I started playing guitar when I was 7 years old and haven’t looked back since. After I had some facility with the guitar I started listening to a lot, and I mean a lot, of progressive rock and fusion. My early influences were early Genesis, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and of course ELP and Yes. I also listened to a LOT of Frank Zappa and even got to play with him in 1978 (I will write a post about that sometime, but it is R rated). I loved Mahavishnu Orchestra and that got me into Paco DeLucia and Flamenco music along with the Phrygian major mode! I also tried to keep up with Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour.
I didn’t grow up in a vacuum of eclectic tastes though and also listened to most of the rock at the time. I listened to a lot of southern rock and blues players like Duane Allman and Johnny Winter as well as Lynyrd Skynyrd.
On the metal side, I remember doing takedowns (long before I knew what a takedown was) of Black Sabbath. I had my own way of writing the parts (it wasn’t tablature). I did read music a bit, but not as a sight reader (that lesson would be evident later on).
After high school, I joined the US Coast Guard and continued to play. I even formed a group with some other members. We had the hits, we knew it. In fact, we were so confident that in a drunken moment thought about going AWOL to become a rock band! Man, am I glad soberness settled in. Some of the material was pretty decent, and the singer, John Williams (not that one), was good. Don’t know what happened to him though. One highlight was during my time at Coast Guard Air Station San Diego, and I was in a funk band with three others. Think KC and the Sunshine Band, I was the only white dude. It was fun playing in the seedy clubs of San Diego at the time.
After my discharge, I played in a few bands that went nowhere. I played lead guitar with promises of fame and fortune.
I did get slapped in the face with my skills as I mentioned before. One time I went to audition for a Frank Zappa cover band, I mean hell, I played with Frank. The only problem was these guys put music in front of me (yeah I know the joke). Not only that, I got in an accident in front of their house and had to audition with that on my mind. I decided to go to college since I had some VA money and one of the classes I figured I could skate by on was Jazz Ensemble 1. How hard could that be? Well you guessed it, we had to audition to get in and they put music in front of me. Ooops, back to start.
As a side note, I tell everyone I know that I would rather play with someone with great ears rather than a great reader in 90 percent of the gigs I do. Why? Because good ears trump good reading. I know many people who can read fly droppings off a staff but have the feel of a dead duck. My only caveat is if there is no rehearsal or it is some kind of legit music (i.e. film or other serious composition). Even real book gigs can be easy for non-readers if you know the tunes in your head. But I digress.
I decided sometime in 1985 to get serious and go to music school. I lived in Los Angeles and Dick Grove School of Music was only a few miles away. I had checked out GIT (at the time I don’t remember it being MIT), but didn’t like the whole Hollywood vibe. Grove was a much more “serious” school and that is where I ended up.
I first started as a guitar student under the tutelage of Adam Levine (no not that one), but quickly realized I liked to write songs and transferred to the Songwriting program under Doug Theile. I had some great teachers there including Jack Smalley and John D’Andrea and wrote some pretty decent music solo and with some fellow students including Judie Haymes (now Judie Lynn Ram) and others. I learned a lot, but I was about to learn a lot more.
After my year with songwriting, I decided to move on to CAP (composing and arranging program). This was one of the most intense times of my life (well boot camp was worse, but for different reasons), not only because the curriculum was insanely challenging, but because I was out of cash. Dick Grove taught CAP, he was one of the best teachers I have ever had. Equal parts mentor and boss. CAP wasn’t about the typical (at that time) college curriculum of building up to your “masterpiece” that takes two years or more to complete. No, CAP was about the business. The music business and Dick made sure we knew that. We didn’t write our one opus in four plus years, rather we wrote a big band chart… every week. No time to sleep, that is for your next life.
Who remembers swindles? You date yourselves. You probably won’t find a definition of that in Wikipedia. I don’t even know if it outside the LA music scene anyone used swindles. Yes children, we had to buy score paper, usually from Valle Music Reproduction and we would create our scores. Then it was time to copy (there was no Finale then kids). We had to finish before 12 AM because the only dude in the Valley who could do the repro went to bed (he had the machines in his house). We then brought our swindles to him to reproduce.
Okay, a swindle was a group of parts with common sections. For example unison parts etc. I don’t remember all the details because it was long ago, but basically it saved you the headache of writing the parts out more than once.
Luckily I was young and the 24 to 36 hour marathon arranging and copying sessions are a distant memory. Something to laugh about.now, but it seemed hard at the time. This was reality at the time though, and in a different way, now.
I never finished the last semester, but I am indebted to Dick to this day. One of the most important things he taught me was to put your instrument down and you will become a better musician. I know on the surface that doesn’t make sense. He was simply saying, expand your horizons. Think like another instrument. Don’t let your technical abilities limit your musical mind. Remember I told you I prefer good ears to good readers? Now you know why.
After Grove I was really into Latin music, thank in part to studying percussion with Luis Conte at Grove. Like most people of non-Latin heritage, I started with Brazil (bossa and samba). After taking the percussion class with Luis, I was introduced to a whole other world, one that originated in Cuba with roots in Africa. I found clave.
It isn’t that Brazilian music didn’t have clave, it was just different. Cuban music was different. If you have heard “salsa” you have heard the popularized version of clave Cubana. To be honest, that is what I knew when I went to Cuba the first time in 1994 to study. I had many Cubans that I knew tell me what Cuba was, both socially and musically, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw and heard.
I got on the plane in LAX and had my suitcase with a few clothes and lots of soap and toothpaste ready to roll. First stop, Cancun. There were four of us on the plane from LAX from LA, Fay Roberts, Michael Cherashore, Robert Fernandez, and myself. When we go to Cancun, well, there were enough people to fill the plane. Many were from the Bay Area, but some came from Canada and other parts of the USA. We had about a three or four hour wait and it seemed that many of the travelers were there for the second or third time. All of the LA contingents were Cuba virgins.
Cancun was easy, there was no embargo, just show your passport and be on your way. Cuba, well, in case you don’t know, it is against the law, federal law, to go there without permission from the US government. Guess what? We didn’t get our Visas in time. The State Department, especially back then, was notoriously slow. To the point of making people miss trips. Don’t worry though, our Cuban Visas were ready to go. We would receive our US Visas in Havana, just a slight delay (yeah right).
Anyway, we got on the Russian made Cubana airlines plane and the seat in front of mine was broken. It didn’t stay straight, only reclined… in my lap. No problem. Once we were in the air, I just stood in the aisle and passed the rum bottle to the front and back. The exiles on the plane were celebrating with all of us and I have to say I had a few shots as well. Needless to say, after the 45 minute flight, I had one hell of a headache.
It had been years since I was on a plane that didn’t taxi to the terminal gate, but this was long before the Canadians built terminal three for international flights. We walked down the stairs into a 40 MPH wind storm and got on the shuttle buses to customs and immigration. Luckily we got through customs very fast since they were expecting us. My head was killing me, but I stared in awe at being put in a time machine to the 1950’s. Except, there were these strange Fiat looking cars and the buildings were crumbling all around us. Welcome to the Special Period.
The bus brought us to La ENA (Escuela Nacional de Artes). Well more specifically a hostel next to La ENA (sorry I don’t remember the name). We unloaded and had dinner and just like that went to our first event. It was a concert at La Casa de la Musica (if I remember correctly) and had this group I really didn’t know at the time playing; Irakere with special guests, including Richard Egües.
Anyway, I could go on forever, but Cuba changed my whole musical mindset and I ended recording many songs there. I got married there as well, which makes me somewhat Cuban, and life hasn’t been the same since. This is the part where I am supposed to show you I know what I am talking about.
I have recorded with the greats of Cuban music including Richard (RIP)1 and Blas Egües (RIP)2 , Enrique Pla 3, Emilio Vega 4, Angel Bonne 5, Robertico Garcia 6, Emilio Morales 7. This is just a paritial list and the most important people haven’t been listed yet.
Let’s start with my Cuban mentor and best man at my wedding, Julian Fernandez. Julian was the tres player for a while in Irakere, but is more know for his role as bassist and marimbula player for Moncada. He was my first teacher in Cuba and was with me on the first few recordings in Havana. Julian is in Santo Domingo now.
I met Jiovanni Cofiño when he was only 16 years old. I was so impressed at the time that he has played on every recording in Cuba I have ever made. He left Cuba and now lives in Las Vegas, yes, close to me. We still do projects together.
It has been a long ride, and the journey isn’t over. Subscribe to my newsletter for some infrequent news about me (just being honest, this isn’t a news site!)
1Richard Egües – Orquesta Aragon was called “la flauta mágica” and composed many Cuban standards, including El Bodeguero.
2Blas Egües – The brother of Richard, he was the original drummer in Los Van Van and the de facto creator of songo.
3Enrique Pla – The drummer in Irakere and invented many of the parts played by Cuban drummers today.
4Emilio Vega – A monster of a musician and a good friend. He is a multi-instrumentalist and the last I talked with him, the head producer for EGREM. He won producer of the year in 2007
5Angel Bonne – Comes from a musical family and was a singer with Los Van Van
6Robertico Garcia – Was the founding member of AfroCuba
7Emilio Morales – A great keyboard player and member of Opus 13, Paulito FG, and NG La Banda
© 1997 – 2018 Jon Griffin