Pinoy Jazz Review

Last revised 3/14/2016


Introduced by African American soldiers, the genre opened up many opportunities for Filipino performers who have turned it into a musical tradition in the Philippines.

Filipinas Magazine, November, 2006

¬ Review by Ed L. Santoalla

The year was 1992 and Manila's district of Malate was in the throes of  cultural rebirth triggered by the closure of the city's infamous red  light zone in neighboring Ermita. At the corner of Bocobo and Nakpil  streets, just a block or two away from Remedios Circle, the epicenter of the renaissance featuring, among many others, Spanish-era tertulla performances and Mardi Gras-style rockin'-and-rollin,' stood an old house that a group of artists and entrepreneurs had converted into a dining place with live music entertainment. This was Santuario 2000, and the music was no ordinary one. It was jazz and what made it really special was that several of the local music scene's greatest jazz acts were playing.

Visual artist Egay Talusan Fernandez, one of Santuario 2000's owner-managers  and its creative director recalls: "We put up Santuario to be the local jazz scene's haunt of all haunts. We even had a musician's night every  Friday where we asked musicians to play to their heart's content for the price of free drinks."

It was a rare treat. It gave one the chance to watch and listen to a cross-generation of performers grooving to the beat under one roof, from veterans such as the diminutive earringed and ponytailed Pike "Pikoy"  Villlapando on the sax and the venerable Elong Francisco on violin, to young guns like the axeman "Senyor" Menchu Apostol and the consummate conga-man Dingdong Boogie, all now playing jazz halls in the Great  Beyond (I'm not that sure about Mang Elong, but at the time, he was probably;;afready pushing 80; Mang Pikoy, his contemporary, was then already 75).

I knew that the Philippines had its share of musicians playing ‚Äústaid,  intelligent" fare-like jaiz. I had omce in a while wandered off the beaten rock-and-roll path into the rarefied world of "unstructured"  sound (my very first was at the SanLo pub "Vineyard" to watch jazz flutist Hubert Laws play live in '81). But before Santuario 2000 in '92 (the place folded up in '93, a casualty of the brownouts| plaguing Metro Manila then), I realized the bench of Philippine jazz greats was that deep. And still is, as a 58-minutedocumentary produced and directed by percussionist, musicologist and jazz historian Richie Quirino shows.

Based on Quirino's coffee-table opus Pino Jazz Traditions which netted the 2004 National Book Award in the music category, the documentary entitled "Pinoy Jazz: The Story of Jazz in the Philippines" is touted as "the first-ever documentation of the development of jazz in the Philippines, from its  infancy in 1898, when Filipinos were first exposed to black music performed by African American soldiers, to its present-day maturity (when) musicians are turning to indigenous sources for inspiration."

The documentary, megged by Collis Davis, utilizes historical still  photography, turn-of-the-century film footage, maps and old recordings and present-day performances to illustrate how this decidedly American  musical form came to local shores and from here, to other Asian shores.

The documentary traces the roots of Pinoy jazz to early Filipino immigrants in the U.S. who had settled in and around New Orleans, the "storied  birthplace of jazz," and who may have transmitted some of the local  cultural influences back to the old country. It shows archival stills of what looks like Filipinos at work and at play in New Orleans, with one  vintage photoshowing men blowing on trumpets alongside another showing  Bourbon Street, that American city's entertainment row in which shops jazz pioneers like ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton and trumpeter Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong" played.

The more plausible theory, though, of how jazz came to the Philippines is by way of the Filipino American War and black soldiers in the American colonial army who had defected to the side of Filipino revolutionaries as a result of racial discrimination in the hands of their white comrades-inarms. These African Americans not only shared their love of  freedom with Filipinos, but also their love of music, in particular, the music of the oppressed colored peoples of the U.S. blues and gospel  music from which jazz sprung.

The documentary brings the viewer through prewar Philippine history when jazz developed as the music of the Vaudeville Era up until the Japanese occupation when vaudeville (live entertainment that faded in popularity with the advent of movies) was revived to take the place of American  films that the Japanese had banned. Through this era and the postwar years, the documentary names Filipino musical greats who specialized in  the jazzidiom, starting with Ping Joaquin, elder brother of National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, who reigned as the "king of jazz piano," playing with his band on board Pacific Ocean liners during the  so-called Jazz Age of the 1920s. In the Big Band era of the 1930s to the '40s and early '50s, the local jazz scene was lorded over by the likes  of Filipino Spanish-American Federico Elizalde, clarinetist Nemesio  Regalado, pianist Piding Alava, trumpeteers Toots Dila and Vestre Roxas, and reed-man par excellence Narding Aristorenas.

"It was our top bands and variety stars that brought jazz all over Asia,  from Hongkong, Shanghai to Tokyo and Harbin, to Singapore and Surabaya.  Even the liners that crossed the Pacific moved to the ragtime of Philippine jazz bands," the documentary quotes Nick Joaquin.

Until the early '50s, according to the documentary, the local boys and girls  of jazz were merely covering American and European works. By that time, Big Band music and jazz in general were already waning in popularity worldwide. Local interest, however, was sustained by the unlikely force  of the Upsilon Sigma Phi fraternity of the University of the Philippines (UP), which had passionate jazz aficionados in its ranks.

In 1953, the Upsilon "men of jazz" organized the first experimental jazz concert in the country. This was followed in September 1956 by an event  called "Jazz I" that the documentary marks as the "official birth of Pinoy Jazz." This was because it featured a composition by Angel Matias  Pena (another jazz great who emerged in the prewar era) entitled "Igorot Jazz Fantasy," an adaptation of the Igorot lullaby "Bagbag Tulambing."  The documentary describes the piece as the "first documented attempt at  fusing jazz with a Filipino folk idiom; not a rearrangement but a  completely new sound."

Jazz I would become a tradition through the '60s and '70s, ending only in  February 1978 with the last concert called "Jazz XI." By that time, a new generation of musicians had emerged, ready to carry on the torch of  Pinoy Jazz. These included university-based groups like the UP Jazz  Ensemble (with which Quirino also played), the UST Jazz Band and  individual artists like multi-instrumentalist Bob Aves and drummer Joey  Valenciano of Majam.

These two artists on camera share insightful views of what Pinoy jazz is. Aves describes it as a "process of self-discovery" of the various influences that Pinoy musicians are subjected to not only from outside  but also from inside their own country and culture. It is a process that Aves says he himself had gone through in producing his 2000 album, thus entitled "Inner Country."

Valenciano shares Aves' view. Pinoy jazz is "whoever and whatever you are," he  says, an entity that "no amount of iconography," such as the tattoos on his arms that interviewer Ron Nethercutt points to, can ever define. In  this sense, Valenciano defines Pinoy jazz in the very terms that jazz has been originally framed as the "music of freedom." Jazz, Valenciano says, is a "platform for improvisation" that he and his band uses to produce music that is "very spontaneous," that goes beyond the "variables of time and pitch," that constitutes original compositions. For Valenciano, therefore, Pinoy jazz is "less of what is written and  pre-conceived" and more of "what is being created."

The documentary climaxes with a revue of some of the finest contemporary Pinoy jazz "creations." These include Quirino's "When You're Feeling Blue" performed by young jazz chanteuse Mishka Adams; "Perfect Imperfect" by the "veritable who's who in Pinoy jazz" Affinity band  composed of Johnny Alegre on guitar, Elhmir Saison on keyboards, Tots  Tolentino on saxophone, Colby dela Calzada on bass and Kiko Bermejo on drums; and, "Wall of Emptiness" by Elemento, a young band that "makes new by making do," using instruments made of bicycle parts.

Narrated by "Brother" Wayne Enage, "Pinoy Jazz" is a collaboration among  Quirino, who sired the concept, Pinoy jazz elder statesman Angel Pena,  who arranged the featured soundtracks, and Professor Rayben Maigue, musical director of the UP Jazz Ensemble.

But for the editing, which could be improved to establish a tighter lock between the rare music recordings and the rarer film stock, and the narration, which could have been done by a younger, more visually attractive talent (Mishka Adams, perhaps?),
the documentary is a good source material for anyone who cares to know more about
the roots, nature and future of this thing called Pinoy Jazz.

Ed L. Santoalla is a travel and lifestyle writer and development media practitioner who contributes to leading Philippine publications when not working on advocacy TV productions. He has written reviews on Pinoy  Rock and Alternative Pop.

Grateful thanks to the editors of Filipinas Magazine for granting us permission to republish this review.

Collis Davis

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