I started playing his music on the air (and said), ‘This is music from the heart and soul, music for his child that has not been conceived,’” Canavati said of Gardunho, who sat next to him with a soft cherubic smile on his face. “A few weeks later, I called Omar and he says, ‘We’re having a baby.’ The child was a love concept between the couple.”

What Canavati does in the KRTU studios every Sunday evening from 8-9 p.m. is similarly a labor of love, one that strikes chords and reveals the heart of the artists of the Mexico he knows.

“My job is not just spinning CDs,” Canavati said. “I have to express, not translate, these very intimate things. This is Jazz de Mexico.”

Mexico City's Channel 11 News came out to Pizza Jazz Café, and aired a segment on Mexico City Jazz Tours with Jorge Canavati. Photo Courtesy of Adam Tutor
Mexico City’s Channel 11 News came out to Pizza Jazz Café, and aired a segment on Mexico City Jazz Tours with Jorge Canavati. Photo courtesy of Adam Tutor

Canavati provided an endearing prelude to the thoughts and feelings of Gardunho himself, whose gratitude for getting to do what he loves shone through in his facial expressions.

“(The) first thing that inspired me was my family. I wanted to make a tribute for my family,” Gardunho said, a beautiful simplicity coming through in his English interpretation. “I try to make music for the things I love.”

Love was felt palpably as bassist Ivan Barrera – whose bass licks summoned Tower of Power and Bootsy Collins in their likeness and intensity – and drummer Edy Vega, who recorded on Gardunho’s second album Cuadro, laid it down for the packed house of more than 20 guests who crammed into the humble space.

Owner and sax man Adrian Escamilla let his horn rest for the evening to personally craft the pizza pies that toasted in the brick oven and came out as hot and fresh as the fusion groove element of the music on stage.

Gardunho is 29 years young, and the boyish spirit of discovery and playfulness is evident in his presentation, all the while taken very seriously and executed with deftness and dexterity.

“It feels like happiness at all times,” said Gardunho, explaining his feelings from the evening. “When I play like tonight, my soul fills with energy.”

A zestful and passionate spirit, Aida Cerda-Prazak was one of the members of the crew who soaked in both evenings of jazz splendor. Along the way, she got some new signatures in her jazz passport.

“Well, I was inspired by The Terminal to use my old military passport to collect signatures,” said Cerda-Prazak, admitting that her first signature, Jude Law, was an anomaly. “I’ve got Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, the Branford Marsalis Quartet – I can’t wait to get more.”

Cerda-Prazak did just that as she boldly approached the stage in her exuberant gratitude, which was far bigger than the 4-foot-10 frame she presented.

“I love to shoot live bands. Wait until the musician is in the zone. When nothing (else) exists, save them and their instrument and capture the look in their eyes,” Cerda-Prazak said. “I am so glad I came, so many friends in just two days. And all because of jazz.”

The second installment of the Mexico City Jazz Tours coverage will be published soon, exploring the greater relationships at work between San Antonio and Mexico City’s leaders as musical and cultural ambassadors.

Top image: (From left to right) Edy Vega, Ivan Barrera, and Omar Gardunho set the groove at Pizza Jazz Café. Photo courtesy of Shoots In Boots (Aida Cerda-Prazak)

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Adam Tutor is a Trinity University graduate, a saxophonist who performs with local bands Soulzzafying, Odie & the Digs, and Volcan, and a freelance music contributor to the Rivard Report.