Pinoy jazz musicians shine outside the homeland

Some weeks ago, I received a copy of the independently produced album by Filipino saxophonist Ronald Tomas, titled “Travels.” Vistas were turning in my eye as I listened. His pieces drew a chronicle worthy of attention, for urgency’s sake at the very least.

A capable professional, Ronald has plied the enviable cruise ship gig in recent years, a gig that we landlocked musicians readily dream of. 

Out there and not here?

It got me thinking about the parallels between his effort and the various expeditions that constitute the Filipino jazz experience.

Dixieland reached the Philippines in the wake of 1898, as brass bands of the occupying American military flourished. Filipino musicians learned the new vocabulary by rote in that seminal period. The music supplanted the European dances as an amenity of social interaction.

On the other hand, way before 1898, the Manila-Acapulco Galleon route had brought our Filipino wayfarers to the land of opportunity. There, they found their way to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, where they worked as shrimp farmers. Some have conjectured about the possibility of Filipinos influencing the emergence of jazz, but I have my doubts.

Instead, an opposite and ironic twist would occur not in the U.S. but back home. The coming of the Americans to the Philippines empowered Filipino musicians to reach outwards to the world.

Filipino in the Jazz Age

As early as 1927, in the so-called Jazz Age, a patrician Filipino-Spaniard led a big band in London and recorded two albums for the Brunswick label under the name Fred Elizalde. He is listed in the book, “Who’s Who in British Jazz,” which is still in print. When he returned to Manila, the old don was making local recordings until as late as 1974.

The post-war 1940s and 1950s brought legendary Filipino bandleaders and players such as Toots Dila, Vestre Roxas, Narding Aristorenas and Nemecio Regalado to exotic nightspots far and wide, from Manila to the Asia-Pacific and Shanghai circuits. 

Playing with the legends

In the 1960s, the great Filipino saxophonist, Gabe Baltazar, released albums under the American Fresh Sound and V.S.O.P. record labels. Baltazar also recorded with the legendary Stan Kenton Orchestra on the famed Capitol label.

But most importantly, the Filipino drummer, Danny Barcelona played for Louis Armstrong’s band at the young age of 27, and recorded with the great jazz legend the hits, "Hello, Dolly!" (1964) and "What a Wonderful World" (1968).

In the landmark May 21, 1967 issue of The Asia Magazine, jazz musicians Lito Molina and Doming Valdez (saxophones), Emil Mijares (vibraphone), Piding Alava (piano), Angel Peña (bass) and Tony Velarde (drums) were acclaimed as "Asia's Best."

Groundbreaking local jazz

Groundbreaking jazz experiments in the 1970s by Eddie Munji III (“Pinoy Jazz”), Ryan Cayabyab (“Pinoy Jazz II: Roots to Routes”) and the Jazz Friends (an eponymous first album and a second entitled “Tony Speaks”) endeavored to fuse Filipino folk themes with jazz harmonies and rhythms. Those efforts stoked the fires of jazz by Filipinos but the world didn’t notice. The larger context of OPM (Original Pilipino Music) and a growing saturation of Pinoy rock had engulfed the Philippine music industry.

In the 1980s, pianist Bobby Enriquez, “The Wildman from Mindanao,” collaborated with the American saxophonist, Richie Cole, and released his own albums for Crescendo Records.

The Philippine arrival of the U.K.-based Candid Records in 2002, spawned by Nieves Pascua-Bates, a Filipina who had married the great jazz producer Alan Bates, was the opportunity I had waited a lifetime for, a way to bypass the twists and turns of cultural politics. Batched with two singers, Mishka Adams and Mon David, we found liberation in the famed venues of London.

In America, émigrés such as the percussionist Susie Ibarra, or the Thelonius Monk Awardee, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bring the Filipino soul to the attention of an international audience.

Out of sight, but never out of mind

So what is Pinoy jazz in its most viable state?

For some reason, our finest musical efforts have succeeded when following the distant drum. Perhaps, it is our music of Diaspora, a chronicle of the overseas Filipino out of sight, but never out of mind.

We who remain here are simply residents, incubating at best. Such a bittersweet thought. The strange fruit, the best pickings of all, they fall far from the mother tree.

Johnny Alegre is a jazz musician who records for Candid Records (U.K.) and MCA Music Philippines. He has won a Palanca award for Literature, written about technology and digs DC and Marvel comics. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter and check out his music and videos on ReverbNation.

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