December 1998

John Santos

When it comes to keepers of the Latin-jazz flame, no list is complete without John Santos, the educator, percussionist, producer, bandleader (of the Machete Ensemble, with 11 years and three albums under its belt) and all-purpose situationist on the Afro-Latin axis. Santos was born in San Francisco in 1955, reared in a cultural environment that included Cape Verdean and Caribbean roots. As a musician, he drew on a natural curiosity and cultural outreach sensibility to build up a career that has included work with Cachao, Lalo Schifrin, Cal Tjader, Danilo Perez, Yma Sumac, and the Escovedos (Pete and Sheila).

The Bay Area being a multi-cultural hot spot and a fertile ground for jazz, Santos has tapped into a variety of activities in his extended “hometown.” This fall, he played with Bobby Hutcherson at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and has performed and recorded with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, a recent emigre to the Bay Area. Santos teaches and gives workshops regularly, both at Stanford and in Europe, which gives him a perspective on the state of the art in the presumably hybrid world where jazz and Latin traditions convene.

Santos feels that, in recent years, Latin-jazz ventures in music have “gained a lot of acceptance, because it’s profound music. It’s music that really documents the history of the Americas and has a deep meaning in terms of spirituality—the religious music that much of it is based on, originally. When we look at rhythms and a lot of the melodies in jazz, they are of African-Caribbean origin.

“Fads come and go, but this music has developed all along and awareness grows more and more. Right now, I think it’s at an unprecedented level. You watch television and you find everyone from Bank of America to Doritos using salsa and Latin-jazz and those instruments and styles in their commercials. There’s something there.

“But, on a grassroots level, I see it everywhere, in Germany and all over the world. People are learning and taking an interest in the history and the relevance, and the parallel relationship that it has to jazz. It’s really part of jazz. Latin music should be considered in the same conversation about the roots of jazz.”

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