Beaming with stars from the ensembles of Latin legends Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Paquito D’Rivera, and Eddie Palmieri, Chris Wasburne and the SYOTOS Band kick off our very first Neighborhood Concert of the season on September 19 at the South Bronx NeON. We sat down with Washburne to hear the inspirational story behind his music, his love of Bronx audiences, and his community work as part of Musical Connections, a program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. We even learn what Washburne has in common with Shakespeare!
What does “SYOTOS” mean, and what is the story behind the band’s origin?
CW: “SYOTOS” is an acronym for “See you on the other side.” I coined the term back in 1992 in the midst of a severe health crisis: I was diagnosed with a deadly form of skin cancer, and was told that after surgery I would never be able to play the trombone again. On the last gig before surgery, the phrase “SYOTOS” appeared before my eyes in the middle of a solo because I knew that after surgery, I’d be on the other side of my musical career, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive the bout with cancer. I have called the band “SYOTOS” ever since then, to always remind myself of that experience, and as a tribute to survival. Most of the members of SYOTOS have been with me since 1992. What’s interesting is that SYOTOS now appears in Urban Dictionary, and is a term that is used not only in the military, but also by a lot of online gamers. I guess I feel a little like Shakespeare, inventing a new word.
You’ve performed with an impressive range of Latin legends, including Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Paquito D’Rivera. What drew you to the Latin jazz scene and who are some of your greatest musical influences?
CW: I was first introduced to the Latin jazz scene while I was a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston. I began playing with a wide array of Latin bands, and it was really love at first hearing. I found the rhythms infectious and they really resonated with my soul. I immediately started to study the history of Latin jazz as seriously as I had studied the history of jazz and classical music, but as soon as I discovered the recordings of Eddie Palmieri and his trombonist Barry Rogers, I knew that is what I wanted to do in my professional musical career. When I moved to New York after all of that preparation and study, and with a little luck, I found it rather easy to be welcomed into the Latin jazz scene, and I got a lot of great opportunities quickly. Within one year of moving to New York, I was already playing with Celia Cruz and Tito Puente.
How did your experiences performing with these artists influence SYOTOS and the work you are currently doing?
CW: Sharing the stage with those Latin legends was the best part of my musical education, and fundamental to how I developed as a musician. SYOTOS grew out of that experience and their bandstands, because the group’s members are all musicians that play regularly with these top Latin bands, and who, like me, shared an affinity for small-group improvisational settings.
What is your relationship to the Latin music scene in the Bronx?
CW: Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Bronx was a central location for Latin music performance in New York. I literally played in the Bronx every week for about 20 years straight. The best club in the Bronx was Side Street. We spent many nights there with some of the greatest musicians in salsa. I played my first gig with Tito Nieves at Side Street. I still play in the Bronx on occasion, often appearing at Lehman College, as well as a number of outdoor park concerts. The Bronx crowds are always some of the best audiences in all of New York—they really get this music.
Your upcoming Neighborhood Concert at the South Bronx NeON is located right near Yankee Stadium. Are you a baseball fan?
CW: I grew up going to Yankees games with my father several games a season. He was a big fan, and so therefore I was, too.
The concert is also the launch of a Musical Connections songwriting project that you’re leading. Tell us a little bit about your upcoming involvement in Musical Connections and the project itself.
CW: Music Connections is a very exciting program to be a part of. It gives me a chance to really collaborate with some very creative young people. We get a chance to share in their musical world and also to share our musical world with them. Most of the participants have had little or no musical training, but within a short period of time (three months), I can guarantee that we will produce a concert of some really compelling music. This year’s focus is on the sacred music of Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington was such an important force in African American musical expression and central to the development of popular music. I am hoping these young people will take inspiration from his innovative musical expressions and incorporate them in their own compositions. He has so many important messages to offer the youth of today, including the importance of self-expression, high self-esteem, and living with elegance.
In addition to writing songs with participants at the South Bronx NeON, will you be working on new material for the band, as well? Can fans expect a follow up to your last album Fields of Moons?
CW: It is always inspirational to work with young songwriters, and indeed, often spawns new musical ideas in my own compositional process. SYOTOS is heading into the studio in January to record a new album, and I must admit that many of the new compositions have grown out of our work with songwriting groups over the last few years. I feel my compositional process has been profoundly changed for the better working with so many young composers.