Guatemala Jazz Tour 2016


This was my third tour to Guatemala. What a privilege to visit this beautiful country and play for the amazing Guatemalan People!

I was joined by my longtime friends and associates, LaFrae Sci, drums/compositions, Lakecia Benjamin, alto saxophone and Elias Bailey, bass.  I love these cats so much because they SWING, play the BLUES, are CREATIVE and can do it all in PERFORMANCE and in WORKSHOPS with students.

In seven days, we gave seven workshops and five concerts. Our programs were organized by U.S. Embassy staff Dawn Suni, Public Diplomacy Officer and Basilia Lopez, Outreach Coordinator.  What a fantastic team!

Our first day we reunited with our friends pianist/teacher, Victor Arriaza and saxophonist/vocalist/teacher Rosse Aguilar Barrascout. Rosse founded and runs a music school in Guatemala City called Innato School of Music and we were happy to give three workshops to their students in jazz improvisation, highlighting lessons from jazz and blues masters Mary Lou Williams and Bessie Smith. What a great way to celebrate Women’s History Month!



We arrived very early the next day at the National Conservatory and Municipal Music School of Guatemala to give a workshop. Some of the students had awoken at 2 or 3 in the morning to travel to be there for this early morning workshop. As early as it was, Lakecia suggested we start with a burner from our book that features her, Alto Power.  We gave it all we had!

I love the paintings around the auditorium and the diverse ages of the students!

In the evening, we returned to Instituto Guatemala Americano(IGA) in Guatemala City to perform at the Guatemala Jazz Festival. Rosse Aguilar joined us to sing and play the blues and we premiered my new song “Climate Change” and LaFrae’s composition, “Colibri,” based on a Guatemalan folk tradition.  We also featured a Mary Lou Williams piece “Ode to Saint Cecile,” the patroness of musicians.


The next day we traveled by van to Huehuetenango. It was a long car ride and we got to see mountains, villages and markets. A great way to see some of Guatemala’s diverse terrain.  We arrived at Escual Tipo Federacion in the mid afternoon to give a professional development workshop to primary school teachers.  On the following day, we did a similar workshop for student teachers. We gave out kazoos and got everyone improvising on Guatemalan folk tunes. At the end, LaFrae led a line dance on “Do the Hucklebuck.” There was good discussion on experiential learning and how lessons absorbed this way stick.


The climax of our Huehuetanango visit was our concert at the Municipal Theatre. The local orchestra opened the concert with two songs. LaFrae and Lakecia joining on the second. Dawn then explained how our concert was to support women’s empowerment in honor of Women’s History Month. Then I started a call and response bluesy improvisation with the audience of over 500 teenagers dividing the audience into two distinct musical parts. Then, ALL THE LIGHTS AND POWER WENT OUT. That meant no microphones, no keyboard or bass amp. Immediately LaFrae took one of her drums into the audience and began a two-part women’s empowerment chant, “Mujeres…mujeres. Mujeres….mujeres.” Lakecia soon followed enlisting the support of the horn section from the local orchestra. Meanwhile, Dawn conferenced with our local producers and found that all the power in the town was out and not likely to come back any time soon.  They tried to rig up something but to no avail. LaFrae and Lakecia led the rest of the concert, about 45-minutes more, with improvised chants and call and responses.  The young people left elated, still in the dark, other then lights from people mobile phones. It was a truly extraordinary display of women’s empowerment. Amazing!


With the sun setting we got to get some air and visit a local historical site of Mayan ruins. What a tremendous International Women’s Day!


The next day we gave a workshop at Conservatorio Regional, a modest building with beautiful light, a visionary director and eager students.  Elias was moved by the opportunity to show some of the cellists how to hold the bow. I was surrounded by a heap of piano players and some of them are playing jazz. It was a wonderful exchange.



Then, it was on to Quetzaltenango and a beautiful city called Xela.  The next morning we gave a performance workshop for the students at Instituto Guatemala Americano in honor of Woman’s Day.  We talked about Nora’s Ark as a story of women’s empowerment and there is interest in doing The Jazz Drama Program musical. We hope to get this going next year. It would be ideal for this community.





We had the evening off in Xela which was lovely.  The following day we gave a concert at the Municipal Theatre as part of the Guatemala Jazz Festival.  It was a beautiful old hall and the people loved swinging music. After Lakecia tore things up on “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” by Charles Mingus, we gave them an encore of “On the Sunnyside of the Street.”


The final day we returned to Guatemala City to play for a gathering at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence. Ambassador Todd Robinson is the epitome of class, warm heart, deep into the arts, and someone who truly brings people together with his intelligence and innate sense of what makes people tick. It was an honor to perform for the second year in a row at his house. We had a thrill bringing Rosse Aguilar back up to play with us and Victor Arriaza sat in as well.  A fantastic climax of a wonderful week on the road for cultural diplomacy through JAZZ on behalf of The U.S. Department of State and The Jazz Drama Program.

Eli Yamin Quartet with US Ambassador Todd Robinson

Eli Yamin Quartet-LaFrae Sci, Eli Yamin, Lakecia Benjamin and Elias Bailey with U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson and Rosse Aguilar

Russia Blues Tour 2015

Eli plays the blues

Eli Yamin


Playing the blues for people is a great thrill. It’s like sharing the spark of life-running through you, out your instrument and into the audience and back. Then building to another spark and another-there’s nothing like it.  Through my piano, through my voice-building with band members, tour managers and the audience-always the audience. The blues is community and it is what we attain when we work TOGETHER.

For Russia Blues Tour 2015 I was blessed to have on the musician team one of my longest associates in New York City, a drummer, vocalist, composer, father and community leader.  He epitomizes groove in the way he plays, talks, walks and tells stories. The supreme team player. Dwayne “Cook” Broadnax…


Dwayne "Cook" Broadnax

Dwayne “Cook” Broadnax

Our vocalist, was a relatively new musical associate. We met years ago on the Jazz cruise but this was our first tour together. She is a bandleader and matriarch of the New York jazz and blues scene bringing up many young musicians behind her as Carrie Smith and Etta Jones did for her. Antoinette Montague…

Antoinette Montague

Antoinette Montague


Our youngest member toured with me three years ago in Guatemala. He’s a composer and a middle school band director with an open mind and a heart for the blues. Ben Stapp…


Ben Stapp with students at Tchaikovsky Music School, Yekaterinburg, Russia

Ben Stapp with students at Tchaikovsky Music School, Yekaterinburg, Russia


In nine days, we performed seven concerts and gave five education workshops. We performed live on Television and Radio reaching audiences of thousands in person and hundreds of thousands through the media. At a time when Russian-American relations were cool, it felt especially meaningful to feel the warmth of the Russian audiences, their serious listening, and loving the classic American art form of the blues.

Based in Yekaterinburg in the Urals, we made trips to neighboring towns to perform at Community Center Concert Halls. Usually, these halls had about 500 seats filled with all age audiences.


Russian and U.S. Flag over stage in Nevyansk

Russian and U.S. Flag over stage in Nevyansk


After the show

Eli Yamin Blues Band Members after the show with Sarah Saperstein, US Diplomat/Public Affairs Officer, Lyubov Bondarenko, tour co-producer and audience members.


After the show in Nevyansk, we visited the Icon Museum, where we got a fantastic glimpse of a living modern and ancient Russian art tradition of iconic painting. Notice how the images of Jesus and Mary are brown skin, more historically accurate then typically seen in the West. I was moved by the art and home cooked meal we enjoyed by our hostess.

The food and hospitality reminded me that this was the food my grandparents ate, who were Russian Immigrants. My grandfather, Samuel Yamin, was not a religious man but strongly identified himself as a Jew. He immigrated to the U.S. from Russia when he was two years old in 1904 to escape the Pogroms, when allies of the Czar wiped out entire Jewish villages including my Grandfather’s village in Nikor, Belarussia, near Brest.  My Grandfather and his siblings never spoke of Russia or mentioned it as part of their identity but they ate the food and I thank our gracious host Natalia for reminding me in such a soulful way of my Russian roots.



Our next stop was a large factory in Polevskoy, the Sibirsky Pipes Plant. One of the largest rolling mills in the world, we performed in the factory itself for workers and local college students in celebration of the one year anniversary of this particular factory. The company is a couple of hundred years old with a rich history. They have a museum that celebrates the history and are serious about supporting local cultural events. I wonder if BB King ever performed at the Ford Factory? He sure sang about it. We felt his spirit with us.



After all that factory action, we were more then ready to return to the concert hall and found a sweet audience in another manufacturing town, Irbit. They are famous for manufacturing motorcycles. I did a radio interview before the show and wish I could connect with Sergey from Radio Skit again. He is such a deep devotee of the blues!


We traveled to these towns by band bus and had a solid Russian man behind the wheel at all times keeping us safe…Thank-you Radik!


Cook, Eli and Antoinette with Radik

Cook, Eli and Antoinette with Radik


And here’s the snowy road to our next town of Verkhnyaya Salda…



Once we arrived in Salda, what a warm reception! Many young singers and instrumentalists came to our workshop and jam with us and they could really play…


Here are a couple of TV clips from Salda…


The Performance…



The Workshop…



Back in Yekaterinburg, we had a light day with a half-hour TV appearance. Notice how Cook makes a drum set out of nothing, and shuffles us into to good health altogether anyway…

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On this day, I also got to visit a wonderful sound technician at the theatre in Yekaterinburg named Jacob. He showed me is amazing vintage radio collection. Radios from the 40’s forward from all over Europe and they all work!

Eli, Jacob and radios

Eli, Jacob and the radios…

Eli checks out a famous music group from Belarussia, recorded 1968.

Eli checks out a famous music group from Belarussia, recorded 1968.

Speaking of radio, Rock Arsenal Radio show got us playing a bar early the next morning…

Eli and Ben

Ben and Eli


We hit one more town and it was a beauty, rich with soulful blues loving people like all the others, Kamensk-Uralsky…


Saturday night we were back in Yekaterinburg at the Blues and Bottle Festival. Run by a gregarious multi-talented artist and producer, Yevgeniy Gorenburgthis festival was a joy to take part in. We loved hearing classic sounds of Evgeny Margulis and other beautiful Russian musicians on the program and singing together at the end, You Are So Beautiful and When the Saints Go Marching In.

Eli sings

Blues and Bottle Sign



Our final day was a whirlwind in Yekaterinburg with a workshop at the Tchaikovsky Music College in the morning, workshop for Tchaikovsky Music School in the afternoon followed by one final concert. We were blown away by the talent and skill of the students at the college and music school.  Our most heartfelt congratulations go to the strong teacher leaders, Elina Kerzhkovskaya, Alexey Bykov, and Julia Jaye Kiprijanova, who we got to meet along with their students. The college students got deep into making a soulful sound with Antoinette and the young saxophone players brought tears to our eyes with their heartfelt renditions of “I Remember Clifford” and “Frankie and Johnny.”



We are so thankful for our co-sponsors, the US Consulate in Yekaterinburg, the Blues and Bottle Festival and The Jazz Drama Program, especially Sarah Saperstein, Maria Taff and Lyubov Bonderenko. We can’t wait to see you all again in Russia. As the saying goes, the mountains may never meet, but we will surely meet again.


Ben Cook Eli joking around

Ben, Cook, Eli in Yekaterinburg, Russia for the first time.


Eli and Jazz Musician Professors Alexey Bykov and Vitaly Vladimirov

Group With Sarah and Maria

Maria Taff, co-producer of the tour from the US Consulate with Public Affairs Officer Sarah Saperstein and the band at the Sibirsky Plant.


Lyubov Bondarenko, Blues and Bottle Festival

Lyubov Bondarenko, Blues and Bottle Festival

Blues and Bottle ID back home on Eli’s piano in Inwood, New York City.

First Ever- Jazz Drama Program Summer Jazz Arts Institute

Eli Yamin at the keyboard at The Jazz Drama Program's Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)

Eli Yamin at the keyboard at The Jazz Drama Program’s Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)


We did it!  On July 1 and 2, we broke ground on the first ever Jazz Drama Program Summer Jazz Arts Institute.  With my great colleagues LaFrae Sci, Tom Dempsey, Shireen Dickson, and Jeanie LoVetri we launched what we hope will be a vital charging station for imaginative education through jazz for years to come. Thanks to Lehman Stages at my alma mater, Lehman College, City University of New York in the Bronx, we had two days to go deep into different modalities of teaching and learning in jazz.  We asked questions about what do teachers and students need to have a great experience exploring jazz?  What fundamental skills and aesthetic values do they need to access?  How can we deliver them in an engaging, enriching and revitalizing manner?

After I gave a brief introduction to the Institute, master singing voice specialist Jeannette LoVetri gave a stunning two-introductory overview of Somatic Voicework ™, the LoVetri Method.  This method of training singers prepares you to sing jazz and blues by developing your awareness of the different registers of the voice-head and chest and how to mix them with ease to get the particular sounds and vocal flavors that you want.  It may seem obvious that singing the blues is different then singing Italian opera, but for too long, there has been little formal training available to those of us who want to sing American styles of music, most of which flow out of the blues.  Jeanie’s method is based in up to the minute information from leading doctors and medical researchers in the field of voice science and it was a tremendous treat to hear directly from Jeanie how we can begin to develop a healthy foundation for learning and teaching singing jazz and blues.  For more information on Jeanie’s teaching method, visit Somatic Voicework

Jeannette LoVetri at The Jazz Drama Program's Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)

Jeannette LoVetri at The Jazz Drama Program’s Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)


Next, Jazz Drama Program Dance Director, Shireen Dickson, gave us a hands on workshop in Making Jazz-Based Dances.  The dance workshop scaffolded specific universal jazz qualities onto pedestrian (everyday) movement to demonstrate how easily movement phrases can be developed to tell stories. While the class’s primary objective was to demonstrate how a jazz platform can offer an immediate point of entry for all bodies, and how this technique is used when working with JDP youth, the session also modeled very clear hallmarks of JDP’s dance education rubric: body percussion, musical phrasing, rhythmic pedestrian movement, improvisation, collaboration, and sharing.



Teaching Artist Judd Nielson, Dance Director Shireen Dickson, Board Member LaFrae Sci explore syncopated movement in dance workshop. (Photo by Ayano Hisa)


Day One concluded with teaching artist, drummer and composer LaFrae Sci leading participants into the well of African American song and rhythm from which jazz music and culture flows. This session combined vocal, rhythmic and body movement to explore spirituals and the blues as a foundation of jazz learning across disciplines: vocal, instrumental, solo, dance and theatrical work. The session was presented as a critical complement to more traditional, foundational jazz instrumental and vocal learning and guided participants to embody blues vocal expression as well as the shuffle rhythm as the foundation of swing and the key to accessing the healing properties of jazz.


LaFrae Sci at The Jazz Drama Program's Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)

LaFrae Sci at The Jazz Drama Program’s Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)


Day Two began with a review of Somatic Voicework ™, the LoVetri Method, led by teaching artist, singer and songwriter, Cindy Hospedales, who is also a Level III certified Somatic Voicework teacher.  Cindy presented the method as student-centered and ideally suited to meet students where they are at.  She showed how isolating registers can help determine vocal issues that need to be addressed and demonstrated specific vowel sounds to use to access head, chest and mix registers and specific strategies for blending and extending range. Cindy emphasized the point that when teaching students to sing, teachers must know how to recognize certain problems that inexperienced singers typically face and have concrete information that provide solutions, especially when it comes to expressive singing in contemporary music, formally known as Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM).


Cindy Hospedales at The Jazz Drama Program's Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)

Cindy Hospedales at The Jazz Drama Program’s Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)


After the vocal session, teaching artist, guitarist, author and Professor at LaGuardia Community College, Tom Dempsey, led us into a cross-modality exploration of Improvisation.  The workshop began with a wide ranging discussion branching off from intriguing quotes on improvisation such as the one below by Ralph Ellison.

“There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it.”   Ralph Ellison

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Upon listening to Miles Davis Quintet’s live performance (1964) of “My Funny Valentine” with Miles Davis – trumpet, George Coleman – tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock – piano, Ron Carter – bass, Tony Williams – drums, participants identified key components of jazz improvisation taking place and contributors in the group. There was discussion on the elements of sound (timbre, dynamics, rhythm, articulation, etc) and how the essential aspect of listening fueled meaningful interaction between group members that contributed to the overall masterpiece of the recording.  Some key words shared by participants: Playfulness, Feeling, No eraser, Courage Collaboration, Supporting, Vulnerability, Control, Critical thinking, Yes and…, Generosity, Dexterity, Shared language.

Tom Dempsey at The Jazz Drama Program's Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)

Tom Dempsey at The Jazz Drama Program’s Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)

JDP Co-founder Clifford Carlson looks on at Teaching Artist Cindy Hospedales in flight at Summer Jazz Arts Institute (Ayano Hisa, photo)

JDP Co-founder Clifford Carlson looks on at Teaching Artist Cindy Hospedales in flight during Improvisation Workshop at Summer Jazz Arts Institute (Ayano Hisa, photo)


The final workshop of the day was led by teaching artist, musician, actor, Program Director at Tribeca Performing Arts Center, Mario Giacalone. The theater workshop complemented yet challenged how participants viewed vocal and physical improvisation from an abstract rhythmic place. With a previous foundation laid in Tom’s Improvisation session, participants, with the clear instructions to “not think just do” and “give yourself permission,” who had never experienced this type of workshop were able to push against comfort boundaries, and see immediate relevance to their own non-theatrical artistic/teaching practices.


Actor/musician Mario Giacalone and musician Lance Bryant collaborate in the Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College. (Ayano Hisa, photo)

Actor/musician Mario Giacalone and musician Lance Bryant collaborate in the Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College. (Ayano Hisa, photo)


We concluded the Institute with a discussion that reviewed Jazz Drama Program practices that we experienced in the Institute.

  1. Teaching in a circle (communal)
  2. Taking things step by step.
  3. Embrace the role of women. **  (A lot of awful male performances are seen having prominent roles, whereas women, typically get minor/insignificant roles.
  4. Emulating/Copying.
  5. Interactive improvisation/Experiential group.
  6. Body awareness. Holistic, vocal, body, mindfulness.
  7. Just do it. Be in the moment and embrace the Judgement Free Zone.
  8. Permission parameters (Ex. You can do whatever you want in the circle, BUT… do not lose eye contact.)
  9. Have teachers on equal playing field as students/teachers as facilitators.
  10. Meeting students where they are.
  11. Remember to always incorporate the blues, as that is the grounding foundation of JDP.

*** THIS is what differentiates JDP from other European art forms. It separates from   emphasis on technical ability and focuses more on freedom/expressing.

  1. Culture of the blues = Accessible. Comes up from “the people”.
  2. Inclusive
  3. Mindfulness of connections between different disciplines. (Dance, Vocalists, etc.)
Teachers and Teaching Artists Jump for Joy at Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College (Ayano Hisa, photo)

Teachers and Teaching Artists Jump for Joy at Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College (Ayano Hisa, photo)


We are working on a more detailed paper outlining the activities of The Jazz Drama Program’s Summer Jazz Arts Institute 2015 at Lehman College. Please let me know if you are interested in receiving a copy when its done by leaving a comment below.  Also, we are gathering names of teachers and teaching artists who might like to join us next summer at the Institute.  We plan to have it around the same time-end of June/early July.  You can contact us by visiting The Jazz Drama Program, where you will find the latest information on the organization’s activities and methods.


Participants at The Jazz Drama Program's Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York (photo by Ayano Hisa)

Participants at The Jazz Drama Program’s Summer Jazz Arts Institute at Lehman College, City University of New York(L-R-standing-Lance Bryant, LaFrae Sci, Tom Dempsey, Dmitry Ekshut, Aasha Collins, Deanna Witowski, Mario Giacalone, Brian Davis, Clifford Carlson, Shireen Dickson, sitting-Eli Yamin, Cindy Hospedales (photo by Ayano Hisa)

Guatemala Jazz Festival 2015 – Final Day

The last day of the tour was my favorite because we visited and gave a workshop at La Alianza, a shelter for girls who are victims of trafficking and sexual violence.  The place is run exceptionally well by a staff of extremely devoted and expert women who give these girls the support and shelter they need.  There is a a music program at the shelter run by Steban, who is doing a great job motivating everyone to SING!  We had no problem teaching everyone “Freight Train” and before long LaFrae had about half the 45 girls on their feet doing a line dance while Evan, Paul and I played the blues.  Other girls, many who had babies on their lap, took to the kazoo and joined in instrumentally.  The whole place vibrated with MUSIC.  We must go back.

In the afternoon, we played for 500 high school kids on the outskirts of the city at Santa Catarina Pinula.  LaFrae and I had played their in 2011 with the blues band and recognized the head of the music school, Estuardo Lopez, who gave us a warm “hola.”  The students in the audience brought the energy up to the level of a rock concert and we stayed for an hour afterwards signing Cd’s, t-shirts, notebooks, whatever their was to sign.  I know there will be lots more swinging after we have moved on through.  And, I certainly hope to be back one day….for Hasta Luego Guatemala!!!  Muchas gracias!!!


Guatemala Jazz Festival 2015 – Ambassador’s Residence

Back to Guatemala City now for a reception at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson.  We could not ask for a more welcoming host.  Ambassador Robinson hails from Newark, NJ, a jazz town once and forever.  He truly believes in the power of jazz to uplift and unite everyone.  He is also an idealist who inspires us with his affirmation that we all can contribute to a world of greater equity and justice.  I’m proud to know him and will continue to do all I can to live up to his example of representing the best of what the United States is all about…

Eli Yamin Quartet with U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson

Eli Yamin Quartet with U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson


Ambassador Robinson and guests express their enthusiasm and support for JAZZ!

Eli Yamin Quartet and IMOX

Eli Yamin Quartet with IMOX Jazz, a local professional group and Ambassador Todd Robinson

Eli Yamin Quartet at Ambassador’s Residence


Guatemala Jazz Festival 2015 – Coban

The second day of the tour we drove to Coban in central Guatemala.  The city is surrounded by beautiful mountains and has a more country feel to it.  Watch out for the chocolate soup before lunch~!  I thought I was in heaven.

In the afternoon we gave a workshop in a municipal building to students receiving lessons on scholarship.  Their teachers are first rate including the pianist who played in the professional jazz quartet that opened for us at the evening concert.

In the workshop we did an overview of jazz including Maple Leaf Rag with the kids stomp/clappin’ and Evan playing all the the harmony and rhythm on the clarinet.  Then we taught Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” and had everyone keep singing the theme while we improvised over it to “mess them up.”  They were too good and kept the melody going even with unaccompanied drum solo!  Later, most everyone got out their horn and we had a terrific jam session on the Hop Wilson blues “I Feel So Glad.”  We even found an eight year old boy who gobbled up the shuffle like it was his new best friend!

In the afternoon, it being Sunday, we went to the Mall to play for the people.  It was a gas, actually…

Guatemala Jazz Festival 2015 – Concert in Guatemala City

Our first concert of the tour was at the auditorium at Instituto Guatemala Americano in Guatemala City.  It was a pleasure to play the Baldwin grand on stage and interact with the audience who engaged deeply with us.  Our program included songs from our recent CD,  “Louie’s Dream, for our jazz heroes.”  We played the title track composed by Louie Armstrong and pianist Marty Napoleon, “Baraka 75,” dedicated to Amiri Baraka, great poet, activist and mentor and “Don’t Go Back On Your Raisin”, from the musical I co-wrote with Clifford Carlson about women fighting for and winning the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920.  As it turns out, this year is the 70th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Guatemala and the audience joined us to celebrate.  You can also see a photo of me playing percussion.  That was part of our exploration of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.”  We closed the concert with a collaboration with members of the University Jazz Club.  We played a Guatemalan song that warmed everyone’s heart, “Luna de Xelaju.”

Guatemala Jazz Festival 2015 – workshop Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala

It was wonderful to return to Guatemala, this time with quartet and LaFrae Sci on drums (she and I were there in 2011 with the Blues Band), Evan Christopher on clarinet and Paul Beaudry on bass.  The first day we gave a workshop at Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, got to know the wonderful students including a great young singer named Jose Pablo who sang Misty, a budding bassist named Gabriiela as well as The Prez, M.Sc. Lester Homero Godinez Orantes.  We taught the heartbeat is the shuffle and the shuffle is the heartbeat of the blues…



I bet you can play too!

Play the Blues with Eli


What can I say to the parents of children who want to be professional musicians?

Eli Yamin starting out as professional musician.  Photo by Grace Moon

Eli Yamin starting out as professional musician. Photo by Grace Moon

Mom:  “Eli, my son loves music and says he wants to be a musician.  Can you pleeeese convince him out of it?”

Eli: Young man, you must ALWAYS play music.  The music you make brings beauty and positive spirit to the world.  And goodness knows, we need more of it.  Choosing a career in music is a separate decision.  A successful music career relies on the cultivation of many skills both musical and non musical.  To make a living or good wage as a musician, you need to develop skills in business and/or education.  These may or may not be of interest to you.  So, before putting all your eggs into the making-your-living-by-playing-music basket, spend time finding out where you are at in these other areas.  Some ways you can do this are:

1)     Volunteer or work in a classroom with kids or another setting where you can see how you feel about teaching.  At 12, I worked as a junior sailing instructor and taught 7 year olds how to tie knots.  I remember the thrill I got when my “students” learned and could do what I showed them.  As I kid I loved sailing small boats.  This led me to the opportunity to be a junior sailing teacher to teach 7 year olds and gave me a glimpse of my potential as a teacher.  What other loves do you have that you can explore?  There may be a way to connect them with your life in music down the road.

Mercedes Ellington and Eli Yamin

Mercedes Ellington and Eli Yamin

At 24, upon returning from my first gig on the road as musical director for Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies 10th Anniversary National Tour directed by Mercedes Ellington, I volunteered at the West Side YMCA Day Camp.  They asked me what I did.  Upon learning I was a musician, they hired me as music teacher for Kinder Camp at $25/hour.  At the time I had no idea how to talk to three year olds.  I met with other Nursery School music teachers, took a three-day teacher training with Betsy Blachly at Bankstreet College and by the fall was hired as music teacher for the Co-op Nursery School at double my initial pay rate.  I developed a jazz curriculum for 2-5 years olds (being able to sit up was the only prerequisite to my class) singing songs like “Oo Shoobie Doobie,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and “Potato Chips.” I also sang folk tunes, told stories I learned from my childhood hero Pete Seeger, and finger plays and dances.  I improvised a lot and learned to be present in a way with students that had an indelible effect on me.  I had a poster of Dizzy Gillespie smiling in my room and used to say a prayer to him before the kids would come. “Dizzy, please show me what to do with these kids today.”  It worked out well.  I taught two and a half days a week while playing pass the hat gigs in East Village and touring with Glenn Miller Band and later, Illinois Jacquet.  I was blessed by having mentorship by Chicago Drummer Walter Perkins, who was like a second father to me, and played in his band all through this period and beyond.  Teaching young children during this time helped my income and helped me grow as a musician and person.

Eli Yamin with his student Amaya at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Eli Yamin with his student Amaya at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

2)     Read books on the music business, take a business course on or off line, intern or work at a music business such as a management company, music festival, cultural institution, record company, radio station or magazine.  When I discovered jazz I was 12 years old.  I found the music at 88.3 on the FM dial, WBGO.  I was mesmerized and hungry to learn more.  I took Count Basie records out of the library and listened daily with great focus to the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.  So knocked out by what I heard, I could never understand why more of my peers and community in central New Jersey were not as obsessed as I was about jazz.  At 13, I had my first radio show on my high school’s radio station. We were lucky to have one.   At 14, I took on the weekly jazz show and began my career in earnest as a jazz advocate. At 18, this led to me hosting my first professional radio show on NPR affiliate WBGO where I had started months earlier as a Board Operator earning minimum wage.  The program director Wylie Rollins gave me a chance on the air because of three things: 1) I showed up when I was supposed to. 2) I was on time 3) I had great enthusiasm for jazz.  Whereas #3 was important, do not underestimate the power of #1 and #2.  A good degree of success in life can be achieved by consistently showing up and being on time.

I also studied music business tapes and books and asked a lot of questions of my elders.  This was painful at first.  Learning about the stark realities of the music business is so drastically different than the thrill of playing the music, it can be very disillusioning.  Radio was more fun and so I focussed my attention there.  And as the legendary R & B singer Ruth Brown told me.  “Eli, get some joy out of life or life will take the joy out of you.”  Parents and Students–HAVING FUN AND BEING PRACTICAL CAN GO HAND IN HAND. I learned a lot from being engineer/producer of Jazz From the Archives, a two-hour jazz history show hosted by leading historians Dan Morgenstern, Ed Berger, Loren Schoenberg and Vincent Pelote.  This experience introduced me to the rich world of jazz pre 1945 like Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Mary Lou Williams, Benny Carter, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong.  Very soulful stuff.  I also produced Portraits in Blue with Bob Porter for five years deepening my knowledge and love for the blues.  Artists like Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Lowell Fulson, T Bone Walker, Bessie Smith, Ruth Brown, Koko Taylor and Johnny Copeland.  I met and interviewed many musicians during this time and gained insight into their lives as musicians and people including:  Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Marian McPartland, Ray Barreto, Ruth Brown, Art Blakey, Abbey Lincoln, Walter Bishop Jr, Abdullah Ibrahim and Barry Harris.  Barry Harris became a great teacher and later, friend to me.  At 24 years old, I got my own slot on the air hosting Sunday mornings from 6-10am.  I played piano and guitar recordings and called it Sunday Morning Harmony.  The show continues to run today.  I had great energy in those days and made good use out of it.  I would play with Walter Perkins at the Skylark in Queens Saturday night 10:30pm-3:30am, then drive to WBGO’s studios in Newark, New Jersey to sleep on the couch one hour, then go on air 6-10am, then sometimes drive to Westfield, NJ to play a brunch with my trio Solar.  Crazy days.  And a lot of learning going on.  Engaging the energy of youth by following the things that gave me joy and investing time in them helped me develop invaluable skills and contacts to become established as a professional musician.

Court of Barry Harris with Michael Weiss, Barry Harris, Eli Yamin and Lafayette Harris Jr. at Village Vanguard, NYC

Court of Barry Harris with Michael Weiss, Barry Harris, Eli Yamin and Lafayette Harris Jr. at Village Vanguard, NYC

And yes, I did formal training too.  I studied for a BA at Rutgers College, University of New Jersey with a major in music, minor in Political Science, and had the good fortune to take private lessons with Kenny Barron and Keith Copeland.  In addition, I sought out additional teachers outside of Rutgers to gain multiple perspectives and took lessons with the best teachers I could find including Fred Hersch, John Kamitsuka, Jaki Byard and Kenny Werner.  I learned invaluable lessons on the band stand at the Skylark Lounge in Queens performing with the Walter Perkins Trio and backing up local legends who would come through like C.I. Williams and Gwen Cleveland.  We played a lot of blues at the Skylark and I was happy as a clam doing what I loved and receiving great encouragement from the community.  I am eternally grateful for the support I received from so many people all along the way.  It reminds me of a passage in Duke Ellington’s Autobiography, Music is My Mistress.

“Every time I reached a point where I needed direction, I ran into a friendly advisor who told me what and which way to go to get what or where I wanted to get or go or do….Every intersection in the road of life is an opportunity to make a decision, and at some I had only to listen.”

This pathway from student to professional musician was gradual, unplanned, unpredictable, and at times nerve racking.  I would expect many musicians to report similar feelings in their own path.  I was fortunate to always find work opportunities.  For musicians, to be working, is a good goal in and of itself.  It is best if you can follow what you love to find the work.  Be open to different situations and be prepared to pay some dues.  You might find success where you least expect it like I did teaching three year olds finger plays or running tape machines in the middle of the night…

Eli Yamin teaches workshop at Junior Thespians Conference in Dallas, Texas. "Making a Soulful Sound with Nora's Ark, the jazz musical."

Eli Yamin teaches workshop at Junior Thespians Conference in Dallas, Texas. “Making a Soulful Sound with Nora’s Ark, the jazz musical.”