A Filipino Jazz Musician and Jazz Journalist

Richie Quirino on drums and vocals, playing Latin jazz with Quarana at the Sage Bar, Makati Shangri-la Hotel.

One night in Tago Jazz Café I met Richie Quirino, who’d written three books on Filipino jazz and used the subject matter for the documentary he did with Collis Davis. The following week I interviewed him at the Shangri-la Hotel in Makati, where he had a gig playing Latin jazz in the Sage Bar. With his permission I added snapshots from the documentary, Pinoy Jazz. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

Richie’s story

Louisiana houses on stilts.

My father, Carlos Quirino, studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin and graduated in 1931. While he was there he heard of a Filipino community in Louisiana near New Orleans area, so before returning to Manila he visited the bayou area to do interviews and take pictures. He discovered five communities, one called Manila Village.

Back in the nineteenth century during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, a lot of Filipinos had been hired to work in the galleon trade between Mexico and the Philippines. It was hard labor, and wages were terrible, so many of the men jumped ship. They had heard that the Louisiana environment was very much like that of the Philippines. So they went there and started fishing or doing whatever they could to make a living. They intermarried with the locals and eventually set up communities. I believe they witnessed the birth of jazz. Filipinos love music, so I imagine that they mingled and absorbed the music. The second song in the documentary is “The Belle of the Philippines” by an unknown composer in New Orleans. Filipinos also love to write letters. These people were homesick. They would send letters and somehow get their relatives to America secretly, tago ng tago.

Around the same time, in 1898, the Spanish-American war was raging. Admiral Dewey defeated the Spanish Armada, and the Spanish surrendered. In the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the Philippines was ceded to the United States in return for twenty million dollars,

When the Americans took over, they brought their jazz with them here. In Pinoy Jazz Traditions, I mentioned David Fagin, a happy-go-lucky African-American who was with the US troops. He came here, deserted and joined Aguinaldo’s Filipino troops. He was well known for singing gospel music, Negro spirituals, and the blues. That was how jazz filtered into the Philippines. In 1901, the Thomasites came to teach English, bringing with them the American education system and Edison phonographs. A couple of decades later there was also jazz on 78-rpm records.

Jazz musicians play at the funeral march of Spanish rule.

Filipinos love freedom. It was a big relief to be out from under Spanish rule. We had vaudeville here, stage shows to entertain the general public with comedians and musicians. Then the Dixieland era came in. Filipinos embraced it as freedom music. The heart of jazz is improvisation. That’s what distinguishes one jazz musician from another, how they speak through the universal language.

My own story starts in 1970 when I formed a band with my best friend, Raffy Lopez. He was twelve, and I was thirteen. His brother Gabby returned from the States and brought jazz records with him. They completely blew me away, and I decided jazz was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was more refined, more sophisticated, than the rock and blues we had been doing. It needed research and practicing, but there was no looking back. My mother, who’s a novelist and poet, tried to discourage me because she thought I’d regret it when I’d have trouble paying my bills. But my father said, “Choose what you want to be, but be the best at it.”

Angel Peña

After high school I enrolled in De La Salle University, where I didn’t want to be. Then I had to go to summer school to retake some required courses I’d flunked. I was so stressed out that I developed a skin condition from scratching. The dermatologist told my parents, “Let your son do what he wants to do. This is a psychological thing.” So I enrolled in the College of Music at the University of the Philippines, where I learned how to read music and to write music. I already played the drums, but I took up piano and soprano sax as well. I also studied gamelan with an instructor from Indonesia and kulintang, brass gong music from Mindanao. I really got into twentieth-century music, like Stravinsky. After three years I moved on to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and graduated cum laude three years later with a double major in professional music and audio recording.

Joey Valenciano

I’d come to jazz through Miles Davis and fusion, which wasn’t difficult for me to appreciate because of all the rock elements in it. I thought I was a damned good fusion drummer. But at Berklee I learned how to play big band, swing, cool jazz, and all the genres. Berklee was a great experience. There was Herb Pomeroy, one of Berklee’s founding members, who headed the concert band and the recording band. He taught the Duke Ellington class and a class for arrangers and composers only. For those classes there were a lot of prerequisites. For a while I roomed with Tots Tolentino and Bob Aves.

Tots Tolentino

At the same time I had a series of odd jobs, which I wouldn’t have been able to do here. I told my parents I wanted the experience of working with my hands. It made a man of me. It really enriched my life. My first job was in the work-study program as a janitor cleaning the classrooms and the dormitory during the summer break. One afternoon at a quarter to five, I was hitting on this really cute flute player. Our supervisor had the hots for her too, so he came up with some errands for me. I objected that it was almost quitting time, he ordered me to do it, and I muttered something in Filipino. You know what? He’d been stationed here at Clark Air Base and he knew what it meant. He ordered me to report to the director of the work-study program.

Bob Aves with his album using Filipino gongs.

This guy said, “Well, Ricardo, I’ll bring you up a notch. You’re going to work as a receptionist at the front desk of the dormitory.” I was promoted! From there I worked in the mailing office, in the scheduling office, in the ensemble office. I got to know the people who were running the school, who were also musicians. On my last job at the school I got into another altercation with my boss, he sent me to  the program director, and I quit.

After that I got a job in a laundromat, where I broke my back for eight months until a Hong Kong immigrant at the school, a guitar player, said he’d been making at least $7 an hour driving a cab. In order to get my hackney license I had to get my driver’s license and then take a seminar on getting around Boston—traffic, street names, locations of hospitals, hotels, clubs—and then pass an exam to get my hack license. I leased a cab from Checker Cab and drove the graveyard shift. I really enjoyed the freedom of moving around Boston. Every passenger was a new experience. I left Boston in 1980.

“Igorot Jazz Fantasy, Bagbagtulambing” by Angel Peña was a landmark piece.

In 1991 the United States was told it couldn’t extend or renew its bases in the Philippines, so it packed up its bags and left. All the jazz was gone. The Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center had brought in jazz musicians for concerts. It had a library of audio recordings and books, and Filipinos could go there to learn more about jazz. That folded up. The archives were crated up and stored in a warehouse in Subic. Later I tried to get access but was denied.

Filipinos had been doing American and European music because we didn’t know our own identity, but the enormous void spurred us on in search of it. It took years. In 1999 Jim Ayson, put up a website called Phil Music. He set up Pinoy Jazz E-Groups, creating a forum for everyone interested in jazz to share their dreams. I wanted to write books and make a documentary. Someone else wanted to do his own concerts. This was what started the big bang because it went in so many directions and put people in touch with one another. Filipinos from all over the world would subscribe. There was an explosion.

Johnny Alegre AFFINITY

There are two kinds of Pinoy jazz. One is, like you said, a Filipino playing “Watermelon Man.” We’re good copycats, so we listen to the record and copy what the players are doing, ut of course not exactly Herbie Hancock’s improvisation. The real deal is Filipinos who have found their own identity by infusing indigenous ethnic music from the Philippines, from the north and from the south, and incorporating it into their music. We only have a few of these gifted musicians: Bob Aves, Tots Tolentino, Johnny Alegre. Some composers will have one song on their album with Asian rhythms and Asian Instruments are used, specifically from the Philippines. There are also the jazz arrangers and composers like Albert E. Albert, creating their own music—original music—even though it may sound American or European.

Also in 1999 my father died, and my mom in 2002. When they were both gone I felt empty, and that triggered in me a desire to what they did, research, compiling memorabilia, writing, working with an editor. The whole experience connected me with my parents. It started with interviewing older musicians, including people I discovered through the e-groups in Europe and Japan and America. Gradually I realized I might have a book. That was my first one, Pinoy Jazz Traditions, about the American era in the Philippines. To my surprise it won a National Book Award. The only other recipients of that award in music were two of my teachers at the UP College of Music. My second book was Mabuhay Jazz, which covered the post-war period to 1969. It had the same format: the narrative of the era, a photo chest and the interviews. My third book was Contemporary Jazz in the Philippines, from 1970 to 2010. I didn’t have to do as much digging as I did for the first two.

Collis Davis

In 2003, I called Collis Davis, an American very well-versed in jazz who’s living in the Philippines and asked for help with the Jazz Society in the Philippines. Collis is a webmaster, photographer and documentarian. He did the website for Jazz-Phil, and we did the documentary on the story of jazz in the Philippines. I provided the research and the material, and he provided the camera and the editing software and put it together. Our third partner, Gus Langman, provided the logistics. At that time he was the owner of Monk’s Dream Jazz Club, which was open from 2001 to 2004 or 2005. Monk’s Dream, named for Thelonius Monk, was the venue for the jazz society. I was in charge of the open jam on Sundays. I also conducted clinics and workshops. We screened documentaries on jazz and produced five jazz festivals here. The club will reopen on the ground floor of a five-story structure that Gus is building in Rockwell Center, a high-end, mixed-use project in Makati.

Gus Lagman of Monk’s Dream

Now, in the meantime my old friend Raffy Lopez had become the CEO of his family business, ABS-CBN. The family also owns Rockwell. When I told him I wanted to have jazz festivals there, he said we could use the parking lot and he’d provide the stage. Since Monk’s Dream was just outside the parking lot, we just had to bring the instruments a few feet outside. We got sponsors who put up booths to sell food. The only thing was I didn’t have money to pay the bands. They said, “Richie, we’ll play for free.” That’s the love of jazz. We did five jazz festivals.

After two years I relinquished the jazz society presidency to Sandra Lim, who took it to an international level. The Philippines became one of the ten member countries of the Asian Jazz Federation, which negotiates for discounts. So for example Chick Corea might play in the Philippines in February, in Indonesia in March and Tokyo in April and so on. Sandra Lim also formed her own organization called PI Jazz Org, which produces the festivals in February. Jazz really exploded.

The first festival I attended outside the country was in Bremen in March 2006. The German embassy and the Goethe Institute sponsored my trip. I was one of fifty representatives from all over the world. All major German cities have their own jazz festivals and compete with one another, but that year they decided to unite and show the world what German jazz is all about. It was a five-day event. At that time there was no book written on the history of German jazz.

After Bremen I started getting invitations to attend more jazz festivals. Rather than bring in a group of people, it’s easier for a festival to bring in one person who’s offering the whole pie, with the books and the documentary, so I started getting invited all over the world.

Charmaine Clamor with her first album of Filipino jazz.

In March of 2007 Collis and I were sent to the Java Jazz Festival, which was incredible, rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Scofield, Sergio Mendes, Sadao Watanabe, Flora Purim and Airto, Kenny Rankin, and Gino Vanelli. We were all staying in the same hotel and eating in the same buffet area. Then also in 2007 I went to Los Angeles to show the documentary and to perform for Jazz-Phil, USA, which Charmaine Clamor and her husband Mike Konick had kicked off in 2005 with our blessing.

In 2013, I went to the San Francisco for the second Filipino-American book festival and the sixth Filipino-American jazz festival, which took place on the same weekend. Both sponsored my trip. I screened the documentary and signed books.

In Skarlet’s Ten02. there were workshops, jams. performances, everything for players and fans

In the Philippines we enjoyed a whole decade of jazz, but I predicted it would eventually die, and it did. Jazz clubs open and close, open and close. Clubs like Skarlet’s Ten-0-2 started closing. Even clubs that did jazz just once a week were closing. You can’t have it all the time. Let’s put it this way: people will go to hear somebody once, twice, maybe three times. Then they’ll go hear another group. Jazz includes all kinds of music in this country, and it’s a little more sophisticated and requires more listening than some forms of music.

The band Elemento plays its own music on instruments the players make from things others have discarded.

Tago opened up about the same time other clubs were closing. I’m used to that kind of club from New York and Boston, a dimly lit, hard-to-find hole in the wall. If I lived around the block I’d be there every night.

I’m looking for new leaders. Many of our older leaders have passed on, like the great Angel Peña and Joey Valenciano, both on the UP music faculty. I’m waiting for the young jazz lions to take over. Nobody else has even thought of writing a book on Filipino jazz. I am the lone wolf. But I’ve met many other writers from all over the world, some who’ve consulted with me about Asian jazz and cited my work, so I’m excited that it’s bearing fruit.

Note: The filmmaker Collis Davis was the webmaster for the jazz society’s website, which was set up to promote the jazz scene in the Philippines and the Filipine Diaspora. He said the jazz society began disintegrating after Monk’s Dream closed and it lost its natural clubhouse. At the last meeting he screened the updated version of his film about a jazz musician, The Edification of Weldon Irvine. The jazz society website has just recently closed down. The DVD, Pinoy Jazz, is available at La Solidaridad Bookstore in Ermita and on the mezzanine level of Silahis Arts and Artifacts in Intramuros. Copies can also be ordered directly from Collis Davis from his website. (Link) (Email)