Given San Antonio’s proximity to Mexico and its numerous cultural and historical connections to the country as a whole, it only makes sense that the city has a strong bond with Ciudad de México. Thanks to the partnership between Jorge Canavati, KRTU host of Jazz de Mexico and international businessman, and Mexico City’s Department of Economic Development, that bond is being bolstered through music.

While Canavati’s inaugural Mexico City Jazz Tours, a uniquely intimate music and culture exchange sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Mexico City’s Department of Economic Development, allowed plenty of time for soaking in the sounds of Mexico’s top jazz artists, there also was business to be done.

“On one of the various trips that the secretary of Economic Development made to San Antonio, I got invited to a meeting with Ricardo Becerra,” Canavati said of how the initiative was born alongside Becerra, under-secretary of Economic Development and Sustainability. “We started talking about jazz, how there are Mexico City jazz artists coming to us, but no one going down to Mexico City.”

On the second day of the journey in Mexico City, Canavati and his crew marched along the streets of Centro Historico to arrive at a luncheon hosted by Becerra and his colleagues as a ribbon-cutting to honor the beginning of Mexico City Jazz Tours and its success for the future.

“I invited the musicians because I wanted to have a round-table discussion, and it turned into one of deep importance,” Canavati said of the afternoon with more than 20 of the city’s leaders in government, music, and culture. “We discussed how to use government resources carefully to help something like jazz.”

For Canavati, and all those in attendance, the importance of the luncheon was its symbolism and the consensus built from the more than two hours of fruitful and progressive conversation.

“(The government leaders) heard from the musicians, and at the end of the day we agreed to find avenues to help promote this important part of Mexican culture,” Canavati said. “We are the pioneers. This is something that really began with our program at KRTU. This is going to have a big impact and people will pay attention.”

A leading pianist and composer in Mexico City and throughout the country, Esteban Herrera represented the voice of the musician, alongside co-conspirer Danny Wong, who has performed in San Antonio and on the Canavati-led expedition.

Artist and Pianist Esteban Herrera performs live in concert. Photo courtesy of Esteban Herrera
Artist and Pianist Esteban Herrera performs live in concert. Photo courtesy of Esteban Herrera.

“Here’s the most important point: We need an echo in the rest of the world as to what’s happening in Mexico,” Herrera said, as the entirety of the table absorbed his words in the decorum of the round-table discussion the luncheon became. “The music is there, the proposals are there, we need the other part.”

Herrera spoke frankly and passionately before fellow friends and leaders, expressing the sentiment that he believes that, at least in Mexico City, musicians who live solely off their music do not exist.

“Of course it can be done, other people in the world do it, but what do they need to do it?” Herrera asked almost rhetorically. “What needs to be done so that a Mexican artist doesn’t have to worry about rent (or) food? It still hasn’t arrived and until artists can be gratified for their art, we are condemned to mediocrity.”

The “need” Herrera spoke of is a response from the public, from the government, and from those hiring musicians to act boldly and provide greater and more consistent support for the musical arts. Meeting friends of Herrera’s at a gathering a few days later in the heart of Mexico City’s musical community of Portales Sur, it became clear that practices such as passing around hats for musicians to earn money and practices of inequity are in place as bar and restaurant owners often don’t give a fair share of the earnings to musicians.

Herrera established a grassroots effort, JazzMX, with fellow musicians to create a sense of solidarity, advance opportunities, and advocate for the rights of artists in Mexico City, especially within the jazz contingent.

“It’s a panoramic issue – I am an artist, a creating artist, I’m not a musician,” Herrera said in a defining moment, helping the group see the bigger picture and understand the issue on all levels. “I don’t want to be hired to play someone else’s music, hired to play with a famous figure, I want to do my art.”

Ricardo Chelen, executive director of Advisory for Business Opening, was the first of the Economic Development Department to greet the brigade from San Antonio, and the only member of the secretary’s delegation who attended all of the jazz events. At the luncheon he offered Herrera a few examples of what has been done, and what he will do in his position to help resolve the issues raised.

Jorge Canavati with Ricardo Chelen at Jazz Pizza Café.  Photo courtesy of Agustin Salinas, Office of Communications for Mexico City
Jorge Canavati (right) with Ricardo Chelen at Jazz Pizza Café. Photo courtesy of Agustin Salinas, Office of Communications for Mexico City

“There are things happening for artists, not specific to jazz per se, but for artists there are benefits,” Chelen said. “For example, when starting a business or taking a government loan, interest on payback is only 12% for artists, and 16% for all others.”

The Office of the Secretary of Economic Development (SEDECO) for Mexico City is in charge of promoting business, relationships between businesses, and breaking down barriers that inhibit that growth.

“Several years ago, we started to develop the conversation on culture, and Chelen started to develop a program to promote cultural businesses,” said Abraham Torres Andrade, SEDECO executive director of Institutional Relations. “We offer courses and workshops that act as an incubator that try to hatch new businesses, giving them business tools to administer their work.”

Andrade didn’t speak up much during the luncheon, but his one main offering was a critical point in the conversation, one that would likely resonate with the musical scene in San Antonio as well.

“We have to understand that when an artist is doing their art, they focus on the creative part. No one teaches them how to do business, how to administer,” Andrade said. “If you are a musician you have to learn to charge for your music (and to find) new means of commercializing your products. Our entrepreneurial courses teach these skills.”

For Andrade, this lightens the expectation that the government should take care of musicians and artists, and instead challenges artists to take matters into their own hands. “Sometimes courses like these are more important than the money itself,” Andrade said. “No one has taken time to give a monetary value to these courses because they are free.”

At the end of the luncheon, pressed fully by the musicians and those in company, Chelen agreed to run diagnostics on the impact of music cultures in Mexico City. Becerra commiserated with both parties, but also pointed out that there are greater issues at hand in the city.

“It is hard to talk about the need for more music and jazz concerts when there are regions that do not have access to water in Mexico City,” Becerra said.

Becerra’s comment wasn’t intended to derail the conversation, but rather served as a realistic acknowledgment of how substantial the secretary’s and the Economic Development Department’s responsibilities are.

“This initiative is very profound, a great jazz bridge,” Becerra said. “A modern Mexico has inside cultures, such as jazz. It is small, but if we could follow up with this partnership I think it would make a lot of sense.”

Canavati is already working out plans with Wong and developing partnerships and sponsorships to bring some San Antonio artists down to Mexico City to put on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker with a big band.

“We need to educate our city’s cultural department, get guys like Henry Brun involved with this,” Canavati said. “We need more formal funding and revenue streams to keep this partnership going.”

Canavati said that even though Mexico City isn’t officially a sister city, we should be treating it like one. Sherry Dowlatshahi, chief of protocol and head of International Relations with the San Antonio Economic Development Department, attended the luncheon and asked Canavati to identify Mexican artists for the city’s Tricentennial celebration in May 2018.

“The City can keep promoting what we’ve started,” Canavati said. “Everything went exactly as we wanted it to go here in Mexico City.”

Top image: Jorge Canavati addresses musicians and city government leaders at the luncheon for Mexico City Jazz Tours.  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.