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Luis Gasca

"I’m gonna tell you one thing; life is beautiful, and we’re hanging out listening to Miles Davis. Hey! how about the Sugar Time Lounge, mama?" I peer to my left out the car window and see a windowless bar on a curved street. It's the middle of the day, East side. I look at him, then look at the clock on the car radio. 2pm. We settle on the Moose lounge instead.

It's red in the Moose Lounge and rednecks and cowboys line the bar. A picture of John Wayne hangs above the door. On the jukebox a Ray Charles tune is playing. The bartender introduces herself as Francine and asks Gasca his name. "Johnny Spade," he answers. She eyes him cautiously then turns to get our drinks. He looks at me, "This is why no one can find me; I don’t want to be found."

Luis Gasca hasn’t always been so inconspicuous. This dude knows his way around a map having toured with some of the biggest names in music. Whatever your cup of tea; Jazz, Latin, or Rock and Roll, Luis has had his hand in it. Between 1954 and today, Gasca has worked with countless musicians from Count Basie and Woody Herman to Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Hancock, Janis Joplin and Santana. A trumpet player, composer and conductor, Luis is not indefinable. However, he is often enigmatic. A self-proclaimed wilderbeast, centaur, minotaur and part gypsy, Luis is all about freedom and music.

It all began with the study of the trumpet and the lure of the east coast. A student of the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston, he prides himself on his eastern education, but will tell you more about the nights he spent going out to see some of the most influential musicians of jazz in the bars, clubs and dance halls of New York City. "It exposed me to the best. On any given night you could go out and hear John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Willy Bobo, Machito, Richard Maulbey from the Roseland Ballroom." He remembers hearing Maulbey on the radio when he was a kid in Houston, Texas. That was when he decided he was going to be a New York trumpet player.

That was ‘59 and the early sixties when Afro-Cuban jazz caught on as one of the most popular jazz styles. A mix of bop with Latin percussion, the integration of Latin rhythms into jazz was fairly new. About ten years before, Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo persuaded Latin bandleader Machito to use jazz soloists. About the same time Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie were doing the same thing, and there was the rising popularity of Tito Puente and Cal Tjader, two bandleaders Gasca eventually worked with. Cool Jazz had been around a few years by then. It was a viable and popular style, experimental in nature, that hinted at classical music. This inspired Gasca though by the late '50s hard bop from the East Coast had succeeded cool jazz.

"I had the chance to experience New York City in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s before New York changed. Because of marital problems or whatever I left New York City and split to Mexico. Then I wound up in San Francisco. San Francisco is a tiny little mecca -- a little gem," he says. "Everyone should have two favorite cities; their own and San Francisco."

It was in San Francisco that Gasca says he discovered what he calls "that hippie thing; freedom." Between ‘67 to ‘74 he noticed women weren’t too hung up with somebody opening their door for them. "They weren’t so analytical. You didn’t have to see their psychiatrist before you took them out for dinner. They were free. They were getting rid of panties and bra’s and everything. They wanted to screw. They wanted to have a good time." Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it was within that same time period in which Gasca found himself most productive. He played with the Perez Prado orchestra eventually touring Japan, and when he returned to California he landed a gig with the Stan Kenton band playing flugelhorn on the celebrated "Adventures in Time" album. After working with the orchestras of Maynard Ferguson and Lionel Hampton, Gasca spent a couple of years playing with different bands in Mexico City and Acapulco. After that, he toured Europe with the Woody Herman Herd, only to return to the States for another tour, this time with acclaimed Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria. Gasca seemed to lead what jazz writer Leonard Feather described as "a double life in jazz and various forms of Latin music."

Gasca admits, however, if it weren't for all the touring he would have never left San Francisco. "San Francisco had everything I needed. It had women, it had drugs, it had music, it had Miles Davis and John Coltrane, it had Mongo Santamaria. There was nothing else for me." But freedom is double-edged. He also admits to being strung out all that time, and psychologically addicted to cocaine. "When I had a lot of money that’s all I used to do -- buy women and cocaine, and I was a terrible alcoholic so I had two demons right there, a devil on the right side and a devil on the left."

In ‘69 Gasca became musical director for the horn section of Big Brother and the Holding Company, which featured Janis Joplin. They did a tour of Europe, and after returning to San Francisco Gasca says he stayed for a little while, but was "mostly sick." "I stopped (playing) because I was self destructive. I was burned out. By then San Francisco had gone down, Patty Hearst came in and she was the most popular figure for two years. It wasn’t the Grateful Dead or Santana and Van Morrison. Van Morrison had already burned out, Sly Stone had coked out, Janis had died. Patty Hearst was the queen bee. Music was gone. San Francisco and all the hippies and runaways wound up in Height Ashbury along with heroin and everything else. It got funky. That’s when I knew it was time for me to go."

Gasca wandered around for twenty years. California, Texas, Mexico and Hawaii. For twenty years Gasca hardly played a note, "...but I was able to observe people," he points out. He compares his drifting existence to that of Jesus Christ. "You know what I like the most about Jesus Christ?" he asks, "...for a long time nobody knew who he really was, and by not knowing who he was he was able to get down and really observe people without people going, ‘...aye man, that’s Jesus Christ! Let’s go get his autograph,’ you know. ‘Aye Jesus Christ, what was it like being down in Woodstock,’ that type of trip. He could walk around unobserved." How else could he know how to talk to sinful women, burglars and thieves?"

The way Gasca dropped out of sight, many believed he was probably dead. In the recent biography of Carlos Santana,"Soul Sacrifice", it’s mentioned that Luis had died in Hawaii. "It took me many years to recover," he admits, "and I’m just thankful to be alive."

We're driving down Broadway now, headed to a temporary mailbox he uses in a strip mall. "para-pa-para-pa-parararaleedeedeedata... that is a Clifford Brown solo verbatim note for note. That’s just a piece of a masterpiece. That’s a trumpet solo. Now how can I recite a complete trumpet solo had I not studied Clifford Brown? And he’s just one of the many great trumpet players. You’ve got Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, the great Freddie Hubbard. You have the excellent Clark Terry, Bobbie Hacket, Louis Armstrong, Henry "Red" Allen, Harry Sweets Edison, Cat Anderson... you know what I’m talking about? Of course innovators like Miles Davis and Dizzy 'learned differently,'" he says, "in that they were creators in the field." Others, like himself, relied on intense and serious study of the instrument. In order for a musician to create his own musical identity Gasca believes he must always surround himself with musicians and he must open himself up to all forms of music, which involves the act of humbling oneself. Any good musician who is inventive and creative has to search persistently before coming to their own musical identity.

Gasca recalls the long and tedious process of studying and deciphering solos by listening to records. "If you wanted to study the trumpet you had to actually get the record and take out para-pa-para-pa-parararaleedeedeedata. You had a record that went round and round, and then you had to pick up the needle and find that place again. It’s not that you were gonna play that, it’s that you knew the way that this guy was gonna attack, execute and interpret a particular passage or note."

In the car we listen to Miles Davis again. "This is highly arranged and you don’t see Mile’s doing his brooding. He’s playing a part -- he does not have the freedom," Gasca says. "All creative musicians need to go through a freedom trip and they need to do things that are highly arranged, highly sophisticated like the "Collage" album.

Few recognize the serious and meditative jazzman in Gasca. You’d have to take a step back and listen to the work he did on his own albums in the late 60s and early 70s; Little Giant, Collage, Born to Love You and For Those Who Chant. An eloquent fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban influences, Gasca boasts of recording with some of the greatest musicians in the world on these albums. "This is what I'm really about," he says. Music that he describes as highly arranged and sophisticated. It’s unfortunate that this collection of work has largely gone unnoticed having taken the back seat to his other well-known accomplishments like recording with Santana, Janis Joplin or Van Morrison.

"Most people say to me, ‘well, I like the other one, Luis.’ "...sure you do... sure you do. You like things that are down and funky because you refuse to extend yourself into things that are more sophisticated. If it isn’t pabulum music -- like a little kid who has to have strained peaches instead of real potatoes -- you freak out. If you don’t have pureed music -- pureed jazz -- you freak out. Musicians should explore different artistic outlets, those that require discipline in order to break out of that embryonic musical stage."

"This is all discipline on Mile’s part," he points out speaking of the solo. "He got freer as he went along, he didn’t need anybody else. This is all arranged, there’s nothing free about it. It’s only free in its freedom of expressiveness and execution but it’s planned." "How can it be free and planned?" I ask. "Because you have to be free to plan things, and you have to have plan to be free. Does that make sense?" "Yeah," I say, quite convinced. "One of these days write that down ‘cause that sounds interesting."

Those twenty years of wandering the map have done something to change the man who has, in the past, been described as part circus barker, ex-junkie, alcoholic, and woman-abusing con. Gasca says he has very little regret. When asked about his future plans he says he expects to do something he’s been wanting to do for years; get in his motor home and head for the pyramids of Mexico -- Chichen Itza, Palenque and the Mayan corridor. When the time is right, perhaps a Best of Compilation will materialize. "If it’s coming my way, I’ll be there," he says, "I don’t manipulate it."

San Francisco, Baja, and a tiny beach outside of Cancun await him. A new chance to earn some bread and play some music. Maps of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. lay sprawled across the table in his old R.V. "This is the closest I’ve been to really, really being free, so I’m happy. As I’ve gotten farther away from all that I talk about it less. I’m that close to driving off into the sunset with my horn."

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Luis Gasca
  • Interview Date: Spring 2002
  • Subtitle: Little Giant
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