Q&A: A Conversation With Oscar Hernandez
Q: Oscar, why don't we start with how you first got involved in music. Were there any musicians in your family?
A: No, actually there were none. I grew up in a family of eleven. I had ten brothers and sisters. We were raised in the South Bronx. I started playing trumpet at the local Boy's Club when I was about twelve. I played for a couple of years; however, I didn't have the physical chops to play the trumpet. At first the teacher thought that I could be a good trumpet player, but he later told me that I should probably switch to piano or sax. At that time my oldest brother was the super of the building we lived in. Someone gave him a piano that we put in the basement with which we started jamming little by little. After about a year I started playing with the local bands from the neighborhood. That's how I got my start.
Q: Any teachers in the beginning?
A: Other than that trumpet teacher from the Boy's Club, no. It wasn't until after I started playing professionally, I had started with Joey Pastrana and then went with Ismael Miranda, that I hooked up with a private teacher. I took private lessons for a couple of years. Then afterwards, that was when I was about seventeen or eighteen, when I was about twenty-four I went to college where I received my degree. I also studied privately while in college.
Q: Which were some of the bands you played with in the beginning?
A: I started playing professionally when I was about seventeen. My first experience with a top name band was with Joey Pastrana. His band was very popular at the time because of a tune that was hot at the time titled Rumors. Chivirico Davila was singing with the band at the time. I happened to be playing in a band by the name of La Conquistadora at the time with this trombone player that was also playing with Joey. He told me that Joey was looking for a piano player and so I went and auditioned. I messed up at first so I took the music home and learned it. I stayed with Joey for about a year when Joe Santiago (bassist), who I was friends with told me that Ismael Miranda had just started a band and was looking for a piano player. They were both playing with Larry Harlow when Ismael decided to leave and start his own band. It was the best thing that I ever did up to that time. I was just eighteen and playing with Ismael. We were the most popular band at the time. We were playing seven days a week. We were playing a lot. It was fun. Too bad it didn't last for long. The band broke up after a year.
Q: Would you say that was the band where you really developed as a musician and arranger?
A: Yes, but I didn't start arranging until later. That was the band where I was really gaining the experience and learning the concepts behind the music. It helped me later when I played with Chocolate, Roberto Torres, Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, Libre, and eventually with Ray Barretto. They all offered different experiences and were all learning experiences for me. They were all unique in their own way. I think that the band I probably got the most out of was Barretto's. He was a lot older and had a lot more experience as a band leader. He also gave me my first opportunities as an arranger. He had some music from a school of really great arrangers such as Gil Lopez, Louie Cruz, Eddy Martinez, and people like that. I got to play with him on what is now a classic album, the RICAN-STRUCTION album.
Q: That was after the Conjunto Libre experience, right?
A: Yes, that was after Libre. Both of those bands weren't working a lot. Sometimes I use to juggle both. They kind of overlapped.
Q: You were part of the Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental Nueva Yorquino. From that experience Libre is born. For the benefit of those that don't know, how did the whole Grupo Folklorico experience come about?
A: It came about as a result of a clique of guys, and I say clique in the good sense, that use to hang out and learn about the music. The guys in the forefront were Andy and Jerry Gonzalez. When I first met them I was with Ismael Miranda. They came up to me and introduced themselves and said that they liked the way I played. They invited me over to their house where they had a huge record collection. That use to be the hangout as you well know. Nicky Marrero use to be there, Frankie Rodriguez, Nelson Gonzalez, all those guys use to hang out at Andy and Jerry's house. We use to stay there listening to music until four and five in the morning. That was the place for musicians. They were good friends with Rene Lopez, who was another great learning school since he had all those great Cuban records. We'd go to Rene's house and listen to music as well. Those were really fertile days for learning about this music. I was really glad to be a part of it and to have been associated with all those people. They were really concerned about learning about the roots of the music and maintaining those roots, and how the music evolved and developed to where it was. It was a great experience. Out of that clique of people the Grupo Folklorico concept evolved. There were a few people who were not part of the clique involved like Ruben Blades, Marcelino Guerra, Heny Alvarez, and a few more. We did two records. The first record I'll never forget. It was one of those things that you never forget. It was an awesome experience.
Q: It was also part of the Smithsonian project that Rene Lopez was involved with, right?
A: Yes. I was just playing on natural ability back then when those recordings were done. I feel like I really didn't learn how to play until afterwards. It was a great experience.
Q: It's classic stuff now. It's those same things that people look back at and say, "maybe I should have done it different", that makes it such classics. It's the pure and simple approach that brought so many listeners to the Folklorico experience.
A: I've been fortunate to have been associated with a couple of records that are now considered to be classic recordings. Those two are some of them, along with Barretto's RICAN-STRUCTION. The early Libre recordings also have to be included.
Q: As a result of your work with Libre you get the piano seat with Barretto, which would eventually lead to your association with Ruben Blades, right?
A: I stayed with Barretto for about five or six years. It was during that period that I met Ruben Blades. I had known him for a couple of years. He had been real popular as a result of playing with Willie Colon. They were working a lot and making lots of money as a result of their popularity. That's when he decided to go on his own. He called me up and said that he wanted to form his own group and that he wanted me to be a part of it. I believe that I was the first guy he called. From there we decided on the band's personnel.
Q: How did you guys go about selecting guys like Ricardo Marrero and Ralph Irrizary?
A: Well he had his own idea. He had mentioned Richie, who I really didn't know at the time. I recommended Ralph Irrizary. I think he had mentioned Eddie Montalvo. Richie recommended Mike Viñas, who I had played with in Dave Valentin's band. I knew Mike and thought he would be a great addition. The only guy I really didn't know was Louie Rivera, the original bongo player. I think Ruben had either met him or seen him and liked the way he played. That was the original group. Just six of us.
Q: How did the whole concept for the band evolve?
A: Ruben was the musical head. He always had his own ideas on how he wanted the music. We would take the material and arrange it. The main arrangers were me and Mike Viñas. Based on what he sang and what he would tell us we would come up with the arrangements. We created that sound. He wanted to do something different. He didn't want to step on Willie Colon's toes, so he didn't want to use trombones. He said that was Willie's sound and he wanted to do something different. He always liked the Joe Cuba sound. He was a big fan of Joe Cuba, and so was I. That was how the original concept was developed. He wanted to start off with a sextet. And as you well know it evolved into something else.
Q: On the arranging front, you haven't done much work with the young guys, like the Marc Anthony's, why?
A: Yeah, you know what, it's kind of unfortunate because I feel I can do it just as well as anyone out there. You just get kind of stigmatized as being stuck on the old style. I don't think it's fair. I think that if I'm given the opportunity to do something like the pop that's out there it would be a piece of cake for me. It's even easier. They just keep on using the same guys.
Q: Who were some of your influences as an arranger?
A: Well, guys like Rene Hernandez, Tito Puente, Gil Lopez, Eddy Martinez, Louie Cruz, Marty Sheller, Luis Perico Ortiz, and one of the guys who had a big influence on my style was Jose Febles. I played with him a lot in many different situations and we hung out a lot together. I got to see his talent up close. He had a big influence on me.
Q: On the piano front, who were some of your influences?
A: Well the first one to influence me has always been Eddie Palmieri. When I first started playing there was something about his records that just drew me in. I'm talking about his first records.
Q: The original Perfect sound?
A: Right, La Perfecta. EL MOLESTOSO, ECHANDO PA'LANTE, LO QUE TRAIGO ES SABROSO. I like his old stuff. I think that he should go back to the roots. That was some incredible music. That man was incredible. His music had a big influence on me. Without a doubt, his piano playing helped to shape my style. Then when I met Rene Lopez the Cuban piano players Like Peruchin and Lili Martinez also played a part on my development. I also got turned on to the jazz thing as well. At that time the guys that were in the forefront were guys like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and later Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. When I first heard that my ears perked up and it was like, wow! WHAT IS THIS? They also played an important part in influencing my style.
Q: If you had to put a tag on your style what would that be?
A: I don't know. I feel that I have a good concept for the Latin stuff because it's something in me. It's been ingrained in me. I'm not a jazz player per say because I don't play it all the time, but I feel I have a good grasp on that concept and I feel I can play in that mode. I think I'm a really good Latin Jazz player. I'm not going to say I'm a good "jazz" player because that's something different. You know, it's like everything else, you have to be doing it all the time. I'm a good Latin piano player, and a good Latin Jazz piano player. There's no doubt about that. In some respects I feel like, without sounding like I'm on some ego trip, I'm the best at what I do. There are a lot of guys that are really good as well, but in terms of playing Latin and Latin Jazz and understanding both, I think that is where my strength lies.
Q: Since you brought up the term Latin Jazz, for the benefit of those in search of a definition, what would you say constitutes Latin Jazz?
A: It's using Jazz harmonies and concepts on top of Latin rhythms. It's no more complicated than that. The Seis de Solar thing can be categorized as Latin Jazz. It's not really classical Latin Jazz, it's more like Latin Fusion.
Q: It's sort of like Chick Corea's Return to Forever.
A: Right. To me the roots of Latin Jazz are in Mongo Santamaria's and Cal Tjader's music. And of course you have the Machito and Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker thing. Basically it's using jazz harmonies and concepts on top of Latin rhythms, which doesn't always work. You really have to have musical sensibilities to make it work. Not everybody really knows how to do that as well. It's two different styles of music and depending on how you join them it may or may not work.
Q: La clave, something that nowadays is being disrespected all over the place, you as an arranger, how would you go about explaining the role of clave in an arrangement?
A: I definitely arrange around the clave. That's how I've been taught. You take a song and it has to be put in clave, if it isn't already. It has to be phrased. Every phrase has a different clave. Every song should have a certain clave. Once the song is in clave then you do the arrangement based on the clave. It's the way I learned how to arrange. It's the era I come from. You arrange with the rhythmic phrasing of the clave. Now it's taken for granted and the music has become really different. Some of it I like. I think you should take certain liberties. However, it's nice when you take those liberties understanding what you're doing. Some of the people nowadays don't understand it. They just do it because they've heard it. They don't have a true understanding of the clave.
Q: What are some of the productions you have been involved in?
A: Well, we've spoken about the Rafael de Jesus album which I produced. I'm really proud of that album because when I hear it back I'm amazed. I produced a Daniel Ponce Latin Jazz record, which is kind of my own record because I wrote half of the songs. I also produced the Carabali records, as well as the last Ruben Blades / Willie Colon collaboration. I produced the Eddie Torres record, which I'm also proud of. I also produced the Paul Simon SONGS FROM THE CAPEMAN cast album which isn't out yet. That's about all of my productions.
Q: I know we talked about it before, but for the benefit of those that don't know, how did the whole Capeman thing come about?
A: I met with Paul Simon. He was asking people about me because he had heard the Eddie Torres record, which he really liked a lot. He called me and I got involved with him. At first I was just doing it to do it. I really didn't know where it was going to lead. When it was getting close to the opening I realized that it was a pretty awesome experience. It was an incredible experience for me to be involved with him and all the other people involved. It's something I'm really proud of because I know we put forth a great effort. It wasn't commercially successful, but the people that saw it know we got the raw end of the deal, especially the Latinos. There were certain mistakes made on our part because Paul had never ventured into Broadway before. If we had a chance to do it again I'm sure we would do it differently.
Q: Was you participation a major role musically speaking?
A: Yes, it was all Paul's songs, but I did play a major role in putting them together and presenting them on a Broadway stage.
Q: Were the songs arranged by Paul?
A: Some of them we did together and some of them were done before I got involved. Some of them I helped to shape. We collaborated on certain things. We threw a lot of ideas back and forth, but he always had a lot of ideas on how he wanted his music. You have to respect him because it was his baby. I feel good about my end in it. It was a great experience.
Q: Did you take part in forming the orchestra?
A: Yes. He told me from the very beginning that it was going to be my ship. He told me to pick who I wanted. Basically I wound up bringing most of the guys on board.
Q: For the benefit of those that didn't get to see it, who were some of the musicians in the orchestra?
A: Well in the rhythm section there was Bobby Allende, Richie Bastar, Robbie Ameen, Bernie Miñoso (bass), we had five guitar players (Vincent Guinee, Gordon Tickcom, Paul Levant, Edgardo Miranda, and Nelson Gonzalez), Ozzie Melendez (trombone), Bobby Franschescini (sax), Tim Reese (sax), Ite Jerez (trumpet), Barry Danellian (trumpet), Oriente Lopez (keyboards), and myself along with a whole crew of other musicians on strings and woodwinds.
Q: Did Ruben Blades, Marc Anthony or Ednita Nazario contribute in any way to the production?
A: No. They may have made some little suggestions, but it was Paul's thing all the way. He had recorded all the demos in the studio before any rehearsals had started. It was mostly Paul's thing. There was no collaboration there.
Q: After that you got some work on TV. Was it as a result of your work on Capeman?
A: Yes, kind of in a way because the guy told me he was looking for a little Latin music and that they had heard the Capeman music. I did a few things after that. I was busy for a while and then I slowed down. Now I'm busy again. It's just the way it is.
Q: What are you doing nowadays?
A: I'm just freelancing as a musician. I working with my own group and with about four or five other groups. I've been trying to get some production work. I just finished work on J.T. Taylor's record. I'm doing a thing on All My Children with Tito Nieves this week. I'm also trying to find some talent to produce. I'm working with a friend of mine who owns a studio and we're trying to find some talent that we can push to the labels. Hopefully something will happen soon.
Q: Where's your head at these days musically?
A: I'm listening to everything. I think I've grown a lot in the last few years. I was very close-minded for many years. I'm listening to all kinds of stuff including the hip-hop stuff my son is listening to. I'm trying to get into it to understand what makes it work. Years ago I wouldn't listen to none of that. If it wasn't jazz or classical music I wasn't listening to it.
Q: How do you view the musically scene now, as opposed to what it was back in the 70's and 80's?
A: It's changed a lot. There's a lot about it I don't like. When we were coming up we use to play five and six nights a week in the clubs. Sometimes two and three gigs a night. There were so many clubs. We were always playing opposite other bands. You don't find that nowadays. There are only three or four clubs now. We use to travel a lot. Now they don't travel as much. And if they do the singers go alone and use a pickup band. The music has definitely become watered down. There's no doubt about it. Some of the watered down stuff is good, but some is not. It's what the record companies are pushing. It's what sells. It's unfortunate, but that's just the way it is. Your always going to go through these periods in music. Hopefully it will get better.
Q: LARAS, are you a member?
A: No, actually no. I've thought about joining because I want to get involved in the important issues in music, especially when it comes to Latin music.
Q: With all that said, what would you like to leave the reader with?
A: Well, inform yourself as much as possible about the roots of this music and about the value of the musicians that came before the stuff that they're listening to now. Some people have just started with Marc Anthony, and they don't know that there was a Ruben Blades, a Cheo Feliciano, and all the other great singers that came before him. Educate yourself and expand your horizons because it's important for you as a person and for our collective culture as Latinos.
A: Thank you!
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