Musician-scholar Miguel Zenón weaves Puerto Rican identity with jazz

Publication: NBC Latino
Author: Nina Terrero
Date: February 3, 2012

It’s early in the morning, just days before the world premiere of a special project that Latin jazz saxophonist/composer Miguel Zenón lovingly calls his “baby.” Chatting moments before heading off to rehearsal for “Puerto Rico Nació: Tales from the Diaspora” (which will be presented this weekend at Montclair State University in New Jersey), Zenón says that his passion project embodies the notion of identity “inspired by the Puerto Rican experience in the United States, and especially New York City.”

At 35-years-old, Zenón is regarded one of the most influential Latin jazz musicians of his generation. He has recorded 6 albums, has earned multiple Grammy-nominations and is a permanent faculty member at the New England Conservatory of Music. He’s an exceptional musician who has studied at the Berklee College of Music and Manhattan School of Music and whose love of culture and traditional Puerto Rican music has made him a musical anthologist. Although the artist has spent significant time studying traditional bomba y plena music and Puertorriqueño folklore, it’s his latest project, “Puerto Rico Nació,” that the artist feels mirrors his own story of being Puerto Rican living stateside.

“I had been thinking of this project for years,” said Zenón of “Puerto Rico Nació,” a composition that will feature his quartet, a 12-piece band and a video installment featuring art work and audio clips of Zenón’s interviews with Nuyoricans about identity. He said that his interviews - with Nuyoricans from 20 to 60 years old were an integral part of the endeavor.

“I wanted to speak to people about their impressions of language, culture and culture and find answers to questions like ‘What makes a Puerto Rican a Puerto Rican?’ and What makes you feel close to Puerto Rican culture?’ and “Does location have anything to do with it?”

These interviews – that confronted stereotypes surrounding second generation Puerto Ricans and the concept of “home” and “Puerto Rican-ness” – inspired Zenón to compose music with different melodies, beats and tempos which reflect an identity he calls “multiple and interchangeable.”

Zenón was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He started music lessons at 10 years old, studying under a neighborhood teacher who made it his mission to teach local children free of charge. He later attended a performing arts middle and high school, where he says he got stuck with the saxophone by chance, rather than choice.

“My interest early on was the piano, but when I arrived to class the first day everybody had the same idea and all the piano chairs were taken,” recalled Zenón. He caught jazz fever while in high school, when friends passed along tapes of greats like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Zenón left home to study music in Boston and when he found himself in New York, “I had found that I could take from my culture and roots and bring it to my development as a musician and mix it with being in the States,” said Zenón. He says that his passion for exploring his Puerto Rican heritage will most likely continue to influence his musical composition for the foreseeable future. After all, he says, his roots are calling.

“Identity is what you make of it, and in a way, being away from home has made me feel more Puerto Rican.”

Submitted by Courtney on February 8th, 2012 — 10:04am

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