The Return of the Chicago Latin Jazz Jam Session

By Don Macica –

Nathan Rodriguez is a Chicago-born Puerto Rican musician and dedicated salsero who was virtually raised on the music, being mentored and given opportunities to perform by veteran salsa musicians at the Latin jam sessions that dotted the city, often sneaking into clubs while underage for the chance to play. Now 36 years old, Rodriguez is a bandleader in his own right with both Conjunto Borikén and Azucar, a Celia Cruz tribute project.

Unfortunately, the last weekly Latin jazz jam session to flourish in the city ended in 2012 when its founder, bassist Richie Pillot, passed away and Café Bolero, the club where it was held, closed its doors.

That was a year before Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico-born jazz saxophonist, moved to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. McGrath is first and foremost a jazz musician, but his Caribbean heritage is an indelible part of him and his music. Like Rodriguez, McGrath is a bandleader, composer and arranger, and his understanding of both the salsa and jazz idioms has made him an in-demand player in both camps.

A shopping mall in suburban Chicago is quite possibly the last place you might expect to find the heir to Café Bolero and the Latin jazz jam, but that is precisely where Nathan and Roy have teamed up to bring back what they both consider a vital resource and platform for Chicago’s jazz and Latin musicians. Of course, it helps that Lincolnwood Town Center houses an outpost of one of Chicago’s finer Cuban restaurants, 90 Miles Cuban Café.

“90 Miles’ owner Alberto Gonzales, who sees his restaurant as a means of celebrating and promoting Cuban food and culture, wanted to expand programming, and I was looking for a way to build more connection between Chicago’s salsa and Latin jazz musicians,” says Rodriguez, who was, at the time, booking and promoting the restaurant’s Friday and Saturday night live music. “Musicians don’t get that many opportunities to hang out together and play because most weekends we are all busy in other people’s bands,” Rodriguez continues. “I convinced him that a jam session would draw musicians from all over Chicago and that the music could be a draw with the general public as well.”

Judging by the sizable crowd that was there when I visited on a recent Tuesday, that prediction was proving accurate. But before he could get to that point, though, Rodriguez had to put together a core band that was good enough to attract others to join the action. For that, he called Roy McGrath for help. His connections in both the jazz and salsa communities blended perfectly with the solid reputation that Rodriguez had built in the last 20 years.

“As a Puerto Rican jazz musician, I’ve always straddled two worlds,” says McGrath. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that much crossover between the salsa and jazz communities. Salseros might have heard of Charlie Parker, and jazz musicians might know something about Chano Pozo playing with Dizzy Gillespie, but there are these two parallel worlds comprised of terrific musicians who often don’t know each other.”

When McGrath first arrived in Chicago, he knew he found the place he wanted to live and work and create art. “I immersed myself in the jazz scene and loved that there were regular jam sessions where I could learn a lot from working musicians and become a better player,” McGrath says. “Those places are so important for sharing knowledge and developing community, which in turn leads to more opportunities to play. But the salsa player in me didn’t have those same opportunities.”

Rodriguez agrees. “When I was a young player, getting the chance to hang with professionals was incredibly valuable. Some of them became mentors and inspired me to really take music seriously and work at becoming better.”

The band that Rodriguez and McGrath assembled is a virtual all-star ensemble. Besides Rodriguez and McGrath, you’ll usually find Brian Rivera and Tito Sierra on percussion, bassist Freddy Quintero, and veteran keyboardist Edwin Sanchez, who brings a decades-long career as a bandleader and arranger to the proceedings. “Edwin is so amazing,” says McGrath. “He knows every song on the planet, his montunos are crazy good and he can really solo.”

For the sessions, Rodriguez and McGrath divide up responsibilities along the lines of their own instruments, Nathan cuing the percussionists and Roy calling the tunes and working with the horn players.

On the Tuesday I was there, plenty of musicians, both professional and amateur, came to join in. Some of the pros included conguero Pete Vale, a salsero who also plays with Dos Santos, drummer Jonathan Wenzel, who is a member of, among others, Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and McGrath’s Remembranzas Quartet, jazz trumpeters Thomas Madeja and Leon Q. Allen, bassist Chris Nolte and timbalero Eddie Dones. The joyful noise that they created fairly levitated the room.

“I want the music to be at a high level, but not elitist,” says McGrath. “It’s not always easy to mesh the jazz and salsa cats because the two styles speak different languages that are second nature to one but unknown by the other. So, I want the atmosphere to be inviting and fun, not intimidating to either side. That way everybody benefits, even when mistakes are made. We’re even drawing a lot of jazz vocalists who are willing to take a standard like ‘Misty’ and sing it as a bolero. It’s pretty cool. The learning curve can be steep for both sides, but when folks relax and have fun good things happen and they come back another week.”

Rodriguez voices a similar sentiment. “There are a lot of salsa players, but not a lot of venues that book salsa bands, so this gives them an opportunity to play more often, especially the young guys that are just breaking in but not yet getting called for gigs. At the same time, everyone gets to hang together, have some fun, and learn from each other.”

McGrath sees an additional benefit to the sessions, something that says a lot about how he views music as a means of social engagement.

“I’m excited about this as a musician, of course, but my reasons for bringing these two worlds together run deeper. There’s a big racial divide in Chicago, and encountering it surprised and bothered me after coming from Puerto Rico and also spending a few years studying music in New Orleans. I want this to be a safe place where musicians of all types can come together to share and learn about each other and maybe overcome some of those barriers that segregate people. People can get past their fears and prejudices when the conditions are right, so that’s what I’m hoping will happen here.”

The Latin Jazz Jam is every Tuesday from 7:30 – 9:30 PM at 90 Miles Cuban Café, 3333 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood, IL (Lincolnwood Town Center)

Nathan Rodriguez steps out as a leader

– By Don Macica –

Unless you are a musician deeply involved in Chicago’s salsa scene, you may not have heard of Nathan Rodriguez. If, like me, you are an audience member that pays more attention to congueros than singers, though, you’ve likely taken notice of his skill and regular presence without knowing his name.

That all started to change in the last year as Rodriguez began stepping out as a bandleader with two projects, Conjunto Borikén and ¡Azúcar!, a Celia Cruz tribute band. A casual observer might think that Rodriguez is the new kid on the block, but it turns out that the Chicago-born Puerto Rican musician has been at this for quite a while.

“I joined my first professional band, La Unica, in 2000 at the age of 16, but I had already been playing bongos since the age of 11 and congas at 13, learning from my friend and mentor Daniel Feliciano after our church services. At the age of 16, I also joined a Salsa Ministry band called Orchestra Ebenezer as a conguero, and I still play with them today as their bassist.”

Conjunto Borikén

Nathan and I are enjoying a late breakfast and some café con leche at Señor Pan, a Cuban restaurant near his home. “But I wasn’t really serious about it,” he continues, “I had talent and a feel, but I couldn’t read music, which is a necessary skill if you want to really be a professional.”

Then, at the age of 19, Rodriguez was suddenly married with a child and working double shifts to make ends meet. That left little time for music. “I was still playing a little, subbing with Orquesta Sabor and the Angel Melendez 911 Mambo Orchestra, but I wasn’t advancing. After a couple of years I decided I didn’t want that for my life and that I had a hunger to study music.”

Mentors and advocates are an important part of any professional experience, and this is certainly the case in a music career. In Rodriguez’ case, it was the highly regarded percussionist Rubén Alvarez, who is a faculty member at the VanderCook College of Music. Recognizing Nathan’s raw talent and hunger for improvement, Alvarez, his wife Susan Frost and another VanderCook faculty member, Marc Jacoby, spoke to the president of the college on his behalf. In 2004, Rodriguez was accepted to VanderCook on a probationary basis, owing to his inability to read music.

Thus began “the hardest 5 years of my personal life with financial struggles, raising a family, and learning how to read and perform on orchestral instruments,” says Rodriguez. “However, I fell in love with all my learning and new experiences, learned what I wanted to learn musically, pulled through and graduated in 2009.”

Fortified with his new skills and knowledge, Rodriguez began transcribing his own music and formed his first band, the short-lived Orquesta Rumbaye. At VanderCook, he had learned to play piano, bass, vibraphone, trombone, guitar and ukulele in addition to several more percussion instruments. Of these, he paid special attention to the bass, acquiring a baby bass and advancing enough that he was able to freelance professionally as a bassist as well as percussionist, most notably in Rico Obsesión. He also joined Son de la Habana as a conguero, who he still plays with to this day. He’s recently turned up supporting other local projects as well, like the Chicago debut of Grammy-nominated salsa singer Juan Pablo Diaz and a tribute show to Puerto Rican songwriting legend Rafael Hernández.

In 2017, Rodriguez felt the time was right to become a leader again with not one, but two new projects. The first of these was a long held vision to form a traditional conjunto style salsa band. “It was a style that I grew up loving, that New York-Puerto Rico sound best epitomized by Conjunto Classico and Johnny Pacheco. Nobody in Chicago was playing with that style or instrumentation. It’s a favorite for all salsa lovers. True salseros know conjunto is not easy to play but is full of flavor.” Thus was born Conjunto Borikén, a nine person ensemble featuring three trumpets, bongos, congas, bass, keyboards, a singer and, as a slight deviation from the norm, a Puerto Rican cuatro instead of the Cuban tres.

Rodriguez explains, “The cuatro‘s sound makes any Puerto Rican smile and remember the island. I chose to add a cuatro because I wanted to incorporate the jibaro sounds of the island to our music, giving that ‘ummff’ of more Puerto Rican flavor in our sound. Also,” he adds with a laugh, “There are no Puerto Rican tres players in Chicago!”

The other project started out as a chance meeting with the Colombia-born singer Claudia La Gitana. “I heard Claudia sing at 90 Miles Cuban Café a year and a half ago, and I was dumbfounded. I asked her if she liked Celia Cruz, and she said, ‘Yes, I love Celia, she’s my idol, I know all her hits by memory.’ I told her right then and there, I want to put together a band just for you because your voice needs to be heard and you deserve a 5-star band!”

Claudia La Gitana with ¡Azúcar!

That was the beginning of ¡Azúcar! – A Celia Cruz Tribute Project. Rodriguez put together another classic salsa band to back up Claudia’s powerful voice. This band has a harder, more urban edge than Conjunto Borikén. And, whereas Rodriguez is the bongocero in Borikén, he moves over to bass for Azúcar. Both bands were on the bill at Mike Oquendo’s recent Sunday Salsa Social tribute to the legends of Fania.

Nathan Rodriguez is fully confident in his talent, abilities and musicianship, but overall, he gives off a humble vibe of gratefulness. He is a music teacher at Nathan Davis Elementary School in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, passing on the lessons he learned and encouraging the love of music in the next generation. On the other end, both of his professional bands are packed with veterans of Chicago’s salsa scene. It’s worth noting that some of these players gave Nathan his first opportunities when he was breaking into the business, including his childhood friend and mentor, Daniel Feliciano.

“I’m extremely grateful to the guys that gave me a break when I was just a kid,” says Rodriguez. “They gave me opportunities when they didn’t have to, and were generous with their time and sharing their craft with me. And, of course, they are incredible musicians. I knew I needed them when I formed Borikén and Azúcar. It’s very gratifying to share this experience with them.”