Pianist José Negroni: Musician of the 21st Century
The career of Puerto Rican pianist, composer, and arranger Jose Negroni exemplifies the predicament — and options — of the musician of the 21st Century. The impact of new technologies in the music business, which among other things brought about the collapse of the old structures, has opened unexpected possibilities but also poses great challenges.
Being an excellent instrumentalist or a capable composer is, perhaps now more than ever, not enough. A musician must also be an entrepreneur and get involved in everything, from his or her own recording and production to marketing.
After teaching for 16 years at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, and establishing himself as a first-call pianist and music director for some of the great names in salsa and Latin pop, artists such as José Luis Rodríguez “El Puma,” Chayanne, Carmita Jiménez, and Braulio, Negroni moved to Miami in 1995. He worked in the publishing department of Sony Music for 10 years before moving on to focus full time on his artistic career. As part of that, in the past two years, he’s been producing concerts at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, featuring not only his trio but some of the best musicians in South Florida.
Sunday, the brilliant Venezuelan saxophonist Ed Calle, heard on recordings and performances with Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, Arturo Sandoval, the Bee Gees, Frank Sinatra, Julio Iglesias and countless major figures and groups, will perform in concert with Negroni’s Trio and a 30 piece orchestra. For Negroni, it’s all part of staying active and not “waiting for the phone to ring.”
Tell me about your early music studies. You were educated in classical music and … salsa?
As a youngster, I must’ve been 14, I started studying with Papo Lucca [pianist, composer and arranger as well as co-founder and director of the iconic band La Sonora Ponceña]. I studied classical music with him. He prepared me to enter Universidad Interamericana, in San Juan, where I did my bachelor on music education. I later did another bachelor at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico with a concentration on piano and composition.
But part of that education was that Papo Lucca sent you as his substitute to play with [salsa band] La Sonora Ponceña. How did that come about?
At the time I was studying with Papo, the Fania All-Stars would come to Puerto Rico, so when he had to play with them, he would send me as his sub in La Sonora. As a youngster, we are sponges, always absorbing everything and anything going around us, and I knew his repertoire.
What kind of impact did it have in your own career?
That was an excellent experience because with [La Sonora Ponceña] you have to play as if you were reading a classical score. Everything [for] the piano is written out exactly how it should sound. It’s not something you make up on the spot. And thanks to those shows I got a little name and that helped my career. From that point on I started to get calls from Roberto Roena’s Apollo Sound, Willie Rosario, Celia Cruz, Marvin Santiago, and many other acts.
After your formal schooling, how was your practical training as a professional musician?
Up until the 1990s, a musician in Puerto Rico had a lot of work but, and this was key, you had to know all music styles. You could play them better or worse, but you had to know them all because by day you might be asked to play salsa and by night you were dressed in formal wear playing a show at, say, the Caribe Hilton hotel with an American artist.
Of all your different roles — player, arranger, producer — what did you prefer?
My idea was always to be a music director. That was what I loved. My first job fresh out of the conservatory was with [the late Puertorican singer] Carmita Jiménez who, with Quique Talavera, her music director, taught me the job.
How did you get from your classical training, salsa, and pop to jazz?
Jazz is a genre beloved by all musicians, regardless if they really understand it or not. I listened to a lot of jazz, but when my son Nomar [the drummer in Negroni’s Trio] gets into Berklee [College of Music, Boston] he tells me, ‘Let’s put together a trio, write a few songs and let’s go out and play.’
And that’s what happened. I wrote eight pieces, recorded a demo and the people at Universal heard it, liked it, and signed us for two albums. That was Naturaleza (2003), then came piano/ drums/ bass (2004), which was nominated for a Latin Grammy, and then things really got serious. But there was not grand plan, one thing led to the next.
These past two years you also have been producing concerts. How did that come about?
The business of music has changed and it has changed very quickly. Now the musician has to be a business person, entrepreneur, and press agent — and then by night, put on his hat as an artist go out and play. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to keep playing and traveling, but rather than sit by the phone and hope it rings, we’ve gone out and created work. These days it’s not about making or losing money but staying active. Being active is what keeps your name alive.
Ed Calle Sinfónico with Negroni’s Trio and Orchestra conducted by Albert Bade at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, June 28, at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 West Flagler St., Miami; tickets $25 to $40; 305-547-5414 or ticketmaster.com.