Mission Statement of The Jazz Society of Ecuador:
*To add jazz to the many cultural assets of Ecuador; *To educate and nurture aspiring Ecuadorian musicians in the art of improvisation; * To create a venue for musicians to perform before a live audience;*To promote jazz events and festivals throughout Ecuador; *To welcome musicians from other countries to participate in our mission while enjoying the unique beauty and charm of Ecuador.
Interviewing Jim Gala, co-founder with his wife Debby of the Jazz Society of Ecuador, is a bit challenging. For one thing, he’s busy, and it wasn’t easy setting up an appointment. The Jazz Society Cafe, located upstairs at La Vina restaurant (5-101 Luis Cordero y Juan Jaramillo) is open Wednesday through Saturday from 6:30 p.m. Live music featuring varying jazz artists begins at 7:30 p.m. No two shows are alike. Jim is also father to two and a half-year-old Gabrielle…busy. He doesn’t really like to talk about himself. And he couldn’t imagine how an interview could take two hours. (I took that as a personal challenge.)
Asked how he found jazz, Jim recalled his uncle, Peter: “My mother’s brother, a brilliant attorney whose hobby was the saxophone. We only saw him a few times a year. When I was around 10 or 11 years old, he brought me records: Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz. I was introduced to jazz at a formative time in my life. Also, there was a piano in my house. I fell in love with the piano before I took lessons. It wasn’t something I was made to do. It was something I wanted to do.” Almost as an afterthought, Jim noted, “My father owned a jazz club in New York, so I was also exposed through that.”
Quite early, Jim owned his own New York jazz club. “At that time, you couldn’t have more than one liquor license in the city,” he explained. “My father wanted to open a second club, so he put the first one in my name.” Jim received his formal and classical music education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He also majored in physics and had a multi-faceted career.
But there was always jazz. “I always took gigs, even when working at other things.” Other things ranged from designing and manufacturing high-end sound equipment to being a private detective. “The jazz community in any given city is small and tight-knit. If you have the chops, you’re welcome to play. Jazz doesn’t exclude people. I had the privilege of meeting Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Bill Evans and many others. I hung out with a few of them.”
While reluctant to talk about himself, Jim waxes prolifically about jazz. “Jazz is simply unscripted music, like a conversation is unscripted words. It’s spontaneous, instantaneous composition, and there’s a kind of musical liberation to that. Of course, you have to have the vocabulary. Thelonius Monk said, ‘Jazz is freedom. You think about that.’ Jazz has depth and complexity. It’s very personal and intimate. At the same time, jazz is a big world. It embraces a lot of things. Nina Simone said, ‘Jazz is not just music. It’s a way of life; it’s a way of being, a way of thinking.’ All thought is born of emotion. Certain sounds evoke certain emotions: joy, melancholy, passion, etc. Like classical music, the emotions that jazz evokes are often more complex and adult: ambivalence, irony, tenderness, desire. When people first hear jazz, they may think it’s different, cool, sexy. But it’s also intelligent. Charlie Parker was brilliant.”
But as intelligent and sophisticated as some of jazz is, Jim insists that jazz is not elite. “Remember, jazz was invented by poor, disenfranchised Blacks in tough places like Harlem and New Orleans. Once while Miles Davis was standing in front of a club where he was playing, a cop beat him severely. Billie Holiday had to go through the kitchen to get to the stage. Dizzy Gillespie said, ‘Men have died for this music. You can’t get more serious than that!'”
Jim has performed all over the world. “Jazz is now bigger in Europe than in the US, and big in Japan,” he said. While in the Philippines, a woman named Debby was booking jazz musicians…soon she and Jim were married with a baby on the way. When they decided to relocate, Cuenca came to mind. “I had met George Evans when I lived in California. While he owned California Kitchen, he invited me to visit Cuenca. There’s a phrase in science that there’s no such thing as perfection; you search for the ‘best set of compromises.’ Nothing really bothers me much about Cuenca. There’s less of a corporate presence, especially in El Centro. I liked that when you see a middle-aged Cuencano, he’s usually well-dressed. He’s not trying to look and act like a teenager. They say, ‘attitude is latitude,’ meaning people are more relaxed and open near the equator. But a correlate to that is, ‘attitude is altitude.’ Higher and cooler means a bit more reserved, well-mannered, clean, and safe. There’s also something about this town where you don’t feel ‘managed’…there’s a kind of freedom. You’re free to write your own story. I loved many things, but there was something missing: jazz,” Jim said. “Cuenca is a jewel, and I wanted to give that jewel another facet. So I founded The Jazz Society of Ecuador.”
The Jazz Society of Ecuador defines itself as a volunteer society of musicians, music teachers and jazz enthusiasts. Today, there are more than 1300 members, 487 of whom live in Cuenca. In the last three years, the Society has produced more than 500 live performances showcasing over 80 Ecuadorian musicians, while providing free musical instruction and financial aid to purchase instruments the students could not otherwise afford.
Jim’s management style might be described as anti-management. “Jazz is, by definition, unmanaged music performed by very independent musicians,” he said. “I’m not the boss.” At the same time, he recognizes, “Jazz is its own language, and it’s a language quite foreign to Latin America. There’s a lot of work involved in teaching its distinctive rhythms and harmonics. Musicians who want to learn find us,”said Jim. Musicians currently playing with the Society include: Gilberto Rivero (saxophone); Jonnathan Aravelo and Christian Torres (double bass); Reivaldo Arce and Pedro Ortize (percussion); Manuel Quesada (flute); Molly Montagna, Juliet Barrett, Christina Navas, and Alfonso Moreno (vocals).
Not all the musicians are strictly jazz. “If the music has substance, I’ll feature it,” Jim said, pointing to classical guitarist and vocalists Renato Arbornoz and Luis Ullauri. There are also frequent guest musicians who appear from Quito to Cuba. A recent example was the US Ambassador to Ecuador, Adam Namm, who happens to play a mean piano. Then, of course, there’s “Sweet Sue” Terry, internationally renowned saxophonist and vocalist extraordinaire who visits several months each year.
While jazz and The Jazz Society of Ecuador are two of Jim’s great passions, there is another—his daughter Gabrielle. “She is my raison d’etre,” says Jim. “I have two grown sons, but I never had a little girl. She is a joy; I can’t imagine life without her.” Naturally, he has composed a piece for her, entitled “Gabrielle.” “It’s complex. I’ll perform it one day,” he promised.
To paraphrase one of Jim’s favorite musicians, Miles Davis, who doesn’t like to give interviews, “If you want to hear what I have to say, come to the Jazz Society of Ecuador and listen to what I (and our musicians) play.” Safe to say, the man “loves his life….and ALL THAT JAZZ!”
Jan Hunsinger has lived in Cuenca for nearly four years. A native of California, she has worked in public relations and as a psychotherapist.
To download some of Jim’s music, click here.