Cuenca jazz scene reignites after the Covid shutdown as the Jazz Society Cafe settles into its new home
By Stephen Vargha
Jazz survived the 1918 influenza pandemic and Cuenca resident Jim Gala is doing his best to help the genre make it through the 2020 pandemic. According to Gala, jazz faces other challenges including the fact that its late-nineteenth century birthplace, New Orleans, no longer embraces it, making its continued survival difficult.
“America abandoned jazz years ago while it’s still flourishing in Europe and Asia,” Gala says. “Corporate radio stations killed jazz. You’re not going to hear [Louis] Armstrong or [Dizzy] Gillespie on the radio in the United States.”
Gala has been a resident of Cuenca for eight years, and many know him as the founder of the Jazz Society of Ecuador. He says that jazz is an umbrella term. “Jazz is a big word. It’s like ‘literature’; there are books for the beach that you throw away, and then there’s (Leo) Tolstoy and (Fyodor) Dostoevsky,” Gala explains.
Music became a part of Gala’s life even before he began school. “I started playing the piano when I was five years old. It’s great that I did because it’s better if you fall in love with an instrument before playing it professionally because once practice begins it’s just work,” Gala says. He adds that it was not something he was made to do; it was something he wanted to do.
While in high school, Gala attended the Eastman School of Music which is ranked among the best music schools in the world. The acceptance rate into this prestigious teaching institution is about 13%. Among the school’s famous alumni are jazz greats flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione and double bassist Ron Carter.
The professional side of music came when Jim was 21. With restrictive laws about bars in New York in 1965, Gala’s father bought a new restaurant and put Jim’s name on the title of the old one. Jim immediately turned it into a jazz club, calling it “Le Jazz Hot Café,” after a famous jazz club in Paris.
Though he was a private investigator for eleven years, Gala had frequent jazz gigs as a pianist. Many of them were in New York City where he met stars like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and became friends with pianist and composer Bill Evans, who influenced Gala’s musical approach.
Bringing jazz to Cuenca and Ecuador began in 2011 after Gala spent ten days in town. “I remember that nothing here bothered me. It was a nice, pretty, medium-sized city.” That first impression brought him back for good a year later.
Jim’s love of jazz did not stop with his retirement and move to Cuenca. Just a few weeks after his arrival, Cuenca had a jazz club. Gala originally opened the Jazz Society Café in a vegetarian restaurant on Benigno Malo. The next venue proved too loud as a disco opened next door. With apologies to the late-Donna Summer, that was not Gala’s “Last Dance.” He moved to the upstairs banquet room of the La Viña Italian restaurant at the corner of Luis Cordero and Juan Jaramillo in El Centro.
For seven years, La Viña was home to the local jazz scene. During that time, Gala says over 20,000 expats, locals and tourists from around the world attended jazz concerts at the Jazz Society Café.
The last note was played at La Viña on March 14 as the Covid pandemic shut down all public venues in Ecuador.
While the restaurant was closed, the La Viña owner informed Gala that he would not reopen and was closing his doors for good. Gala remembers how he felt when he heard the news. “I was sad. It was a nice room… intimate, a good size,” he recalls. The sadness was not just for himself, but for fans of jazz and good music who might not be able to see a live performance again.
“There’s something about live music,” Gala states. “There is a looseness and ease at a jazz club. It’s a free zone. It’s a relaxed atmosphere.” On top of that, Gala wants people who have never listened to live jazz to experience something special.
“Many people, especially Americans, have never been to a real jazz club. I try to make jazz accessible,” Gala says. “There’s something special about live music. When you are in a room there’s something extra going on with the music.” He emphasizes the word, “extra.”
The Jazz Society of Ecuador is a national organization. It defines itself as a volunteer society of musicians, music teachers and jazz enthusiasts. Today, there are over a thousand members in Ecuador, about half of them living in Cuenca.
In early November, Gala decided that the music would not die in Cuenca. He and a partner found a great location on the west side of Cuenca, in the Puertas del Sol neighborhood, at Ramona Cordero and León. It is the home of Mother and Son Family Kitchen, which his partner and Gala’s daughter’s mother, Debby Degamo, own. Gala says it has already become one of the leading take-out restaurants in the city.
According to Gala, the “living room” at the restaurant is like a small theater that can hold 20 to 25 people. It is cozy and intimate with not a bad seat in the house. The setting is so personal that one can almost touch the musicians from their tables.
To get back into the groove, the jazz venue is open only one day per week, on Saturdays. With many years in the restaurant business, Gala decided to reopen with “Jazz in the Afternoon” dinner concerts. With several gourmet food offerings and drinks to accompany it, Gala tries to “reconnect people to their humanity.” This year has been extremely tough on everyone, says Gala, and he believes that jazz is a great way to help overcome it.
Despite the obstacles, Gala is determined to keep jazz an important part of Cuenca for years to come. The Jazz Society Café is the only dedicated jazz club in Ecuador as the club in Quito closed a few years ago. “Operating a jazz club is no walk down the park in Cuenca,” Gala says. “Even in the United States, many jazz clubs have folded during our eight years here.”
Gala feels that jazz can be uniquely personal and so alive and soulful that it’s accessible to everyone regardless of their musical tastes. It is why he hopes expats and Cuencanos can, once again, be part of something unique in Ecuador by experiencing live jazz from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays with food and drink part of the experience.
As Gala explains, “Jazz at its best can be very intimate. It’s very unpretentious and it can be very profound. It’s like a good book and can change the way you think. You leave the performance a different person.”