Author: John Moultrie and Nyasha Nyamapfene
Date: March 2012
Miguel Zenón’s story is remarkable. Growing up in a barrio in Puerto Rico that was originally a settlement for freed African slaves, he discovered his calling in jazz as a teenager. Miguel arrived in Boston in 1996 having never studied jazz, yet 12 years later he received a MacArthur Genius grant and a Guggenheim award for his ability to blend the folkloric music of his island with America’s own original art form – jazz.
iRockJazz spoke with Miguel during his most recent visit to Chicago about growing up surrounded by the music of San Juan, how jazz changed his life, and how he has connected jazz with the music of Puerto Rico. Miguel describes more broadly where he sees jazz headed globally, and the extent to which the genre continues to transcend itself.
iRJ – Tell me a little about your home town in Puerto Rico, your early beginnings, and how you began with the music.
MZ – I grew in San Juan, Puerto Rico in a neighborhood called Santurce. It was a very traditional neighborhood linked to a lot of folklore. Music was around all the time. There was a gentleman in the neighborhood who taught music to kids for free every day. The idea was he’d teach you music theory and once he thought you were ready, you’d pick an instrument and join the marching band.
Initially I chose piano, but you can’t play piano in the marching band, so I chose saxophone. Funny enough when the time came, I was admitted to Escuela Libre de Musica – the local music school. A lot of musicians, like David Sanchez, went there. So I never got to play in the marching band because I enrolled in the school fulltime from 7th grade, learning classical music.
iRJ- So what year did you move to the US?
MZ – I moved to the US in 1996, two years after I finished high school. Around the time I was finishing at the school (I was 15 or 16) I started listening to jazz – Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, etc. Before that, I enjoyed music, but I really never thought I could make a living doing it. But when I discovered jazz, it really made a difference. It felt like a calling – something I could really relate to. I made up my mind to pursue jazz. From the time I graduated from high school, I started gigging, saving money, and trying to find scholarships, so that I could go to Berklee. Read more »