This week I interviewed the new Director of our Jazz Program, Gustavo Casenave. Mr. Casenave joined the Conservatory’s faculty in 1997 teaching composition and Latin Jazz piano. Over the course of 20 years as an educator, he has lectured and conducted Master Classes and workshops at numerous prestigious institutions. As a performer, he has played all over the world in a variety of different settings, presenting his music with his different Tango, Jazz, and Chamber ensembles. He has worked as Musical Director, Pianist, Composer, Producer and Arranger. Here is the transcript from our discussion.
(D: Daniel, G: Gustavo)
D: Gustavo, my first question is: I was looking at your bio and I saw that you have traveled and played music all over the world. So I was wondering how you ended up… here? How you ended up a teacher at the Conservatory and how you became the director of the jazz program?
G: Well basically, I went to Berklee. First of all, I’m from Uruguay. I studied music there; I studied composition, I studied jazz, a little bit of everything. But in Uruguay there are not so many opportunities and I wanted to study more. So I got a scholarship from the Organization of American States and I went to study at Berklee. When I graduated from Berklee I said “hey, what do I do now?” So you know how it’s Boston and New York for Jazz? Like, you go to Boston thinking that will be the place and then when you’re there, you realize that’s not the place. And I guess I did the same thing many jazz musicians do, I went to Berklee. When I was looking online for where to go, that was in 1994, it seemed like Berklee was the place, and then once I was there I was saying, “Is this really the place?” So it turned out New York, there were more opportunities. So I started mailing every college, University, and everywhere looking just to teach somewhere so I could get a job to move here. Of course I was touring and playing, but you know as a musician but I wanted a teaching job. So I sent letters, and there’s a funny story with Robert Blumenthal, who was the jazz director here, my very good friend. It’s a funny story because you know he got my letter and he was reading that I was a jazz pianist from Uruguay and at the same time he was reading my letter the phone rang. So he picked up the phone and said “Ah yes, you’re a jazz pianist, you’re from Uruguay, ah you studied at Berklee” and the other guy answered “No” so Rob said “What do you mean? I have your letter”. “What letter?” So what happened was at the same moment he was reading my letter a jazz pianist from Uruguay called and his last name was Casenova and my last name is Casenave. So you know it was a really weird thing, and actually after that Mr. Casenova ended up being my student years later. And he was a jazz pianist from Uruguay calling at the same time. Rob had never heard of anybody from Uruguay, we are a very, very small country. Only 3 million people in the whole country. I guess it was meant to be, I guess he said “Ok I have to call this other guy”. So he called me, that was late in ’97 and I came here for teaching, took the job, and I’ve been teaching here for 11 years.
D: Wow. When did it become apparent that you were going to take over the jazz program?
G: Well Ramon offered me the position about three years ago and actually I didn’t take it because I was touring a lot and as a touring musician, with gigs everything I thought it wasn’t the right time to do it. And now, it is the right time because I expanded my family and I have a four moth old baby, actually she is five months old today. And you know, things change. I want to start touring less so I can be home, and be more steady here. It’s really crazy to be a touring musician, it’s crazy. With my first daughter, she’s six now, I had that experience. For almost two years I was touring non stop; touring two months, then coming back home for two weeks. And I was missing a lot of the changes with my daughter, and I had that experience and this time I think it’s time to start settling. I’m of course glad to keep playing concerts and touring but, not so much.
D: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. My next question is when did you first start playing music, and when did you realize that was what you wanted to do with your life?
G: I started playing when my father bought the piano when I was 6, and you know we were five kids, I have two brothers and two sisters. The piano arrived and we’re kids so everyone on the piano playing together for the first day. The second day, we were four playing the piano. The third day, we were just three of us. And three weeks later, it was just me… until now. And yeah, that’s the only thing I ever did in my life, was just play the piano, and teach. Well, anything related to music, you know. But that’s how it started, and I decided I was going to spend my life doing music at 13. When I was 13 I realized “what do I do?” So I started putting my band together, and I started classical piano. First I started classical piano, and still practice until today. But when I was 13 I said “Ok this is it for me, I cannot do anything else but play music” and that’s what I did. You know, playing music, I did a lot of different stuff, like music for movies. I played all different kinds of music. I played classical concerts, I played punk music, on electric guitar when I was 13, distortion, heavy metal, reggae, jazz, pop, a little bit of everything. I think music is one whole thing and yeah you have different styles but… music is the same.
D: Agreed… that’s great. So, what have you specifically found challenging about being a teacher and working with students of different ages?
G: What do I find challenging? Hmm. Well I guess in teaching I am very confident, when I teach I know exactly what I want to do, I am very specific. So I do not find that challenging, not the teaching process because I’ve been teaching for many, many, many years so somehow I’ve found a way to explain to the students and get them to learn. And the way is very simple; I’m a student myself so I sit on the other side. I’m a student so I think “how would I want the teacher to explain this to me”? So I try to give them a very specific way to go, perhaps before it was a little challenging but now it’s become habit and I know how to work towards that. For me, the most challenging thing is to teach my daughter. I try that, and it’s almost impossible. She definitely has to go with another teacher. Father child is never the same as teacher student. So that’s the most challenging thing. And I guess also teaching children, that’s a different story also, and that’s challenging. It implies a whole other psychological and other skills that I did study at Berkeley, but that’s challenging, not the material itself but to deal with the children, to understand, that’s a different chapter.
D: Are you currently playing with any groups or bands in New York?
G: I’m playing with several groups and of course I have my trio, a jazz trio. I’m very active in three fields; in jazz with different groups, they call me for sessions or recordings. But steady, in the jazz group I play is basically with my band, I try to promote my music, it’s very hard to get do that. I do a lot of solo piano also, I’m going to Puerto Rico now for a week of solo concerts. And my other big thing that I do is tango. I play in almost every major tango show that appears in the US because there are not so many tango musicians, so there’s a lot of work with that. I direct many of the shows and I play as a pianist in Tango Fire, Forever Tango, Eternal Tango, Tango Connection, any kind of tango. And now I also have a painting tango, that’s a show that I do with my wife who’s a painter and she paints live on stage and we do it with dancers, and I play with my tango ensemble, everything together on one stage. And we have one big date coming, March 20th of next year at NYU and that’s called “Tango Casenave”. This relates to my next field, which is composition. I basically compose jazz tango and contemporary composition. With this tango ensemble what I do is I write my own tangos, and it’ s tango show of only original music, which is very unusual music nowadays because every tango show is like the jazz standards, you have the tango standards, they always play the same thing. So I’m trying to change that. And I do my own music at tango shows, only Tango Casenave. As a composer, I mainly write in three styles. I do tangos, I do jazz, and I do contemporary classical music. And I write string quartets, large ensembles, chamber music, and piano solo music I have a huge book for piano solo music.
D: Always writing eh?
G: Yeah, I’m always writing. That’s basically what it is.
D: What do you like to do when you aren’t playing music?
G: What do I like to do? To play with my daughters… and to be with my wife. Basically the time I’m not thinking about music… no I’m always thinking about music. It’s very hard you know I try to grab minutes and seconds for thinking of music and trying to develop something from wherever I can. Even when I go to the bathroom, I take a book or something. I cannot waste one second. Oh, and I like surfing. That’s the other thing I like. But it’s hard to do, I have to go Long Island, it takes two hours… but I surf all my life. So that’s one other thing. Probably the only thing apart from music and my family that I really enjoy. When I go on tour in Puerto Rico, I surf the whole day, and I play the whole night. Not a bad combination eh?
D: Not bad at all. Last question: any parting words you have for our readers?
G: Any last words? Yes. My last words are that there is a new program here at the Harbor. There are some courses that were not taught here before. A whole new program that I put together that was not here before; ensembles, arranging and composition courses, and that’s a new thing here, and they have to really take advantage of this. The courses are at a very low cost of $15 per class, per time you come, and that’s really something new. I think it will be really great. There will be new ensembles, and I want to use this opportunity to explain the program. Basically, the new stuff, there will continue to be ensembles like there were before, but now there are also different kinds of ensembles. We have a student composition ensemble which is basically a writing course where we do compositions for each student, and the complementary course for this would be an ensemble where we perform the stuff that we create in the writing course. Meaning a student comes here, writes something, goes to the ensemble and actually plays, we do a recording and listen to see how it actually works. There are different styles, different levels, beginner, intermediate, advanced. We offer it with different types of jazz also. We also have a new course, introduction to tango, which is probably the first course offered anywhere, in any music school, where we teach tango formally. So we are probably the first one’s to teach a writing course, with performance, teaching tango. In composition, there will be a big band also. The main thing is the opportunity to be in a jazz environment but also get together with the other departments, like Latin and classical music. So when they come here they get a little bit of everything. And even if they are only jazz musicians they can get in touch with people and start playing with people in the Latin programs and you start getting that mix. And at the end jazz is for improvisation and this is obviously the jazz department, but I’d call it the jazz and improvisation department because what we study mostly is not only the jazz style; I focus on jazz because it gives us the freedom to improvise and to create your own voice even with the different fusions of jazz with different cultures, with Latin, with Arabic, with any kind of jazz. Really, if you check in jazz there are so many people from different parts of the world and you take elements from that and create this kind of world music that’s related to jazz. So I think the focus of this program is more towards that, it’s more open. It has all the traditional jazz studies but not only that. It offers that fusion with all the cultures. And it gives real opportunity to international students or anyone from different parts of the world to come with something of their own and learn the tools of improvisation so they can get something on their own with their own voice. So that’s my vision of where to take the jazz department.