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John Child talks in depth to the multitalented trumpeter and bandleader Humberto Ramírez.

Humberto Ramírez
Returns to his First Love

A conversation
John Child

John Child talks in depth to the multitalented Humberto Ramírez about his accomplished career and most recent CD, Mi Primer Amor (Latin World 313), which, after nine Latin jazz albums, marks not only his debut as a salsa bandleader, but a return to his first musical love: salsa. Best known as a Latin jazz artist, the interview spotlights Humberto's longstanding and impressive track record as a salsa musician, arranger and producer.

John Ian Child (JIC): The beginning is often a good place to start. Please tell me when and where you were born in Puerto Rico, and about your upbringing?

Humberto Ramírez (HR): I was born in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, at 8:05am on January 31st, 1963. My childhood was pretty much normal with the blessing, I guess, that my family was very close and they were very musical. It was great to listen to music all the time.

JIC: I understand your father (also named Humberto Ramirez) was a bandleader. Am I also right in believing he played baritone sax on a number of Bobby Valentín's albums (such as Rompecabezas , Soy Boricua , Rey Del Bajo and In Motion '71-4 on Fania)? Please tell me more?

HR: Wow John! You are very well documented. My father is a saxophone player and was a bandleader for many years, and yes, he played on all those albums with Bobby Valentín. By that time I was already listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Lee Morgan, Thelonious Monk, Freddie Hubbard, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Willie Bobo, Machito, Tito Rodríguez and many others. I also remember my father used to take me with him to the rehearsals. I really enjoyed being around musicians, but it took another two years for me to start my musical studies.

JIC: You say your dad used to take you to rehearsals of Bobby Valentín's band when you were 10 years old. So please tell me, which salsa names were you getting to know personally from this early age?

HR: When my dad played with Bobby Valentín, I got to know many great musicians when I was 9 or 10: Marvin Santiago, Juancito Torres, Mauricio Smith, Mario Rivera, and some other names I don't recall at this time.

JIC: Is there a wide tradition of involvement in music in your family?

HR: Well, my dad, of course, and my maternal grandfather, Rafael Castro. He was a bass and guitar player and played with Tito Rodríguez, and a trumpet player named Bill Diablo in New York City.

JIC: What music were you exposed to as a kid?

HR: Like I said, almost everything, but especially jazz and Latin jazz.

JIC: Tell me about your early musical education and when it began?

HR: There is a very good story about my first steps in music. When I was 11 years old, my father asked if I was interested in taking music lessons. He had a flugelhorn at the house and asked if I wanted to try it. To tell you the truth, I had no interest whatsoever in playing that instrument. Although I was in love with music, I was not ready to start taking music lessons. Besides, I was pretty much involved playing little league baseball and basketball, and felt more comfortable doing sports. But my father insisted, and I decided to give it a try. He taught me how to read and also the basics of trumpet playing, but I was not really into making music and did not practice as much as I was supposed to. One day during my class with my father, I could not play my lesson correctly, and he said: "You're not practicing." And I said: "Of course I'm practicing." Then he said: "Then tell me why can't you play your lesson?" And I said: "You know, I don't want to play this anymore." And he let me go. Then just before my 12th - and I will never forget that day, January 28th, 1975 - I went to my father and asked if he still had the flugelhorn. And until this day, music has been my passion.

JIC: I believe you made your professional debut at 14 years of age.

HR: My father had a group, Orquesta San Juan, three trumpets and three saxophones plus rhythm section. One of the trumpet players had left the band and my father asked if I felt ready for the challenge. And I said: "Sure I am." And that is how I got my first professional opportunity. I was 14 by that time.

JIC: Clearly you excelled academically in music, because you progressed to graduate level. Please tell me about that?

HR: When I was in my last year of high school, I had pretty much decided to study music. Then my father took me to the American Federation of Musicians in Puerto Rico, where they were giving an arranging seminar. The teacher was Inocencio Rivera and he had been a teacher at Berklee. After a few lessons, he recommended Berklee to my father. My father had a conversation with me and said that if I wanted to become a successful musician, I needed to go to Berklee and get an education. I totally agreed and went to Boston, where at the beginning I was an 18 year old kid with no family and no friends in Boston, but with a goal: to become a successful musician.

JIC: You majored in jazz at Berklee. Tell me more about the genesis of your interest in jazz?

HR: Berklee was an incredible experience for me not only as a musician, but also in the business aspect of the art of music and in my personal perspective. My interest in jazz began the very first day I picked up the flugelhorn. Listening to the music my father played at home made me fall in love with jazz. My father plays a great role in this because he passed on his love for jazz to me.

JIC: You did more formal study after Berklee, didn't you? Tell me about that?

HR: After Berklee I moved to Los Angeles, California, to attend the Dick Grove School of Music to start my graduate studies in film music composition. Although I was enjoying my stay there, I ran out of financial aid and had to return to Puerto Rico after one semester.

JIC: However, while you were at the Grove School, a major opportunity came up to become an "undergraduate" with a major Puerto Rican "salsa university"; didn't it? Please give me the details of how that happened and the outcome?

HR: As I was saying, I ran out of financial aid when my first semester at Dick Grove was coming to an end. So I decided to go back to Puerto Rico, work and make some money, and then go back to Los Angeles to continue my studies. When I went back to Puerto Rico, Willie Rosario had already heard that some trumpet player was coming to Puerto Rico from the States. I had some friends that played with Willie at the time, like Tony Vega, Gilberto Santa Rosa and trumpet player Mario Ortiz Jr., who was leaving the band to play with his father's orchestra. He told me that he could recommend me to Willie and that it was going to be a great opportunity, and it definitely was a great experience playing in one of the hottest bands at the time.

JIC: You say you were already friendly with Tony Vega, Gilberto Santa Rosa and Mario Ortiz Jr. Tell me how you got to know these guys?

HR: Gilberto Santa Rosa and Mario Ortiz Jr. are very good friends of mine since 1978 when I enrolled with the Escuela Libre de Música in San Juan, which was a high school with academic and music courses. Mario is two years older than me, and Gilberto one year older. I met Tony back in 1982 when Gilberto introduced us.

JIC: You mentioned that Mario Ortiz Jr. was leaving to play with his father's orchestra when you joined Willie's band. Presumably Mario Ortiz Senior reformed a band for that wonderful series of albums on Rico/Combo Records, especially Vamos A Gozar '84 and Ritmo y Sabor '85? Please tell me more?

HR: When I returned to Puerto Rico at the end of 1984, and after Mario Jr. talked to me about his departure from Willie's band, his father, Mario Ortiz, already had a record deal with Combo Records. I played with Mario for about two weeks until his son finally left Willie Rosario.

JIC: After playing in Willie Rosario's trademark four trumpet/baritone sax frontline on 1985's Afincando/25 Aniversario on Bronco, you very quickly moved through the ranks to produce the band's next release, the Grammy nominated Nueva Cosecha (1986 on Bronco). What would you like to share about that experience?

HR: I remember that within two months after I began working in the band, Willie entered the recording studio to work on Afincando and I was able not only to play on the album, but also to work on an arrangement for the song "Son Tus Cosas," which became a big hit. Then the following year, when he was getting ready to do the next album, he called me one day and said: "I want you to produce my next album." I was not sure he was being serious. And after I realized I was going to be the producer, I was very determined to take full advantage of this great opportunity. Nueva Cosecha was a turning point for me.

JIC: I understand that Nueva Cosecha became somewhat of a calling card for you, and commissions to write arrangements for other artists and bands started to roll in. Tell me about that?

HR: After I produced the album and the Grammy nomination, I really started to get a lot of calls to write and produce for many artists. It was a great development process for me, since I felt I was establishing myself as a very professional producer/arranger.

JIC: After Nueva Cosecha , you produced a further two albums for Willie: A Man Of Music '87 and The Salsa Legend '88, both on Bronco. I'm a massive fan of Willie's band, particularly the recordings from the mid-'80s. Please share what it was like working for such a crack organisation during that peak period?

HR: Working for Willie Rosario was an incredible way to start my professional career. I learned many things during that period of time, especially to always be responsible and to take music seriously. I will always be grateful to Willie because I think he saw something in me and he was willing to give me all these great opportunities. But most important, as a 21-year-old young musician at the time, he trusted my musical instincts.

JIC: Please, could you explain to readers why Willie Rosario is popularly known as Mr Afinque?

HR: Willie Rosario is a unique timbalero. His timing, rhythm and his ability to maintain the tempo makes him Mr. Afinque.

JIC: What motivated your decision to leave Willie's band in 1988?

HR: After almost four years with the band, I was already involved in many projects, producing and arranging for many artists, and I thought that I needed more space to keep developing my abilities. So a change was inevitable.

JIC: From '87 the drift from the swinging, robust sound of bands like Willie's to the softer salsa romántica style was well underway. And shortly after you turned freelance, you became musical director, producer and arranger for the future romántica star, Tony Vega, who had left Rosario after Nueva Cosecha . Please tell me about how that happened and your work with Tony?

HR: Tony Vega was another great chapter. He has been my friend for many years. I remember back in 1987 he was touring with Eddie Palmieri; and one day he called from New York and told me that he had an offer from RMM Records to sign a record deal, and asked me to be part of the production. When he came back to Puerto Rico, we got together and started working on the album. While we were in the studio one night, Mario Ortiz Jr., who was part of the trumpet section on the album, told Tony and me: "You two should put a band together to support this album." And that's exactly what happened.

JIC: You produced six albums for Vega between 1988 and 1998: Yo Me Quedo! , Lo Mio Es Amor , Uno Mismo , Aparentemente , Si Me Miras A Los Ojos and Hoy Quiero Cantarte , all on RMM. Which projects would you single out for specific comment?

HR: I actually produced seven albums for Tony, you are missing the album Tony Vega , which was released after Si Me Miras A Los Ojos in 1996 and was nominated for a Grammy that year. But of all those albums, there are two that are very significant to me as a producer: Uno Mismo , because we established a sound for Tony and it was also the first Tony Vega album to reach platinum status; and Si Me Miras A Los Ojos , because I was involved with the repertoire and it has been Tony's best selling album.

JIC: Sorry I omitted Tony Vega . It isn't missing from my collection though! However, despite being an alumnus of Rosario's hard, fat sound, your work on Tony's albums earned you the reputation as a purveyor of mellow, smoother salsa. Consequently, most of your commissions for salsa arrangements and productions have seemed to be largely in this vein. Do you think that is a fair summary?

HR: I would say that for a period of time, smooth salsa was a big hit and almost everyone wanted to record an album in that vein. But for Tony, somehow I specifically managed to come up with a sound that identified him and made him a household name. For that I feel very proud.

JIC: You've clocked-up some notable salsa productions by names such as Miles Peña (in my view, one of the finest of the newer generation of salsa singers), Johnny Rivera and Brenda K Starr. Please could you comment on your work with these artists?

HR: I produced two albums for Miles Peña (Miles Peña '94 on Sonero and Torbellino de Amor '96 on RMM) and those were great efforts by him, but unfortunately the record company never promoted these albums. So we don't really know what could have happened with his talent. There is a good story regarding my work with Johnny Rivera. He had already released two albums and the record company wanted to boost his sales, so they called and asked if I was interested. I said yes, but with the condition of letting me create the album concept. That means picking the songs, the musicians, the studio, everything. They agreed, and it worked out for everybody. Cuando Parará La Lluvia (1993 on Sonero) sold 150,000 plus copies. Johnny has a very unique voice and that has made him very successful. Brenda K. Starr was a big challenge, because she is such a great singer. She has great musical taste and intonation, but her Spanish was not that good. So we had to practice a lot. In the end, her determination made her improve a lot and the albums I produced for her became big sellers, especially her first album, Te Sigo Esperando (1997 on Parcha), which sold over 140,000 copies.

JIC: There was life after RMM for Miles Peña, because he released the notable Lejos De Ti on Parcha in 2000. Maybe you're not aware of this production?

HR: I am definitely aware of Miles Peña's album with Parcha. He is a very good friend and I always wish him well.

JIC: When it came to launching your own solo recording career in 1992, why did you opt for Latin jazz rather than exploit your already considerable salsa credentials?

HR: I basically decided to start a recording career as a jazz musician because the genre gives me the freedom to create, compose, arrange, produce and perform. Something that other genres don't offer. But I have always been thinking of a salsa recording along the way, and that finally happened this year with the release of Mi Primer Amor on Latin World, my first salsa recording.

JIC: To date, you've got nine Latin jazz albums to your name: Jazz Project (1992), Aspects (1993), Portrait Of A Stranger (1995), Canciones De Amor (1995) and Treasures (1998), all on Tropijazz; Con El Corazón (1999 on CDT), Best Friends: Giovanni Hidalgo & Humberto Ramírez (1999 on AJ Records), Paradise: Humberto Ramírez Jazz Orchestra (2000 on AJ Records) and Dos Almas (2002 on AJ Records). I'd welcome your general and specific comments about this significant body of work. For instance, Portrait Of A Stranger , featuring your former boss, Willie Rosario, Tony Vega and Gilberto Santa Rosa (also ex-Rosario), was one of your most acclaimed releases.

HR: Back in 1991, when I was working on my first album, I never imagined I would be able to work on all these recordings. For me to be able to work with so many great musicians and put all these albums out has been a blessing.

JIC: So now, after 10 years of establishing yourself as a major Latin jazz name, you decide to make your solo debut as a salsa bandleader with Mi Primer Amor. What was the decision-making process behind this move?

HR: I had been thinking about recording a salsa album for the past five years, but wasn't able to do it because of my busy schedule. Finally, in 2000, I was able to find two talented singer/songwriters, Freddie Gutiérrez and Juan José Hernández, and the salsa album became a reality.

JIC: How did you hook-up with Samuel Quirós and his exciting new Latin World label based in Venezuela?

HR: I met Samuel a while ago when he was opening an office in Puerto Rico. Later on I presented him with the album, which was already recorded, and he decided to release the recording under his label.

JIC: You say you presented Samuel with the album already recorded. How come it was in the can? Did you fund it yourself?

HR: I decided to do my salsa album on my own because I already knew the sound and concept that I wanted, and I did not want anybody to put any restrictions on that.

JIC: Although your composition, "Mi Primer Amor" (My First Love), refers to your Mother, was its use as the title of the album in any way intended as an ironic allusion to your first musical love, in other words, salsa?

HR: Definitely. Musically speaking, salsa was my first love.

JIC: The personnel on Mi Primer Amor include a number of your regular session musicians. However, the lead singers, Freddie Gutiérrez and Juan José Hernández, are unfamiliar to me. I also note that Juan José wrote three tracks and Freddie composed one cut. Please tell me about them?

HR: Freddie is from Ponce, Puerto Rico, and has experience in music. He recorded two albums back in 1992 with EMI Latin. Juan José is from Cuba and has been living in Puerto Rico for the past three years. He was part of the Adalberto Alvarez group in Cuba.

JIC: You say Freddie Gutiérrez recorded two albums back in 1992 for EMI Latin. Was that as a solo artist or part of a band?

HR: Freddie Gutiérrez signed a record deal with EMI Latin as a solo artist.

JIC: You've opted for a combination of trumpet, two trombones and sax. What were your reasons for this preference over the other horn combinations you've arranged for?

HR: Musically speaking, this instrumentation gives me such a big sound that I can basically approach my writing via a mix of different musical influences.

JIC: The charts you've written for Mi Primer Amor are a mix of mellow and harder edged pieces. What was your thinking behind this approach?

HR: When I began to work on the arrangements, my concept was to make this album sound in the style of the salsa music of the '70s, but with a more contemporary sound.

JIC: The first hit from the album on both sides of the Atlantic was your composition "Sentir La Música," followed by "Mi Primer Amor." Interestingly, these are a couple of the harder tracks on the CD. Does this help inform you about current taste?

HR: It's obvious that I was going to commit to write arrangements where the musicians had the time and space to perform and improvise without any restrictions.

JIC: What reaction have you had from your Latin jazz fan base to your solo salsa departure?

HR: For the most part it has been well received, but in some cases the real jazz fans feel betrayed. I only hope that they understand that I do this with respect and to expand my horizons.

JIC: Do you have imminent plans to make another salsa album?

HR: Without any doubt. Hopefully, I will be working on my next salsa album sometime before the end of 2003.

JIC: Are you performing with your own salsa orchestra, or, if not, do you have plans to do so?

HR: I have not been playing that much with my orchestra lately, my next show will be at the Bahamas Jazz Festival on January 18th, 2003.

JIC: What projects, both solo and for other artists, do you have in the pipeline?

HR: There are a couple of projects for other artists in the making. I produced a jazz group, Rumbantela (Let's Go to the Rumba). Their CD just came out last month on AJ Records from Puerto Rico. Right now I'm working on the pre-production of my next album, a Latin tribute to the music of Miles Davis.

JIC: Finally, there seems to be a current fad in Puerto Rico for veteran names to record live albums mainly of their back catalogue material. So far, Ismael Miranda, Tommy Olivencia, Sonora Ponceña, Ray Barretto, Tito Rojas, El Gran Combo, Bobby Valentín, Willie Rosario and Andy Montañez have released live sets. I would be interested in your observations on this development?

HR: All of those great musicians that you have mentioned have my respect and admiration because they have been able to develop successful careers; and in some cases have been pioneers in their field. When you achieve that level of success, you need to document your legacy; and that's what all these great artists have been doing, which I think is necessary.

JIC: Thank you for all your trouble. Best wishes for the future.

HR: John, just to let you know that I had a great time doing this, especially because you are so well documented.

Thanks to Carlos Chirinos for facilitating my interview with Humberto Ramírez

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