Let’s get the word out of the way. Because in many ways, the word itself has become the problem. I’m talking of course about the J word. The big J. Jazz.
Arturo Riera has been curating Latin jazz at SJ Jazz for over 10 years, but has only recently been given a formal title. Paycheck aside, like the word “jazz” itself, maybe this new title is unnecessary, because even without it, Riera has been deeply involved in San Jose’s cultural identity for well over a decade.
“Jazz as a word sometimes is a misnomer,” Riera says, proceeding to a casually profound explication of the genre: one that clearly defines its unique importance—especially here in America. “I call it more ‘music that requires improvisation.’ ‘Music that demands that the artist and the public create on the spot.’”
Most music goes out of its way to avoid improvisation, relying on a formula and a repeated hook. And in a city whose economy revolves around programming and coding, group improvisation might seem particularly ephemeral. But looking at the state of culture in 2016, improvisation at both an audience and performer level is noticeable everywhere in American culture.
From jazz concerts, to rap battles, Black Lives Matter protests, to Twitter, group improvisation is a major feature of contemporary life. Kendrick Lamar, arguably the most highly regarded rapper in the world today, is part of a long improvisational tradition in African American music. The Grammy award winner prominently features jazz musicians on his records—artists like Kamasi Washington, whose recent album The Epic is one of the most transformational jazz records in decades.
When asked about Washington, Riera is both aware of his work, and certain that the local Latino community has just as many living heavyweights. “I’m very clear that today there are jazz greats walking among us, that today there are jazz greats walking among us that in the future they’ll be talking about,” he says.
Programming for SJ Jazz’s Summer Fest has already begun, and Riera is looking for exactly those musicians to highlight the talent that surrounds us. One such act he mentions is Soltron, a hyper-realized San Francisco Afro-Cuban group whose work “addresses gentrification, displaced youth and building community.”
Like Soltron, community is also a major focus of Riera’s work as curator, a role he is proud to take seriously. “There’s a saying in Spanish: Cultura cura,” he says. “Culture Cures.”