For New York pianist Jim Gala, playing jazz music is all about adding something meaningful to the moment when music is being created. And it’s not something you do by yourself.
“You’re a thread in a fabric,” he said. “And that’s the joy of it – to be in an ensemble, hear what all of the musicians are playing, and contribute a piece of your own that makes it richer and more vibrant.”
Gala is the founder of the Jazz Society of Ecuador, a volunteer society of musicians, music teachers, and jazz enthusiasts whose purpose is to present live jazz performances throughout Ecuador. The society was formed in 2012, and their regular performance venue is on the second floor of La Viña Italian Restaurant in Cuenca, 5-101 Luis Cordero y Juan Jaramillo.
Gala and a group of well-known professional jazz artists, who also happen to be personal friends, teach Ecuadorian music students from the local conservatory how to play jazz. Classes are free of charge, and the group uses the same performance space upstairs in the restaurant to teach the students. The focus is on the art of improvisation.
“Jazz is extremely demanding because it’s instantaneous composition,” Gala said. “You’re creating something meaningful in that very moment. A lot of symphony players can read and play music well but struggle with improvisation. The very best jazz musicians can play well in symphony orchestras and also create something amazing on the spot.”
The other instructors for the society in Cuenca include world-renowned vocalist and clarinetist Su Terry, pianist and author John Cain and his vocalist-wife Katie Catinella, and saxophonist Gilberto Rivero. The conservatory students are in their late teens and early 20s and perform nightly with the professional musicians as part of the society’s jazz band.
Gala and the other instructors teach because they love jazz, and the students find their way to them because they want to learn jazz. For Gala, it’s a relationship reminiscent of the salons of Europe, where artists and other creatives were supported in their desires to grow and craft new masterpieces.
“Many jazz clubs have a certain atmosphere, a certain ambience,” he said. “A lot of stand-up comedy, poetry readings and political satire started in the clubs – there was a real richness to the culture found there.”
Jazz clubs in South America are fairly rare, says Gala. He adds that the most vibrant jazz cultures are found in Europe and Japan and larger U.S. cities such as New York and San Francisco. But wherever the clubs are, he says, jazz musicians and aficionados will seek them out.
The Jazz Society of Ecuador offers jazz four nights a week, from Wednesday through Saturday, and Gala thinks Cuenca is a perfect place to have a jazz club. “The city has so many cultural assets, from natural beauty to historic architecture to a growing food and music scene,” he said. “Tourists look for what they love when they travel, whether it’s a museum or a symphony or something else. Jazz lovers are no different – they look for jazz clubs – and Cuenca has all of this great culture within a reasonable walking distance plus a jazz club, so why wouldn’t they want to come here?”
Currently, the society has over 2000 members on its mailing list – people who have personally been to a performance and shared their emails – and almost half of that list is from Cuenca. The society also performs occasionally in Quito and Guayaquil; however, there is not a dedicated venue in those cities like there is in Cuenca.
For Gala and the others, the society is very much a labor of love and about making the gifts of Ecuadorian musicians and performers accessible to everyone. In-between nightly jazz sets, local artists offer other music and performances – everything from Latin American groove to opera to dance. A $5 donation per person is suggested, but not required, to help cover the costs of setting up the venue, paying rent for the space, and providing some compensation for the La Viña servers who wait tables.
“We operate at a significant deficit,” Gala said, “and it would take a lot of donations to support us. In the words of Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire, ‘we rely on the kindness of strangers’.”
Gala would like to see the Jazz Society of Ecuador grow into its own version of Greenwich Village – a thriving local arts scene where the artists live, work and contribute to the community. He also believes that jazz has the potential to reconnect people with their emotions – especially feelings they may have lost as they age.
“Jazz is about tenderness,” Gala said. “As time goes by, we often try to stay young, and it’s in this effort to stay young that we lose the beauty and depth of our grown up emotions. There’s a lack of warmth and tenderness and reflection and introspection. Part of our job as jazz musicians is to connect people with those grown up emotions and make them feel and think again.”
The Jazz Society Café is located on the 2nd floor (upstairs) of La Viña Italian restaurant, 5-101 Luis Cordero y Juan Jaramillo. La Viña provides the food & beverages with the same menu & prices as downstairs, and has a reputation for serving authentic Italian cuisine and pizza as the owner/chef is from Italy.
Days & Hours:
The Café is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 6:30pm to 10pm. Music begins at 7:30pm.
Reservations and our Schedule of Events:
Email email@example.com to receive a weekly schedule of events or to make a reservation.
You can also find them on Facebook.
Joanna Bender lives in Cuenca, Ecuador, with her partner Stacey Jaudon. She works as a freelance editor, writer, and marketing consultant and has been known to dance non-stop for hours on end when the spirit moves her.