Today, when you ask the present generation of Pinoy jazzers if they’ve heard of the name Tony Velarde, you will get blank faces in response. This is because Tony has been living in Toronto, Canada for some time now, and has lost contact with the locals [of his motherland]. If you ask an old-timer, however, you will get a lit-up face and an enthusiastic response. Tony Velarde was, after all, a pillar of the local jazz scene from the 1950s to the 1980s. His story will make you realize why his name should be forever remembered by Pinoy jazzers. This interview was held via e-mail on August 6, 2000.
Who were the foreign jazz artists that you befriended, jammed with, performed with, or fronted for in your long and colorful career as a jazz musician?
Tony Velarde: When I was in Okinawa, I befriended Claude Williamson, a jazz pianist of the 29th Infantry Band [of the] U.S. Army. He was, prior to his stint with the military, a member of Charlie Barnet’s Orchestra. They performed during Mondays at E.M.’s Club. Having been a close friend of Claude, whenever I was free Monday night, I would play the drums with their orchestra. It was real excitement and utter enjoyment for me as I cherished the way they professionally performed. He was the first foreign musician to become my acquaintance.
As soon as I returned to Manila, I had a chance to play alongside Jack Teagarden, jazz trombonist and a contemporary of Louis Armstrong. His American group and our group performed a concert together at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. At the end of the concert, we played mixing our groups together, jamming and enjoying the performances with each other.
The other foreign musician I played with was jazz pianist Hampton Hawes, a contemporary of Shorty Rogers. Hampton had played alongside many other jazz greats in America. He composed “Diablo’s Dance.” We played with him for about six months in Tokyo, Japan. Around 1972, I played alongside Gary Burton, known worldwide as the greatest vibraphone player. Burton and my big band had a concert at the Manila Hilton Hotel. The following night we performed with Gary at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I also had the opportunity to perform with the illustrious guitarist Barney Kessel in a concert at the CCP Little Theater. It was a trio: I played the drums, Roger Herrera [was] on bass, and Barney Kessel [was] on guitar.
In the year 1979, a foreign jazz group known as Hannibal and the Sunshine Band visited Manila. All members of this band were black. They did not have their drummer [with them] for some reason, and they contacted me to fill in. The concert was done at the Manila Hotel and the Folk Arts Theater. The group’s instrumentalists were Hannibal Peterson on trumpet, a pianist, a bassist, a lady cello player, and [myself on] drums.
I also played with Carmen McRae, a talented jazz singer, when she had a concert at the Savoy Hotel, Manila (now the Hyatt-Regency Hotel). She performed along with my octet. In the company of Carmen was her musical director, Nat Pierce, a versatile pianist and a mainstay of the famed Woody Herman Orchestra. During the late ‘60s, my big band also played with the legendary Johnny Mathis. Also around that date, it was another exciting event that happened to us when we performed with the world-famous actress-singer Ann Margret during her concert stint in Manila. I also had the opportunity to play with Tony Scott, a prolific jazz clarinet player. I had a chance to jam with him that featured just two instruments: clarinet and drums. The jamming session, which was held at the Snake Pit Club in Ermita, lasted until the early hours [of the morning].
When the German jazz quintet whose leader was world-famous trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff came to Manila, we also had jam sessions with them. Albert became quite a close friend of mine. The German jazz critic Joachim Berendt, who wrote for Downbeat magazine, was with them. He later wrote in Downbeat that after he had heard most of Asia’s prominent jazz groups, he concluded that Tony Velarde’s Band was “the best in Asia.” The same comment appeared in Asia magazine.
There was an incident when the legendary crooner Vic Damone visited us at Café Indonesia. He so appreciated our music that he even went up onstage to join us in our performance. When the king of Timbales and Latin jazz, Tito Puente, and his orchestra performed in Manila, he visited us at the Shadow Night Club in Cubao, listening to our music until the wee hours of the morning. He chatted with us after the show and politely asked me [if we could play] one of our musical pieces titled “I Want to Be Happy.” He must have really appreciated the arrangement.
Are there any jazz recordings that you were involved in that were released locally or internationally? What was the label or record company?
T.V.: I honestly believe I was [a] pioneer [in recorded] jazz music in the Philippines. In 1962, we recorded bossanova using my octet under my own label, Tonvel Records. I also recorded light mainstream jazz during that time under the same label.
Around 1978, I recorded two jazz LPs under Blackgold Records using purely original arrangements: Angel Peña’s, Doming Valdez’s, Piding Alava’s, Dominic Salustiano’s, Narding Aristorenas’, and also some that I wrote myself. I used big band and my octet for the recording. Currently, I still have most of these records and I believe these are still in circulation today.
In your humble opinion, who do you think deserves to be recognized as the most influential Filipino jazz musician of all time and why?
T.V.: Modesty aside, I honestly believe it was my group, Jazz Friends, who had greatly influenced the popularity of jazz and enormously generated and enhanced the Pinoy’s interest for this type of music in the Philippines, aside, of course, from other factors and mediums. I could recall we even spearheaded concerts which we titled The History of Jazz, a brainchild of both Lito Molina and [myself]. In my recollection of these particular concerts, I did the lineup of the pieces we would perform, covering jazz history from ragtime style to modern jazz. Lito Molina, a consummate speaker, writer, and entertainer, did the explanations on the who’s, the what’s, the when’s, and the where’s of jazz [for the benefit of] the listening public, while the group melodiously performed the pieces relevant to the very era in subject. What ideas I could impart to Lito M. I gave him to further enrich our presentations. I could recall [having] suggested to him to be a local reviewer of jazz concerts and/or performances in the country, he being a writer and a serious jazz musician himself.
Every musician has a funny story to tell. What was the funniest situation that you experienced onstage that you will never forget, and that every time you remember brings tears of laughter and joy?
T.V.: One of the most unforgettable [incidents] for me happened during my stint at the Golden Gate Club in Tokyo, Japan, in the year 1953. Upon our arrival in Tokyo, I was informed about a jazz concert at the Kokosai Theater. One of those performing was Toots Dila’s group. Japan’s famous Big 4 group was also one of the performers, with George Kawaguchi on drums and Sleepy, a tenor-sax player, a pianist, and a bass player. Someone relayed to Toots that I was watching in the audience, [so] he immediately called my name and insisted that I come up onstage and play. I vehemently refused, having no idea what they would play. I shuddered performing impromptu in front of an audience; for me, it is of paramount importance to prepare 100% whenever and wherever I am called to perform. However, due to the unrelenting insistence of Toots Dila, I eventually gave in and went up onstage. The concert started and we were first to perform. When my solo part came, the cymbal collapsed, a little while later the snare, then the tom-tom. I realized later on that their drummer hardly performed any solos, so the drum kit was not really tightly installed. The whole audience was rolling and roaring down the aisles with laughter. It was quite an embarrassment to me. I would never forget that incident.
What was your most memorable overseas jazz performance? What was the year, who were the members of the band, what tunes did you play, and how long did the stint last?
T.V.: My most memorable jazz stint abroad happened in the year 1953, in Tokyo, Japan. We were performing at the Golden Gate Club. With me were Angel Peña on guitar, Nick Andico on bass, Vestre Roxas on trumpet, and Ading Dila on tenor. There I had the privilege to meet and play with pianist Hampton Hawes. We played the arrangements of Angel Peña. We had a distinctive style and sound. Almost every night, various Japanese musicians were watching us. I could recall the presence of Toshiko Akiyoshi, one of Japan’s great jazz pianists and arrangers. Currently he leads a big band and is known the world over. Sleepy, a foremost Japanese tenor player, George Kawaguchi and Hideo Shiraki, both drummers, were there almost every week to listen to our group. In that stint I also met J.C. Herd performing with the well-known group Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP). J.C. Herd was also a drummer [for] Duke Ellington during that time. Golden Gate Club was his group’s hangout. It was to me a stirring moment to cherish.
What keeps you busy nowadays? Who are the jazz artists that you still listen to in your free time?
T.V.: Currently I am a member of Scarborough Community Concert Orchestra, a Canadian group in Toronto, Ontario. We give concerts around Metropolitan Toronto from September (fall) to May (spring). We also formed a concert band composed of Filipino-Canadians named the Philippine Concert Band. Most members are young students, [most of whom] are not in music, and we train them to play properly and seriously. We also perform in various gatherings and events of different Filipino-Canadian organizations in the Metro Toronto Area. During the off-season, I concentrate on listening to jazz radio stations in Canada. Toronto boasts of radio stations that are fully committed to jazz alone, twenty-four hours a day. Some other stations have jazz hours during a particular time of the day. Jazz here has a big following. Toronto, incidentally, has big-time jazz concerts during the start of the summer season. Just recently ended was the Du Maurier Jazz Festival, [which was] held for ten consecutive days. This happens yearly during the last week of June. The world’s leading jazz bands come over here to perform during this festival. There are some 2,000 musicians [who] participate in this extraordinary event yearly. My dream is to perform here, too, God willing. What a thrill to listen live to the jazz greats of Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. I don’t know of any Filipino groups who ever performed here in this illustrious festival of world-class jazz.
There is another festival here called the Beaches Jazz Festival held during summertime along the sought-after beaches of Lake Ontario, [on the] eastern Toronto side. Select jazz groups [from around the world] also perform here yearly. On T.V. there are jazz programs daily. Currently, I am writing some compositions. Practicing my drums is a daily routine for me.
Please give your parting message or words of wisdom to the Pinoy jazzers of today and tomorrow? Some words of inspiration and guidance from someone who has experienced a full life of music.
T.V.: To the budding jazz enthusiasts of today, I could only say to each one of them to be fervently and seriously committed to his or her goal. I strongly suggest that they keep away from harmful vices. In other words, be clean and be sober. Be genuinely dedicated. Today’s entertainment world is littered with Satanic influences such as alcohol and drugs. The invitation is never greater than [in] the arena of entertainment where money and fame drown the unsuspecting victim. If one would commit with whole heart and soul to one’s goal, success is an arm’s length away. Perseverance and hard work coupled with proper timing and luck—or should I say God’s blessing?—are one’s genuine passport to fame and success. I advise that anyone who wants to succeed should start learning, from the roots up to the current trends, if one wants to convincingly be termed as a competent jazz musician. I say this knowing that jazz had many eras—ragtime, Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool jazz, hard bebop, free jazz, avante garde, bossanova, Latin, and fusion Jazz—and to know them all is a must to anyone who would like to be considered a legend. Each of these eras represent a specific style, and to me, it is imperative that a serious jazz enthusiast learn all or most styles such that when [the] opportunity arises, he is ready and capable of seizing the chance. In my case, I even studied classical music, which incidentally led to my being well sought-after in many music circles. It is a plus to the credit of anyone to study other types of music beyond jazz to be even more versatile in any field.
Jazz@Heart is a bi-monthly series that will feature over 44 one-on-one interviews conducted in person, by telephone, and by e-mail from 1999 to 2010 by musician-author Richie Quirino. These interviews were lifted from Quirino’s three books: Pinoy Jazz Traditions (2004), Mabuhay Jazz: Jazz in Postwar Philippines (2008), and Contemporary Jazz in the Philippines: From 1970 to 2010 (2011), all published by Anvil. The interviewees in the series all hail from a wide array of diverse backgrounds, and they come not only from the islands but also from such far-flung big cities as London, Tokyo, Hawaii, Los Angeles, and New York. Jazz@Heart provides a rare glimpse into the inner minds and hearts of extraordinary Filipino musicians. These touching stories all reveal a distinct love for the art form and now speak as one voice: the voice of Pinoy jazz.