Unearthing another gem: Roberta Singer's in-depth 1979 interview with trombonist Papo Vázquez
Papo's Got A Brand New Bag
Interview with Papo Vázquez
by Roberta Singer, August 21 1979.
Prepared by David Barton and Roberta, 2005, exclusively for Descarga.com
Papo Vázquez is one of Latin musics most prominent trombonists and talented composers. Hes played with innumerable major bands in jazz, Latin jazz, and straight-ahead salsa; formed his own groups; and traveled the world. Twenty-five years ago, when this interview was done, he was 21 years old and was already playing professionally and had a substantial reputation. Recently arrived in New York from North Philadelphia where he was born (1958) and raised, Papo was young, street, sometimes belligerent and aggressive, restless, and impatient as he sought to make his place in and mark on the New York music scene. Time and again he surprised me with the complexity of his thoughts about the music and his place in it as he grappled with issues of musical control versus freedom, tradition and innovation, and integration of his still-evolving personal and musical identities into a coherent whole. This is a snapshot of Papo Vázquez at that time. He was playing primarily with Libre and, thus, much of the interview was about his role in that group and in comparison with others with which he had played.
The night before the interview Papo had performed with Libre in Central Parks Delacorte Theater as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival in An Evening at the New Rican Village. The event was star-studded with veterans and young Turks of the New York Latin music scene and was astonishingly intense; Papo and many of the other performers said this was a musical high point for them. As was the norm for Libre and the New Rican Village, there was a great deal of space for soloists to stretch out yet sufficient structure to avoid anarchy. Apparently, this mix sparked some internal conversation in Papo and the next day he began talking about it as soon as he walked in the door; I had to hustle to turn on the tape recorder.
[Note: The New Rican Village was located on Avenue A between 6th and 7th Streets. It was founded in 1977 by Eddie Figueroa as a non-commercial alternative space for the creation and exploration of arts that expressed an evolving self-interpretation of New York Latino identity. A hard-core gathering of musicians, dancers, poets, visual artists, photographers and political activists-turned-cultural warriors was dedicated to the notion that cultural self-definition was as important as political self-determination.]
With special thanks again to Izzy Sanabria for the use of archive photos, Ray Rosado for saving pieces of history in his basement, and mostly to Papos kind permission for digging up his past. Vaya, Pirata!
Roberta Singer: Lets see if we can get to some of the issues and questions I have, and anything you want to talk about also. I feel I can understand more about the way people express themselves through music by looking at Libre and the New Rican Village rather than at some of the salsa bands that are more formally structured or formula-structured. The way I see Libre is that they give more room for the individual musician to express himself.
Papo Vázquez: With those other groups, its almost impossible for them to be as free as Libre is. Why? Because they dont have confidence in each man. Its like a game of chess. Each man has a certain position to fill; depending on the moment it could be a weak position or a strong position. Each individual has to be able to stand out by himself and do what he's supposed to do. Not to show off, but to carry his weight and carry everybody else if needed, or everybody else carry him.
RS Do you think then, thats the main reason why other bands are so structured?
PV In my opinion, the first thing they gotta do is go home and practice, get their shit together; each individual. Theyre scared. Anybodys scared of something we dont know about. I could still be playing the same way I played last year but I said, No man, these cats they really know how to play, I want to be able to do that too. A lot of cats got musical complexes, ability complexes. They are unable to do what they want to do technically. And at the (commercial) gigs the shit is always the same way all the time. I played with Luis Perico Ortíz; it was a good experience, a good band, but everything was arranged. You got a chart, you have a solo on a certain tune, and thats it.
RS When you have a solo, do you have a set number of bars in which to take the solo or can you take it for as long as you feel?
PV You take it for as long as the tune is swinging. If you play a solo and the shit aint poppin' they gonna take you out. It dont have to be a set amount of bars, it just has to feel right.
RS Tell me about playing with Libre. You've been with them longer than you have with any other band?
PV Yeah. Ive learned more there than with any other band cause I been playing with Manny. He's a strong character.
RS Im sure that there are other strong characters.
PV Sure, Andy's strong, Jerry's a strong character, Oscar
RS Do you learn from them all?
PV We all learn from each other. Unconsciously. Manny is direct. You KNOW you're learning from him. The whole thing is a process. You know yourself that the way I was playing last year is different from the way Im playing this year.
RS And you attribute that to Libre?
PV Yeah. But not only playing with Libre. A big turnover in my life was playing with Slide Hampton. That was the climax. With Libre, the climax was playing with José Rodrígues. He takes me way out in his ability, the way he goes about playing, his feeling, what he plays. He's a típico, funky, dirty sock trombone player. I learned a lot from José.
RS Can you describe any difference between playing with Libre and the other groups: Harlow, Lavoe, Willie Colón?
PV All those guys are set. The main thing about Libre is, after playing with José
after playing with Libre, after checking that energy out, playing til your chops fall out
,when I would go back to playing with Willie Colón or Héctor Lavoe I would get bored because there's no freedom. Theres a certain amount of freedom but its not like personal freedom. Its not like, Go Bro, do your thing. To me its boring. When I played with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis it was a different thing. I really dug playing that: 16-piece band, the arrangements, a whole section playing a really hip part. Theres no kind of freedom in that. There were no solos, and I would get spaced out about that eventually.
RS When did you play with them?
PV Last year for three weeks, then I got fired. Probably cause I was not ready and my attitude was spaced. And Mel Lewis came out on me like, Im the boss, and I didnt really want to take that shit.
RS What do you mean when you say that you were not ready?
PV Mostly that my attitude wasn't ready. My playing was OK, but I wasn't ready to take what they were laying down on me. Musically I wanted to be ready, I dont know if I was but I figure that if I had the desire to be ready then I could do it. I had to have something going to be there in the first place. It was a heavy horn section and a heavy experience playing with those cats. They never criticized me. Playing with Slide Hampton had a good influence. I played with him last year for a couple of gigs and did a record this Christmas; Steve Turre hooked me up with him. A lot of the way I play now is because of playing with Slide.
RS Do you play differently when you play with Slide or with Thad Jones/Mel Lewis than with Libre?
PV You have to. You have to adjust to every situation. Thats the whole thing that Ive been trying to develop. To get to the point where I can adjust to anything. Any professional musician will tell you that. If you're going to be a complete musician you got to be able to adjust and to blend with whatevers going down. Listen, I would like to think of myself as being a soloist. I always wanted to be that. Not a featured star or like that, but just to express myself individually, and Im developing that right now.
RS And is part of that learning how to play differently in different situations with different people? Can you describe, or explain, how it is that you play differently?
PV I guess that I have a set thing about each individual group Ive played with. If Im playing with Hilton Ruiz, I automatically think of a certain way to play. If Im with a jazz quartet I would take more chances. I would play without a limit on myself, go where I want to go, provided that I can play on that tune. Cause there's a lot of tunes I can't play on yet, like Coltranes Giant Steps cause I haven't been playing it long enough. Its a monster tune, very deep, and I have to understand a lot more about it before I can really let go and take it out.
RS You said that with Libre you have more freedom?
PV José showed me the kind of freedom you're supposed to have in that kind of environment cause he played with Eddie Palmieri when Eddie was very intense. He was a driving force in that band.
RS One of the things I see Libre doing is providing musicians with the freedom that other bands dont; bands that operate within the confines of salsa.
PV But that comes from each individual, where everybody has something really good to say.
RS Can anybody play with Libre?
RS Who can't?
PV I cant answer that! Its a very individual thing you're talking about. Everybody in Libre, at one time or another has something strong to say; you can't get up there and say any bullshit. That would be an insult to people who are around there. Anybody could play with Libre, but you got to put your energy into it and really want to do it. No, I dont think just anybody could do it.
RS Do you have to have a certain feeling about music?
PV Everybody in the group has some similar feeling about the music we play. Thats why when we get together it happens with such energy and force. Everybody is compatible; we're all going in the same direction. It makes the music really easy to play.
RS The general feeling I get from some of the Libre people Ive spoken to is that its the freedom they like most, and what a lot of people say to me is that you cant get that freedom playing in the commercial joints cause you have to play stuff thats danceable. You can't just freak out and take a solo that doesn't give people the constant basic pulse. But playing with Libre, even in the commercial clubs, you still have that freedom.
PV Thats right.
RS How do you explain that?
PV I wouldnt dare to try to explain that. Some things just can't be explained, that shit just happens. But a lot of the answer is in the form, the forms that they use. Its not a set form. Sometimes Coltrane wouldn't even play the melody of the tune; hed just come in and play the solo. To keep it free, you could have a set form and still be free. You have to know how to catch the moment, and thats why not everybody can play with Libre. Not everybody can recognize and grab a moment to make something great out of it, and just let it happen. Some of the stuff that was happening last night (at the Delacorte) we had never done before. I had been dreaming about it for some time, but the right moment did not come until last night. And the more into the stuff we got, the more often those moments came, and it was almost as if the whole thing was one great non-stop moment after a while.
RS What about the other members of the band? How do you feel when youre playing your best, and have made whatever kind of statement you want to make? Ive watched the group and there are certain kinds of communication that go on in the group after a solo.
PV Well, that happened last night. I felt good when Hilton Ruiz came to me and said Coño, man, you burned.
RS Did you feel you were burning as you were playing?
PV Yeah! I played some good shit last night. Thats not an ego thing; I know that last night I PLAYED. Last night to me was the climax of all this bullshit Ive been going through: with my chops, with myself, with my own thing. Because for a minute there [in the past] I was really spaced out. Last night I was really there, relaxed, I was where I always wanted to be.
RS I dont remember where we were, so lets get some biographical information about yourself. When and where you were born, etc.
PV I was born in Philadelphia on February 24, 1958. It wasnt the slums in those days.
RS Tell me about your schooling.
PV I didnt graduate from high school, just made it to the 11th grade. I quit because I wanted to become a star. I wanted to come to New York, the big town. I met Danny Rosado, a bass player with Larry Harlow. He told me that if I come to NY he would get me a gig, like with Chocolate. At that time, I got thrown out of the jazz band in my school. In the 11th grade I was already playing with the hippest band in Philly, Los Galanes, with Earl Garner, trumpet player thats playing with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. Plays some mean high notes, bad dude.
RS So you didnt see any reason to stay in school?
PV No. Cause Id been in school, plus playing on the outside I was meeting a whole bunch of people that were really influencing me, my whole life--changed my shit around. From the guy that used to hang out on the corner with the boys, I turned into a new person. I got real serious. Started studying my ass off. Practicing seven hours a day. I had an intense fever to play. I was studying with Dr. Donald Reinhart, $15 a lesson, in Philly. He hooked my chops up to the level where I had endurance to be a professional player.
RS When did you start studying with him?
PV I was young; 15, 16 years old.
RS So you were playing until then on your own, without studying?
PV I was studying - but I didnt go to school to study. I studied off the street. Off the people who showed me stuff.
RS You didnt take formal lessons until you started with Reinhart?
PV I was taking lessons off the guys in the band. They always showed me something. They showed me long tones, how to get your endurance happening, how to get a big fat sound. Jimmy Pervis, he's an older cat whos been around for a while, showed me how to be slick on the horn, how to play some slick shit. To play a run, then take it and play it reversed. He was into Coltrane. All the things he's showed me, its taken me all my life to get together. He showed me a concept of playing. I got close with him and he turned me on to people to listen to, Dr. Donald Reinhart, to ideas about music. I was climbing up the ladder real fast; in a matter of three years I was playing with some bad dudes. The reason I got over was because I was playing me, whatever came out of my horn. I didnt know what the fuck I was doing. I didnt know shit. Now I know a little bit more, but I still dont know that much.
RS Im having trouble understanding how you can play
PV And not know what you're doing? Its a matter of feeling. Thats what really got me over. I put all my energies into playing my horn. When I played, Id play with all I had. Now its different. Its a different kind of control, a more mature kind of playing. I made a transition from playing loud, to playing soft and getting control of my bottom range. I was used to playing in the upper range. Ive been into trombone for a long time and it makes more sense to play something that really means something. A statement.
RS What kind of statement do you want to make?
PV It depends on what youre playing. Whenever I play something, I want it to be something valid.
RS Who decides whats valid and what is not?
PV Thats a good question.
RS Can you play something that you would say is valid, and someone else would say its not?
PV Right. That always happens to me. When I think Im playing my best, people dont even clap.
RS What made you choose the trombone?
PV Friend of mine in Philly, Sammy, he played baritone horn, the kind with only one key. He used to play in the drum and bugle corps. He used to make me feel bad cause I couldnt play at all
anything! His brother sold me a horn, a trombone, for five dollars. Me and Sammy kept on practicing, he showed me some stuff, his brother showed me some stuff. He played trombone; he was like the expert in the crowd.
RS So, you just wanted to play an instrument?
PV No. He (Sammy) got me mad. Im a titere.
RS Whats that?
PV Gang man. In Philly the attitude is different; its like street people, gangs. Sammy kept burning on me and I wanted to beat him at playing. But I sounded terrible. My Moms and Pops had no faith in me. Told me, Cut that shit out. Come to the store. They owned two grocery stores. Id be downstairs in the basement practicing and leave the store alone. So after five or six months I finally bought me a trombone.
RS Why trombone? Why not saxophone or flute or trumpet?
PV I dont know. I just picked it up and played the motherfucker.
RS Was it because he had it for five dollars?
PV I dont know. I just bought it. It was there and I guess they took me for a sucker and sold it to me for five dollars.
RS If he had a sax for $5 would you have become a saxophonist?!
PV I guess so! I would have become any goddamned thing to play music. My father was a guitar player, but I was always scared of playing guitar. Guitar is deep, its heavy shit. But I should have become a guitar player. Trombone will kick your ass, chop-wise. Because I got used to playing loud I always played loud. I bought a horn for $45 after that horn, the beat up one. I got the second one in a pawnshop. Sam brought me to audition for the band in junior high school. I played and the teacher said, You got a good sound, come on and play. Then I auditioned for Mastbaum Tech High. From there on I was the star of the class but I got fired from the jazz band. My attitude was fucked up. I was the featured soloist. I probably thought I was bad.
RS You were ego tripping?
PV Maybe. Maybe I was ego tripping. I dont think so. It was that I was hanging out with heavy motherfuckers when I was 15, 16. Cats (musicians) that would tell me all kinds of shit. After a year of practicing I started playing with bands. One day Im home, about to go to bed, and my uncle sent for me (him and my Pops are close, so my father let me go) because the trumpet player hadnt shown up. I got the gig and I didnt know nothing. It was a Latin band with my uncle playing guitar called Joe Barretto and La Cubaney. Thats how I started playing.
RS Were you listening to other people play trombone at that time?
PV Yeah. Barry Rogers. When I was in Philly the cat I used to listen to was J.J. Johnson, thats the cat that really took me out. Barry was playing Latin. I was always into Latin until I met Jimmy Pervis, a trumpet player. He and this other cat Junior showed me some music stuff. Junior showed me some chop technique. He took me to Donald Reinhart; he hooked my chops up heavy. I became a real powerful player.
PV I dont remember where we were. We started talking about how come I left school. I felt that I was past the level of being in high school playing high school music with a whole bunch of fucking idiots that didnt know how to play. Whole bunch of Chicago freaks! Hey man, Coltrane is where it was at.
RS You said your father played guitar?
PV And so did my grandfather.
RS What kind of guitar?
PV Acoustic. Típico stuff, aguinaldo stuff. The jíbaro music. Some plena, but mostly aguinaldo. They would sing some danzas, but they would have no percussion section. I was young when my whole family went to live in P.R. for 4-5 years in 1964. My father and some of his sisters or brothers had a truck and they would go to sell oranges and stuff. My family was always musically inclined. My mother always used to sing in the house. She liked to listen to the Ranchero (Mexican) records and on the radio; she was into that, heavy.
RS Were both your parents born in Puerto Rico? When did they come to the states?
PV I dont know when they came over. I was born in Philly, so it was before then. They came from P.R. to Philly, then we all went back to P.R. Thats where my whole music thing started. But not really; I remember in Philly at Christmas time, when I was a kid, my fathers family would always have an intense party, what we call a "parranda" where everybody gets together for the five or six days of Christmas and has a ball. And the music was a main event. After P.R., when I came back to Philly
RS Hold it; lets get the sequence straight. You were born in Philly 1958
PV Went to P.R. I started school in P.R., 1964, I think. I was a real travieso Dennis the Menace-type kid in those days. We lived in Vega Baja on the north part of the island. My father comes from Barranquitas in the center of the island. My fathers family were heavy jíbaro people. My fathers family gave me a lot. A lot of the energies I have to play and the ideas in my head and the way I am, it starts with them. My mothers family is hip, but I dont feel for them the way I do for my fathers. They didnt influence me the way my pops family did. My grandfather was a real motherfucker; he played guitar and sang.
PV In those days it was a household thing, not professional. They lived in the center of the island and that is the heart of the island. My real musical influence came when I went to live in P.R. I used to visit for a month with my grandfathers sister who raised him in the mountains in Barranquitas. While I was living in Vega Baja with the other love of my life, my great grandmother from my mothers side, I used to see El Gran Combo on TV every day on El Show de la Doce. I think they still have it but El Gran Combo isnt on it any more. That was right after Cortijos combo broke up.
RS When did you return to Philly after P.R.?
PV About 1969. I was there for about 4-5 years.
RS You started playing trombone in about 1971, you said you were about 13, right?
PV I remember that in 1973, cause I saved a flyer from the biggest gig I had by that time, with Willie Colón, Milton Cardona at the Philly Athletic Club. Milton was there, so was Mangual Jr., the whole Willie Colón band, and I was a kid. Id been hearing about these cats, especially Milton Cardona, and I used to look up to them. Now its different; we're friends and I dont idolize them--but then! They showed me many things. People who had their shit together blew my head. Thats probably why I had to leave school, cause I was hanging out with so many heavy cats. Id say, I GOT to do that, or play like that. I said, Im gonna go to N.Y. and play. Fuck school. A lot of people had no faith in me. They felt that I couldn't make it here. Guys in Philly who played look at N.Y. like you can't touch it. Nobody expects to come to N.Y. to play, like if you play in N.Y. then you're REALLY BAD. They dont know its all bullshit.
RS What about your parents? You said that they didnt have faith that you could make it in music.
PV They had the stores and I was the oldest kid so somebody had to help out. Before I even played trombone I was a grocery man. My father owned the main store in a heavy Black neighborhood in Philly. These were the cats I hung with and fought with when I was coming up. There was this gang called The Mighty Mother Fuckers!!
RS Did your parents object to your desires, goals, of becoming a professional musician?
PV Not after a while, not after they saw improvement; after what people were saying about me they got behind me. They just wanted to make sure that I was good at it and serious before they put any bucks into backing me or let me out of the store. But the neighborhood was something else where I grew up. It was all Black and we were the only Puerto Ricans plus we owned the store. They probably looked at us like we were imperialists or something! I had my share of getting beat-up and beating people up. A lot of the street shit stayed with me: keep your eyes open, always be aware of the person next to you, always walk with caution.
RS You said that your father and grandfather played guitar and that the aguinaldo and other P.R jíbaro music was important to you. What were some of the other musical influences on you? What did you grow up listening to as a youngster?
PV I grew up listening to that plus El Gran Combo.
RS What about the popular stuff like rock 'n roll and the other mainstream AM radio stuff?
PV I got into that when I came back to Philly after P.R. I became a jitterbugger; listened to James Brown, Delphonics, Diana Ross, Temptations. Philadelphia is a funk town. I hung out with the brothers. There were Puerto Ricans, and maybe 2 or 3 white people, but mainly it was Black brothers and there was a whole Black attitude, a jitterbug attitude. And I have many uncles and aunts, many my age. They showed me how to dance. That was my bag. Before I became a musician I was into dancing: típico, funk, all the late 1960s early 70s style dancing. They were into soul music dancing. I love soul music.
RS Do you think that soul has any influence on what youre playing now?
PV Yeah! Cause I used to hang out with the brothers, with the brothers who played soul. They werent real good musicians but they were into the real loud heavy-handed funk stuff. They were down-to-earth FUNK shit. Thats how I got my loud style of playing. The screaming horn dirty sock funk style of playing. I listened to the cat that played trombone with James Brown--he was a BAD DUDE! Plus when I lived in P.R., right next door there was this billiard place, and every Saturday night they had a jukebox and dancing and they would get drunk and there was always fighting, all sorts of violence would be happening. Id watch from the balcony of my great grandmas and this guy always played this tune by El Gran Combo, Ojos Chinos. I think he had a crush on my moms (my father was in Philly) and that tune always stayed in my mind. If you hear something every day for 2, 3, years you remember it forever. It was a good influence. It wasnt a phony or corny tune. They had Andy Montañez, Roberto Roena, Pellin Rodríguez; it really freaked me out.
RS You said that living in P.R. was a great influence on you and your music.
PV Yeah. Culturally, it was two extremes. Between P.R. and Philly was two very different things.
RS Do you find there was any musical conflict there? Or any kind of conflict? Did you feel that you were torn between this traditional island stuff and
PV Even though I was in Philly into my jitterbug bag listening to James Brown and funk it always turned out that I would hang out at home at Christmas time with my parents and go on a parranda. My father and his father also knew a lot of musicians and they would all come and play. Deep inside I always loved my parents and my roots. I always dug my roots. I always will. Its like my heart and my soul. Its planted in me. But then again, Im looking around and seeing other things that are beautiful, that are nice, that I want to check out. So whenever I try to do something that I want to do, I will try to incorporate everything that I have ever seen in my whole life. Try to express the things that I have been through and looked at.
RS When did you come to N.Y.?
PV 1975. I stayed with my aunt and her husband. I did not get a gig when I came but I already had the hook-up with Danny so it didnt take me too long to find a gig. First gig was with Andy Harlow, then I played with Chocolate. But at that time I didnt know how great Choco is, I didnt appreciate that. He built my confidence up, he let me play with him, with him and me on horn together. We started playing eights and he kicked my ass all over the place, really pushed me. I only stayed with Choco a month, then I got a gig with Larry Harlow. I had all his albums. To me he was great, with Reinaldo (Jorge), just great! I went to Venezuela with Harlow for about a week. Then I went to play with Héctor Lavoe.
RS Why did you leave Harlow?
PV I felt like I wasnt playing enough, and its a hard gig on the chops. Its a loud band [2 trumpets, 2 trombones] and I had to play the moñas myself. Moña is like the riff. So I left, thinking I was getting a bigger opportunity with Héctor cause he was working a lot. I stayed with him from mid-75 to the end of '76. Thats where I met Milton and Mangual. That was the band where I learned how to drink, and it ruined my life! I didnt know any better; I was just a kid. When Héctor Lavoe says, Have a drink, you DO. Heavy drinkers in that band. After I played with Héctor I started playing with Libre.
RS How did you hook up with Libre?
PV It could have been Reinaldo, but Im not sure. I dont remember. I know that we were in Africa at the end of 1976 and I had been with Libre for not too long. The first time I played with Libre was at the Hipocampo, I dont remember when. Jerry was playing trumpet and he got on my case. He was very arrogant.
RS How did he get on your case?
PV Like he knew everything. I mean, he DID! But still! The way he criticizes doesnt bother me any more.
RS So, if you started playing with Libre in 76, thats almost 3 years. Have you been with them all that time?
PV No. I played with Willie Colon, went to Lima, Peru, with him.
RS Where are you now in your musical ideas?
PV Right now? I gotta get me a good teacher to show me some shit.
RS Do you have any idea where you want to go musically?
PV Sooner or later I gotta make my own group.
RS To do what?
PV To do stuff that I want to do.
RS Which is what?
PV I dont know. I DO know, but I really wont know til I get it together.
RS Stuff that other people are doing or a combination of things that other people are doing?
PV Yeah. Just learning. You listen to something and say, Wow, I like that, I would like to play like that. I would like to do that. And you do it. But it gets to a point where you're trying to do a thing, but the other thing over there is suffering. Its like being two different persons playing two different styles, playing 2,3 different ways. These are the changes that Im going through now, that Ive been going through.
RS What are the different styles?
PV Well, its not different styles. Its different controls of the trombone. Having control of the intensities: making it intense, mellow. There aren't too many people that can do that, that can be flexible. Playing with Slide Hampton, even Steve Turre, was a whole big thing for me. They took me out. They blew my head.
PV Playing the trombone, thats how. That really intense playing: control, play a beautiful ballad, make people cry, laugh, whatever. Do all that. Not just play restricted. Not being afraid to play your horn. Trombone is a killer, its intense.
RS Whats intense? Playing trombone?
PV The trombone in itself. And the other masters that play trombone, the way they handle it. It has taken control over my whole being. There are things that Ive got to do, I dont know why, just that Ive got to do that stuff.
RS Are there people in the band who are trying to restrict you?
PV No. Its been a whole learning experience to me. There's been some other stuff. I get mad because Im human, everybody's human. You got to take the punches. I do have an attitude about taking care of myself, looking out for myself. Trying to develop it without destroying everything Im trying to work on. But its coming together.
RS Can you classify the kind of music you play? Like what you are playing with Libre or Perico--do you feel comfortable calling what you play by any particular name? Like Latin, or salsa, or jazz, or Latin Jazz?
PV I mix it all up. When I play a solo a lot of things go through my mind. Sometimes a lot of it is corny; sometimes its hip. These past years have been fucked up cause my chops weren't up to it. I was afraid to experiment. I was trying to gain control of my horn but not lose that strong kind of thing. I want to be able to float over the stuff, but be able to grab it when I want. Lately Ive just been floating around. I havent been ready. I was ready, but my mind wasn't ready, I didnt feel ready. I was afraid that if I was to experiment I would destroy what I had. The guy who told me that was Slide Hampton. He taught me that if youre trying to develop something and youre doing something opposite to that and are putting energies into both of them, or too much into one and not enough into another, one is going to be stronger than the other. So Ive been trying to even it out. But before I can do that I have to develop that certain thing that I have to develop.
RS In terms of what? Your sound? Ideas?
PV Both; sound, ideas, what I want to play. Be able to play fast passages staccato and smooth. Play like a bomb, like last night. My chops were ready, I felt good. It really happened last night. It dont happen like that all the time. Right now Im aware of my influences and Im trying to become more strong and trying to develop something.
RS Which is
PV Every time I perform, I want to perform at a certain level. Thats why I get mad when I play and I dont come up to that certain level that I set. Thats why sometimes when Im at the Rican Village I look spaced out. I dont talk to nobody. I just sit in the front and think about it, analyze whats happening. Then again, I can also feel like theyre not giving me the opportunity to try shit Id like to try.
RS Like a particular tune, or taking a solo at a particular time?
PV Yeah. Taking a solo at a particular time, or doing something at a particular time. Like when I dont want to play the way they want me to play. Like when they want you to do something and you dont want to do it cause you have your own personal reasons. Everything has to be compatible. There can't be no energies that are going against the whole thing. Otherwise it has a big effect.
RS What about your recent trip to Cuba? [I had forgotten that Papo previously went to Cuba with Fania All Stars when I asked that question.]
PV Cuba was dynamite!
RS Do you feel that any of your musical influences are Cuban?
PV Yeah. Lately, now, the thing that has been opening me to what Ive been dealing with in Libre and playing with José Rodrígues and listening to Eddie Palmieri, is listening to the Cuban people.
RS But Eddie is not Cuban. I dont know about José.
PV José is Brazilian. Ive been freaking out musically with what I've been hearing lately. Andy plays a lot of shit from Cuba. Ive been hanging out with Andy a lot. He always plays some slick shit for me [playing records]. He plays Arsenio, Machito, Aragón, Papines, Julito Collazo, Tito Rodríguez, all the older guys, mostly the Cuban guys. He has an intense collection. I love that. But the thing is that Im trying to develop my playing, my technique, to be strong. I want to be able to incorporate everything and play jazz and Latin at the same time. Or play a típico phrase.
RS Which típico? Cuban or Puerto Rican?
PV To me there aint no difference. For instance, when I take a solo, all that shit happens. I come in and out of all kinds of stuff.
RS What is a típico phrase?
PV To me its a rhythmic phrase that you play on top of the rhythm section that would make it move. Not move faster, but move to open it up.
RS So, for you, típico playing on the trombone is playing rhythmically?
PV Rhythmically AND melodically. The influence that I have gotten from Cuba has been the rhythm; the rhythmic sense of the clave, trying to play on clave, trying to phrase, and be a real part of it.
RS So then what youve gotten from Cuban music is a sense of the percussive part of the melody?
PV Yeah! And the way they can play one thing, one rhythm pattern for a long time, a minute or more, and make that shit BURN! Without changing it but the shit would still be moving. Last night in one of my solos I was spaced out playing all over the place. I came to a high C and held it while the rhythm section kept going and rose to their own solos over my high C. It was a spiritual thing, a coming together in that music, and then I went on with my solo. Thats the kind of ideas I get from Cuban music. The rhythm keeps happening.
RS What about the times in Barranquitas or Vega Baja, or playing with the band in Philly? Are those things also part of your music?
PV Oh yes, my whole life is. I want to get to the point where I can play humorous, sad. Everything you go through in life has a lot to do with that. I have played these past years with a kind of angry attitude toward my horn where a strong energy would come out of it, because of all these things that have happened. Something inside me comes out, a real strong energy. The anger was towards all the things I had been through: fights, a girl beat me up, being mad, all that shit.
RS But what about the good things?
PV It seems that all the negativity is what comes out. Pain, joy too. Now Im starting to feel that the joy is coming through. Beautiful experiences since I started playing horn professionally. Been to Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, Santo Domingo, Africa. Its made me really happy inside.
RS If you had not experienced the things in your life that you have experienced, could you play the way you do now?
PV Nope. Ive been through windows, people hit me with chairs, with bats, my hearts been broken. I been through so much shit that I gotta let it out and the only way for me to let it out is by playing my music. Not my music, but by playing music.
RS Can you tell me something about you, about how you see yourself. How you define yourself?
PV How do you mean? I dont understand.
RS Well, like do you define yourself as a Philadelphian, a New Yorker, a Puerto Rican, an American, a Latino, a musician, a street person, a Dennis the Menace? I could go on forever but how do you see yourself? What are the things about yourself that are important?
PV At different times I consider myself all those things. The only thing that really is important, the ONLY thing, is playing my horn, playing music, and developing music to the highest level I can. Thats the only thing thats important. The rest of the stuff is minor. I would always say that Im from Philly because of the shit that I went through in Philly, the people that I met in Philly, people I know in Philly that probably never would have the opportunity that I have in coming to N.Y. Its been a blessing. I been through a bunch of changes here, but I learned so much. The only thing that really blows my head is not playing my horn to the highest capabilities that I can.
RS Do you consider yourself an artist in what you do?
PV Sometimes. Sometimes I consider myself a dud though.
RS Do you think that being Puerto Rican is important to your music, to the music you are playing?
PV Yes, its important to me. Yeah. Wait, I dont know. Yeah. Like the shit we did last night-- that was very important to me. That was US. It was not diluted--it was a strong energy. But its all of us, not just me. You cant say, my music cause its everybody's music. Im just a little part of the whole thing. But I feel good cause I was able to express myself, and take it to the people, and let them enjoy it and freak out like I freaked out. I dont know too much. Ive never been to college, got no heavy degrees. Im still like a little boy trying to get it together. They gave me the Latin Music Award and I felt embarrassed cause theres guys like José Rodrigues, Barry Rogers, Leo Piñeda; their lives are playing Latin music, or just playing. Thats theirs.
RS But playing is your thing too.
PV Its mine too, but I dont have the experience they do. They lived in a whole different environment, listening to all sorts of different things. José probably grew up listening to samba. I wish I had too. Samba is beautiful. I grew up being into all sorts of shit. All the stuff these guys play has been influential to me. I dont want to fuck the music up, I want to put it all together.
RS One of the things you said was that you wanted to express yourself through your music, through the music that you are making. Who is yourself that you want to express?
PV I feel that I have something strong to bring out. A certain energy, like the energy I was bringing out last night. I want to make that stronger. I want to develop that more. What was your question?
RS If you want to express yourself through your music, then I figure you must have some perception, some idea, about yourself and who you are.
PV I could be a driving force; I am, when everything is right. A lot of times when I dont feel right I cant bring that out. I want to build a certain kind of environment where I can really bring that out, to the point where that energy can come out every time I play.
[Telephone interrupts again. We both had to leave, and interview ended with a promise from Papo for a follow-up interview.... perhaps 25 years later would be a good time?]