Saturday, June 20, 2020


A couple of weeks ago I was honored to be part of a Jazz composers roundtable, organized by the Jazz Education Network. There were a few “older” (meaning established, hehehe) composers: Ryan Middagh, Greg Yasinitsky, Roxy Coss, and myself; and the younger composers, past Young Composer Showcase selectees Phillip Ryan Goss, Annie Booth, and Gabriel Severn.

The hang was great! A lot of insights and sharing. It made me reflect on the importance of the mentor/mentee relationship. 

Everybody needs somebody! All of us have had at some point people who helped us become who we are today.

For artists that relationship is very personal and meaningful because those people who become mentors help develop our artistic personality into the kind of artist and people we are today.

As influences, I could mention every teacher, student, and friend I have had over the years. I’ve learned a lot from so many people but today I want to mention a few souls that changed my musical life and helped me become the musician and person I’m today. Those mentors who helped me see the roads (or helped me paved them to make it possible to walk on them) when I needed it.

When I was beginning my musical studies I had the privilege to study with Sonia de Piña. She was the sub-director at the National Conservatory of Music of Santo Domingo. With her I learned how to read music and basic theory. She was also responsible for taking my hand into the Conservatory, which changed my musical path big time. I went from being only a heavy metal guitar player to becoming interested in other styles of music.At the Conservatory I was into classical guitar, and it was my first time playing jazz, big band jazz with the Conservatory Big Band. I like to call Sonia my “musical Mom.”

While I was doing that, I began working with a phenomenal singer, Junior Rodriguez (another rocker who also transitioned to Latin music). The musical director was Dante Cucurullo. A super musician who became my role model and best friend. Dante a classically trained pianist and composer, opened the doors for my professional career as guitarist/keyboardist. He is responsible for most of what I did in DR as an instrumentalist and I consider him my older brother.

In my quest for more jazz knowledge I met a great pianist/arranger l, who had studied at Dick Grove School of Music, Gustavo Rodríguez. A super kind person who got me deep into the world of Jazz theory and arranging. I remember waiting for him to come home (sometimes for hours, literally) to get that weekly lesson. Gustavo taught me Dick Grove’s methods, which showed me the path to pursue studying directly with Mr. Grove himself. 

Dick Grove (d. 1998) organized my musical thinking. He was one of the most inspiring persons I've known and I have to thank him for so much in my musical development. Grove was a super teacher and musician. I studied the CAP (Composing and Arranging Program) with him and still today, the way I think musically I owe to him.

In my first couple of years in the United States I emailed Fred Sturm (d. 2014). He invited me to come to Lawrence University in Appleton, WI., to take a lesson with him. It was supposed to be a 1 hour thing and $100.00. We ended up staying together for two whole days. He introduced me to everyone there and at the end, did not charge me for the lesson! After that, he checked every chart I wrote and gave me his comments, gave me his scores to study, and became the person who opened the doors for me to do my Master's Degree at MTSU. 

At Eastman, Fred had been the professor of Jamey Simmons, who at this point was the jazz composition professor at MTSU. He introduced me to Jamey who became a very close friend for me and my family. Jamey, a fantastic composer and trumpet player, soon became my next mentor and one of the greatest inspirations for both my personal and musical lives.

Just after graduation from MTSU, in 2008, Jamey and I went to a Jazz Composers' Symposium in Tampa, FL. There I met a person who changed my life in so many ways. Mr. David Caffey. He not only became my mentor, but also my jazz composition professor, friend, and boss at UNC. At the time David was the Director of the School of Music and he opened the doors for me to come to this amazing place to do my doctorate. He also gave me my job as Director of Music Tech at UNC. Now retired, he has been one of the biggest influences in the way I see and approach life and music.

As I have had the chance to be a mentor to so many students myself, I can see the relationship from both sides and appreciate the importance of those people in our lives. I'm looking forward to meeting more people and serve as mentor for them; at the same time I'm eager to meet the person(s) who will be next mentor(s) for myself. 

Everybody needs somebody to help them navigate the life turbulences and, for artists, help them grow and discover their own voice.



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