John Santos Throws a Birthday Bash

Oakland-based percussion great John Santos plays a big bash at SFJAZZ for his 60th birthday.


Percussionist John Santos incorporates Afro-Caribbean beats into his music.

Photo courtesy of SFJAZZ

Sometimes it’s the gig you don’t get that shapes the course of your life. For Oakland percussion maestro John Santos, a driving force on the Bay Area music for four decades, losing a coveted spot in Santana set him on an independent path wending ever deeper into the roots of Caribbean rhythms. Rather than riding a gravy caravanserai with a rock juggernaut, he became a pioneering DIY artist and Latin music icon as a bandleader, educator, activist, and producer who has collaborated with a vast array of jazz and Latin music legends.

Born and raised in the Mission, Santos was 21 when his close friend and musical comrade Raul Rekow landed the plumb job playing congas with Santana. Rekow, who went on to spend 25 years with the band, came back to report the good news, and then dropped another bombshell. He had procured Santos an audition for the open timbales chair. Santos got the gig.

“I lasted three weeks,” he says. “I was new to the timbales, and it quickly became apparent I wasn’t really ready for the gig on that instrument. But that experience shoved me into the direction I’ve gone.”

Rather than despairing, Santos set about immersing himself in the folkloric roots of Afro-Caribbean music. While leading a succession of bands, from Orquesta Tipica Cienfuegos to Orquesta Batachanga to the Grammy-nominated Machete Ensemble, he steadily expanded his creative purview, while forging ties with musicians from Cuba, Puerto Rico, New York City, and beyond. His Pan-Caribbean vision is woven into the DNA of SFJAZZ, which presents a concert on Sunday, Nov. 1, celebrating his 60th birthday.

When SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline launched the fledgling organization as Jazz In the City in 1983, Santos was on the bill with Batachanga, and he has played an essential role ever since. Long before SFJAZZ tapped him as one of the four resident artistic directors when the center opened in 2013, Santos provided savvy advice on how to present Cuban music as a kindred current to jazz, with concerts showcasing innovators like bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, trumpeter Mario Bauza, and composer/bandleader Chico O’Farrill.

Describing Santos as “a great man” as well as “a great musician and scholar,” Kline credits the percussionist with ensuring that Latin culture has a seat at the jazz table. “Apart from the superb bands he has led, he has taught me the importance of the Caribbean basin’s role in the formation of jazz, as well as its influence on popular music.”

SFJAZZ has also played a role in expanding musical possibilities for Santos, who is collaborating with tabla master and SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director Zakir Hussain in April. But Santos’ signature is bringing together giants in jazz and Latin music, and he’s often documented the encounters on Machete Records, a label he launched 30 years ago out of necessity after a series of bad experiences with other companies. While always a financial challenge, Machete has given him tremendous creative freedom, most recently in capturing his sextet. The group will be on hand for the Nov. 1 celebration, along with special guests, including Santana trombonist Jeff Cressman, violinist Anthony Blea, vocalist Destani Wolf, and timbales great Orestes Vilató, a salsa pioneer and member of the Fania Allstars who helped found Santos’ Machete Ensemble.

While most of the SFJAZZ shows he has presented in recent years have been carefully scripted, he envisions his birthday bash as a footloose jam session and “a little bit of an adventure for us,” he says. “We’re just going to have fun and jump off a cliff. Usually there’s a theme, and you rehearse and want things to be perfect and timed. It’s fun to be able to treat this like a house party, to bring people up who don’t usually play together. You only turn 60 once, right?”

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