By Margaret Winter
In the following interview for CuencaHighLife, jazz pianist James Gala, founder and director of the Jazz Society of Ecuador and The Jazz Society Café, muses on his development as a musician, the nature of jazz, and the mission of the Jazz Society.
Margaret Winter: Jazz was born in the U.S., the U.S. is still the world center of jazz, and you yourself are from New York. Is the Jazz Society made up of North Americans?
Gala: In fact, the Jazz Society is almost entirely made up of Ecuadorians. We’re called the Jazz Society of Ecuador because our mission is to add jazz to the many cultural assets of Ecuador, offer instruction in the art of improvisation to Ecuadorian music students, and offer jazz enthusiasts from other countries a reason to visit Cuenca. Right now, I’m the only full-time musician in the Society who isn’t Ecuadorian. Our Ecuadorian regulars include Cuenca Symphony Orchestra contrabassist, Christian Torres, and percussionists, Reinaldo Arce and Pedro Ortiz, among others. Luis Ullauri, an extraordinary singer-guitarist, performs Nueva Trova, contemporary classic ballads from Latin America, between sets of jazz. Our featured singer, Ana Julia, a recent discovery, is from Quito. We only have one American besides me who’s a frequent performer at the club: Su Terry, an internationally acclaimed clarinetist-saxophonist and our Artist-in-Residence.
MW: A number of professional musicians have remarked on the “transcendent” quality of your playing. In a 2017 column in CuencaHighLife, Bill Scott said, “I have played with some of the greats on both sides of the Atlantic, yet I have never heard such a transformative, unique jazz pianist as Jim Gala. Simply put, he’s a true musical genius. He goes to a depth few musicians ever go.” Where do you think that quality comes from?
Gala: I studied at the Eastman School of Music, a highly ranked music conservatory. While I was at the Eastman School, I developed a love of the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. They’re sort of the musical equivalent to French Impressionist painters. Their music has a beauty and a humanity that deeply affected me, and the emotional message of their music is the message I try to communicate in my playing.
MW: When were you first exposed to jazz?
Gala: My uncle, a defense attorney, was a jazz enthusiast and began giving me records of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, et al, when I was in my early teens. That’s when I became interested in jazz.
MW: When did you own your first jazz club?
When I was twenty-one, my father put me in charge of managing a restaurant he owned. I immediately turned it into a jazz club; I called it Le Jazz Hot Café after a famous French jazz club in Paris. It was a pretty place with a courtyard, and my hope was to make it a cultural as well as a jazz center — sort of a salon. To that end we had improvisational dancers, poetry readings, art shows, and so forth. I’ve followed that model at the Jazz Society Café, where we also have occasional improvisational dancers, classical music, poetry readings, art shows, and even opera.
MW: Have you spent your whole working life as a professional musician?
Gala: No; I’ve had wildly disparate careers. After high school I studied physics, and later in life I started a small manufacturing company where I designed high-quality sound systems for musicians and recording studios, which were sold worldwide. Before that I spent eleven years as a licensed private investigator and worked for criminal defense law firms on cases that involved police and prosecutorial misconduct nationwide. Of course, all those experiences played a role in how I viewed life and influenced my music. As Charlie Parker said, “Your whole life comes out of your horn.”
MW: Some people dismiss jazz as elitist. What’s your take on that?
Gala: Jazz is about the farthest thing possible from elitist, especially considering its origins: It was created by poor black people as an expression of their validity, intelligence, and artistic brilliance.
MW: What does it take to be a jazz musician?
Gala: To be a good jazz musician you not only need the comprehensive musical understanding and technique of a good classical musician, you must also be capable of spontaneous composition; the ability to compose meaningful music in the moment and in collaboration with the other musicians.
MW: The Jazz Society is having a fund-raising concert on Thursday, what’s the occasion?
Gala: Our performance venue, The Jazz Society Cafe, is the only “dedicated” jazz club in Ecuador, and as we approach its sixth anniversary we urgently need to upgrade our equipment. We need a new sound-system and microphones because the system we have now is just on loan and we have to return it at the end of the month. We need to buy an acoustic double-bass for the club: it’s an indispensable part of any jazz ensemble, but it’s an expensive instrument, and few bass players in town can afford to own one. We need to upgrade our drum kit, and we need a video camera so our students can assess their progress.
MW: Some people think of jazz as dry and abstract. What would you say to them?
Gala: I’d say, do yourself a favor and visit the Jazz Society Café. You might discover that jazz — at least the kind we present there — is the opposite of the dry abstract sound you thought you had to “learn to like.” Jazz can be uniquely personal and intimate, and so alive and soulful that it’s accessible to everyone regardless of their musical tastes. It’s portraying through improvisation all the emotional experiences we have in common that can’t be put into words; our experiences of love, loss, tenderness, playfulness — all the qualities that make us not just human, but humane. That’s the true value of all the arts.
Margaret Winter, originally from Washington, D.C., has lived in Cuenca since 2016.
 Bill Scott, “Jim Gala: A jewel in Cuenca’s musical crown,” CHL January 18, 2017, https://cuencahighlife.com/jim-gala-jewel-cuenca-crown/