The Harbor Conservatory of Music in NYC
Celebrates their 30th Anniversary

Louis Bauzo and José Madera oversee the rehearsal of the big band.

Latin music is very much alive and well and living at the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts.  The conservatory, is a small thirty-year old school, located in El Barrio, a neighborhood in New York City, which is considered to be the home of Latin music.

The Conservatory not only attracts local children from the projects and walk-up apartments, but also older students from all professions and all countries with a desire to study Latin music. The students are the best and brightest and the uniquely talented faculty is dedicated to professionalism and preserving an art form. I was privileged to visit the school and speak with many of the teachers devoted to encouraging the folkloric and commercial African-rooted musical forms. As I walked through the halls of the conservatory, I was surrounded by vintage photos of great Latin musicians and seized by the sounds of various rhythms dancing out the classroom doors. It appeared to be a very exciting environment.

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Ramon Rodriguez is the Director of the Harbor Conservatory.  He is also a co-founder of Raises (which means "roots"), a comprehensive archive and library of materials describing and documenting the history of popular Latin music in New York.   It is the largest collection of Latin New York magazines, recordings, photos, books, and articles about Latin music or a Latin performer anywhere in the Unitied States. The culture of a people as well as their musical expression is recorded and honored through Raices.  The assemblage traces the history of Latin music from Africa through the various regions of the Caribbean.  Bauzo is also the co-founder and curator and believes that without a place like Raices, the history of Hispanic music would disappear in the United States Unfortunately, it is not accessible to the general public right now.  Last year Harbor began negotiating with the Smithsonian Institute in order to become one of the Smithsonian Satellites.  Everyone is looking forward to that day.

Besides being technically educated, the talented teachers are also musical masters.  These are the experts "who have learned from the original pioneers." 

The requirements to attend the school are simple. All a student needs is interest, and a little bit of money.  A 45-minute private lesson cost $25 for adults and $23 for children; a very modest amount for such great teachers.

The basic, musical philosophy of the school is one teacher to one student.  Instruction is available on all instruments in the Latin style.  Drum students may choose to specialize on conga, timbales, or bongo.  If a drum student wishes to learn the basics of all three instruments, a year course entitled "Exposure to Latin Percussion" is available.  All students are encouraged to learn to read music. When the student gets to the intermediate level, group classes are offered.  Then the student may join different workshops and ensembles, including rhythmic reading, basic musicianship, theory, harmony, composition, and arrangement. 

In addition, a 21 piece Latin/Jazz Big Band is offered every Monday night to teach the skills of playing in an ensemble setting and also to keep the Palladium big band era alive. The students perform big band charts from some of the great leaders, like Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodriguez. Two Historical  Perspective concerts a year are performed by the band honoring some of the forerunners of  Latin music. 

The whole conservatory has about 1,200 students a year. The Latin percussion program has about 450 students a year.   Among the Latin percussion students, you can see many exchange students from abroad.  While we were at Harbor, we met Jerome Goldschmidt teaching bongos to a student.  Originally he was a student of Louis Bauzo and Jose Madera.  Although Goldschmidt had some previous training, he came to Harbor from Luxembourg to study six months at a time.  When he wanted to move here, the conservatory offered him a job as student teacher under the direction of Louis and Jose. Now he is a teacher.It is important to discover new talent in order to develop student teachers who later can teach.  Ramon believes that many of the old time musicians are afraid to teach despite the world of experience and information they have to give.

Harbor is also a rehearsal facility providing a positive, well-lit, well-equipped, rehearsal space for musicians. 

For 20 years Louis Bauzo has been a teacher at Harbor Conservatory.   As the son of a guitarist, Louis was always involved with music.   Louis believes the most challenging thing for a teacher to do is to remain a student and have an open mind to new ideas.  He said, "things are constantly changing with all the new rhythms coming out and different perspectives so you've got to stay on top of it."

Bauzo spoke of technically trading lessons with a student he had from the Dominican Republic.  The student wanted to learn how to play bongo in the salsa tradition, yet he was an expert in his folklore.  There are so many mixtures of different music, so many influences.  His takes greatest pride in teaching someone and eventually seeing the person fulfill his dream of playing with the bands.  "We have the full package here," said Bauzo.  Some success stories are: Alameras Rojas  who toured the world with Johnny Pachecho, and Jimmie Delgodo who has played with everyone.  Bauzo also has had a long-standing relationship with Johnny Almendra.  He remembers Johnny coming around and hanging out with him when he was playing with Johnny Colon.  Now Johnny Alemendra has been at Harbor for 20 years and has a great band of his own called Los Jovenes del Barrio.

In 1970, Louis Bauzo studied composition and orchestration at Juilliard School of Music. There he received discipline and learned how to analyze music.  He has also studied in Africa, Puerto Rico, and Cuba as well as performed with Tito Puente, Machito, and Charlie Palmieri.  In August Bauzo will be going to Japan with the Larry Harlo Drums of Thunder.  He believes that by teaching folklore, he perpetuates the culture.  His two main influences are Puerto Rico and Cuba. 

As Director of the Harbor Stage Band, he is trying to revive the big band culture.  He feels the only time the students have a chance to perform big band music is in the repertory orchestras of colleges.  "Big band music is like a dying breed," said Bauzo.  Because there is no current demand for big band Latin music, Harbor Conservatory is trying to maintain that culture and save an art form. 

According to Bauzo, the big band is comprised of two kinds of students.  The first kind of student is the one who comes through the school, who goes through different levels of workshops to the ultimate experience of the big band.   The second kind of student is the professional.  "You know, when you think of student everybody thinks of kids.  Of course, as a musician, you're always a student," said Bauzo.  The band consists of many musicians who come to Harbor in order to get the opportunity to play big band ensemble music.  The big band will be playing at Battery Park City beginning August 3rd on Tuesday evenings.

Jose Madera is not just a teacher at Harbor but he is also a working professional with knowledge that comes from years of experience.   Presently, he is percussionist and arranger with the king of Latin music, Tito Puente.  Madera has taught Latin percussion and arranging at Harbor Conservatory between 15 and 20 years.  He teaches bongos, congas, and timbales to beginners and takes them up as far as three drums.

When I first met Madera at Harbor for this interview, he was teaching conga to a Baptist Preacher.  First Jose teaches the mechanics and then the sound.  Half the work is in doing it the proper way; the other half is in making the right sound. Advancement depends on the ability of the student.  The student's assignment for the week is whatever they do in the class.  "If they come back and they don't do it correctly, then we do it again until it gets correct."

The students who study arranging with Madera are given assignments to do for the big band workshop that meets every Monday night.  This is the only place in the world where students play some of the authentic arrangements taken from Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Machito's books.  He claims that some of the transcriptions are 95% close to the original recordings.

According to Jose Madera, Harbor tries to do it as authentically as possible.  "You can have all the flash in the world but if you can't play time in a band and play right and have the right sound, what is it worth?"

Jose has a very high regard for percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo.  He said, "when you talk about Giovanni, you're talking about Michael Jordan.  It's very hard to reach that level."

When asked about people who have given time, energy and money to Harbor Conservatory and all the people who depend on it, Jose advised us that the great Tito Puente performed on behalf of Harbor.  He also pointed out the many percussion instruments donated to the school by Latin Percussion.  There were plenty of timbales, conga drums,, bongos, and cow bells.  There were also some vintage LP congas that were re-painted.  The drums are put to a real test at the school with such constant use; nevertheless, even a twenty-year old pair of  LP bongos were in excellent condition.

Johnny Almendra is passionate about teaching.  You can hear the exhilaration in his voice.  He has been teaching percussion at the Harbor Conservatory since 1977.  He also teaches at Hartford University.  Almendra spoke lovingly about three young Harbor students studying with him.  He spoke the way a father would speak about his children and one can tell that he really enjoys working with them.  He said that if a child is willing and able, he is there for him.  Many talented children are referred to him from public schools.  For six years Almendra was a part of Marco Rizo's group performing an anthology of Afro-Caribbean music in the elementary schools. 

He used to play at the Third Street Music School Settlement with Ramon Rodriguez in 1974, right around the time LP came out with their album Understanding Latin Rhythms which Jose Madera was involved with.  He learned a lot at that time and he claims to still learn. 

Almendra said he learn to read music by reading a book 100 times. Then he took some drum lessons.  He also learned his craft by copying scores and making mistakes.

Johnny believes Harbor is very special is because it is a place where he could give back all the beauty of the culture, the rhythms, and all that God gave us.  "That's why we're here.  We don't make a lot of money but I feel rich already by enjoying all the talents."

Johnny Almendra leads his own Charanga band called Los Jovenes del Barrio.  The band started as a workshop at Harbor.  Almendra taught students how to get all the different colors out of the timbales. His students began to sound so good that Johnny created a small Charanga group. To get experience, the band played for the door at the Poets Café where the people liked the music and the band took off.  Los Jovenes del Barrio ended up doing three albums. Almendra produces the records himself and then sells them. Although he is taking a chance, he always has faith.  The band did 91 gigs last year.  In addition they have worked every Wednesday for almost five years at Gonzales. 

The band plays the same rhythms in New York as they play in Cuba, however, the tempo is different here than in the Islands.  "In Cuba it's real laid back.  Here we have a nice energy that we bring to the music."  Almendra says that they not only try to be respectful to the Cuban music and play it the best they can but also try to do the New York thing.  The Cubans respond very positively to the New York style.  "One of our tunes, 'Telephone,' was number one on the radio in Cuba for two months." 

In 4 years, Jovenes del Barrio had 400 tunes.  "We want to learn more.  Things are different these days.  Years ago we did 3 gigs a day when I used to work with Charanga '76."  For 30 years, Amendra has worked as a musician and instructor.  He has played with such musical giants as Willie Colon and Mongo Santamaria.  He humbly says, "I was very spoiled to play with great musicians.  I was very lucky to learn from them."

Almendra  talks fondly Tommy Lopez, one of the founding fathers.  "That was a great charanga.  I think he's one of the greatest drummers because with one drum he says so much."

About the McCoy Tyner's All Star Tour last year Johnny Almendra  said "that was one of the greatest tours I've ever done."  He played with some of the greatest musicians such as Giovanni Hidalgo and others.

Johnny Almendra is dedicated to keeping the music from Puerto Rico going.  He believes it is important to tap the resources of the people and keep it alive in New York.  "The kids sometimes think it's old fashioned but I think it's like classical music.  It's always good.  It's something beautiful.  It's like a painting."

Photo gallery of a day at Harbor Conservatory of Music. One of the few places in the world where you can learn to play authentic Afro-Carribean rhythm.