Blue Machete 

Despite economic woes, Latin jazz celebration goes on.

Despite having his SF Bay CD nominated for a Best Latin Jazz Album Grammy this year, percussionist and bandleader John Santos is frustrated with the state of his chosen art form. Last year was not good to musicians, as record sales fell and performance venues were cut. And the slump isn't over, says Santos, as the year trudges on with added economic woes. "Jazz has been struggling, and that's where Latin jazz is," he says. "We're just a small piece of an already small pie. There's very few venues to play, and nobody's paying anything. A lot of problems exist, and though there is a rediscovery going on of Latin jazz, it's deceptive because it doesn't trickle down to the blue-collar Latin jazz musician."

Starting Friday at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley (7 p.m., 3105 Shattuck Ave., 510-849-2568), Santos hosts "Bay Area Latin Jazz Legacy," a six-week series combining panel discussions with performances by resident bands and musicians fusing jazz with Latino and Caribbean beats. It's a diverse spectrum of pairings: Mingus Amungus with Pete Escovedo (April 18); Benny Velarde with Roger Glenn, Joe Ellis, and Willie T. Colon (May 2); John Calloway's Diaspora and O-Maya (May 16); Mark Levine and Eddie Duran (June 13); and Columna B and Snake Trio (June 20). "The beauty of the whole thing is the wide range of styles that exists here," Santos notes. "I grew up with this kind of diversity and I feel it's part of the Latin jazz banner. It's been a dream come true, planning this series, because it shows how much broader this music really is."

For eighteen years Santos has led the acclaimed Machete Ensemble, a cutting-edge Latin jazz band featuring regional heavies such as timbales player Orestes Vilató. Since emerging on the scene in the early 1970s as a teenager on congas with boyhood friend Raul Rekow (now with Santana), the SF native has earned a world-class reputation, gigging with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Pete Escovedo, Cachao, and others, as well as leading Bay Area Latin dance bands such as Tipica Cienfuegos and Batachanga. Of Puerto Rican-Cape Verdean descent, the 48-year-old Santos started playing traditional Caribbean music as a kid with his grandfather around the Mission District. He was arrested in 1973 for playing congas in Dolores Park when then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein initiated the infamous "bongo wars," and is now a renowned Latin music scholar who serves on the advisory committee of the Smithsonian Institution's groundbreaking traveling exhibit "Latin Jazz: La Combinación Perfecta." It arrives at the Oakland Museum in 2006.

The series kicks off Friday with John Santos and Machete performing with special guest trumpeter Johnny Coppola, an unsung Oakland hero who played swing with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman and Latin with Tito Puente and Machito.

Santos remains guarded: "The Latin jazz scene here has never gotten the recognition it deserves. It's flowered, grown, taken root, and gotten better with young artists coming up who are carrying it on. From a creative standpoint it is something viable and noteworthy, but the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome is definitely in full force when it comes to Latin jazz."

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