Home in a hidden place: Jazz artists stand up for their music at Tago

TSS, May 13 2015
If, at first, you don’t find what you’re looking for, don’t give up.
It’s not in that mid-rise building with the convenience store. Not in any of the crowded structures on the sides, either. Don’t look for signages because there isn’t one. There is only a nondescript, nearly run-down, two-storey house along what used to be Main Avenue near Cubao, on the right side if you’re headed south, staying obscure if not for the heady jazz music that’s piping from its speakers.
Welcome to Tago Jazz Cafe, named precisely because it does not announce itself the usual way.
Open the door and find yourself in a makeshift bar where a crowd of 25 is considered a full house; 40 an SRO. There is a couch by the door that looks as though it has been slept on by generations of musicians. There are a few bar stools and a sprinkling of wooden tables. The lights are makeshift; a drapery and a giant Philippine flag line the walls. One can imagine how common this place looks in the daytime.
Then again, what happens at Tago is always anything but common.
That evening, during the week-long celebration of the International Jazz Festival, there were a couple of American men and a group of young Caucasians who looked as though they had just wandered here in their backpacking. Playing on stage is Balooze; waiting for their cue are RSDC and Carlo and Nicole, a group about to leave for Malaysia to represent the Philippines in the jazzfest there.
Tago is one of only two sites of the festival, and most of the events took place here. In fact, no less than jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Intercultural Dialogue and chairman of the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, had written the bar owner to thank him for helping bring the 2015 festival to the Philippines.
Upstairs on the second floor, right above the stage, live an old woman (the owner’s mother) and some children (his nephews and nieces).
Yes, for different reasons, many people call this home.
Everything with nothing
Nelson Gonzales, his brother and three other friends decided to put up Tago Jazz Cafe in August of 2011 but soon found themselves in dire straits. The pressures and stresses of running a jazz club, not the least of which was the financial burden, was just too much. They closed down, and tried again, and met with the same problems -- but now it’s just Nelson and running the place -- “running everything with nothing”. These days, he is the owner, janitor, security guard, bouncer, cook, guest relations officer, accountant/bookkeeeper,doorman, buss boy.
He is also the default drummer during open jam sessions.
I don’t have the funds to employ many,” Gonzales, 40, says. So on the business side, the challenge is not even to make money but simply stay afloat. On some nights, the customers are very few. “I’m not some rich guy who owns a jazz bar. I am just a simple and penniless cat who likes to stand up for what I believe in.”
All the struggle is worth it, Gonzales says, not in terms of finances, but “in terms of the number of souls we infect with the splendid language of jazz.”
Stomping ground
There are a lot of amazing individuals who have passed through our doors,” Gonzales says. He refers to both local and foreign artists, famous and obscure, who have played at the cafe.
Tago has at least five bands playing regularly: “Balooze with Riki Gonzales, the wonderful Pete Canzon, the amazing cats of Swingster Syndicate, Northbound Central, Rj Torres, The Brass Munkeys, Paolo Blaquera, Ryan Villamor, Baihana, Boy Katindig, Henry Katindig, Elmhir Saison, Mel Santos, Noel Asistores, Skarlet, Jeannie Tiongco,Monet Ganir, Mar Dizon, Nikki Cabardo, Simon Tan, Cj Wasu, Abby Clutario, Eric Tubon, Rick Countryman, Mike Guevarra, RSDC, Nicole and Carlo David, Bong Concepcion, Caloy Rufo."
Students from the Conservatory of Music of both the University of Santo Tomas and the University of the Philippines are also regular performers at the cafe.
Among the musicians from outside the Philippines were the “magnificent Latin jazz pianist and Cubist Music practitioner from New York City, Maestro Edsel Gomez, who is probably the greatest pianist I have heard and seen.... Doctor Royal Hartigan(also from the US) is a master of percussion, a remarkable mentor, whose aura radiates passion and love... Claude Diallo (pianist) and Christian Bucher(with a PhD in percussion) both from Switzerland also shared their love and artistry...Chuck Stevens, a Jazz guitar master who shares his knowledge freely...recently there was Maciej Fortuna and Jakub Mielcarek, both from Poland, who also shared their culture, views, and concepts."
Gonzales compares the local artists who play at Tago to young cats and heavy older cats. "Here you can freely express yourself, and even be challenged by newer ideas on playing...to have a venue for exploration, and have someone beside you while you find the answers, and then to have someone mess it all up and question your theories, beliefs, and application. It is the bond that keeps us all together. Here, you have people who can understand you."
Juni Sitaca, the 25-year-old pianist for RSDC who just recently graduated from the UST Conservatory of Music agrees: What draws him to Tago are 1) jazz itself and 2) the community.
Jazz for everyone
Gonzales will be the first to tell you that the only thing that makes jazz exclusive is the claim of others that they, and only they can understand jazz. These are the people who believe they are almighty, and all-knowing jazz geniuses.
Sure, jazz is not easy. "It takes years of hard work and practice to be able to play a single honest note," he says. Still, this is not the time for selfish, egoistic and backward attitudes. "We must unite, support each other, survive, and thrive."
Despite Tago's unassuming setting, it has its fair share of regular customers who appreciate what the artists are doing. "This is just overwhelming and humbling," Gonzales says. He wishes, though, that more people would be able to see jazz for what it is. Education is key.
His vision? That people are able to appreciate jazz "regardless of race, creed, color, religion, and social standing...it speaks of life, struggles, trials, tribulations, and the triumph of the human spirit."
But how can talent thrive and appreciation grow when there is not much support? "The government and big companies don't support arts and culture in the Philippines anymore. More would rather sponsor novelty and tasteless forms of performances."
An example would be the April 30, International Jazz Festival which Tago was sadly only able to promote through social media – because it's free. Gonzales has regrets about this one: "I wish I could have shared it to a wider audience. I negotiated with bigger venues prior to the event, but I had no backing and sponsorships to pay for the production costs, equipment, artists' fees, etc. He only had the endorsement from UNESCO and the help of the International Jazz Day team, as well as friends and the musicians who performed."
Despite this, attendance during the Jazz Day events exceeded expectations.
Twenty-two-year-old Tim Dadivas, a drummer and graduate of the Jazz Department of the UST conservatory, says that holding jazz events in public places would help people hear and appreciate new music.
Hot, live, in-your-face jazz
Jazz is a paradox. It is as universal as it is intricately individual. In his letter as UNESCO ambassador, Herbie Hancock says jazz is "more than just a musical art form. It is an affirmation of our ability to peacefully collaborate and cooperate in spite of profound differences – to speak with our unique individual voices while still respecting the collective."
Gonzales adds: "Each artist is different, the identity and voice of an artist is his own. His will, actions, tone, execution, taste, and life concepts should be respected and recognized. He, in turn, must reciprocate. We try to support and challenge one another’s view on many subjects."
According to Dadivas, at Tago he learned to socialize with other musicians and improve his skills.
In the end, and though he wishes he could do more, Gonzales is happy that he has helped create a home for the stray jazz cats. "As simple as it is, we boast some of the first-grade and the most amazing artists here."
So if you're not one to be distracted by big doors, a spacious stage, fancy bar furniture and a complete wait staff, find and get to know Tago. Revel in unadorned, unpretentious music -- and you may just feel as though you've come home, yourself.