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Ambassador Bob Hits The Road - Bob Dorough

Early in 2002, the Bob Dorough Trio applied to the U.S. State Department and the Kennedy Center for appointment as touring Jazz Ambassadors. Although the application process is a complicated and detailed one, the trio (which also includes Steve Berger on guitar and Patrick O'Leary on bass) persevered. Out of a reported 88 applications, 33 trios were invited to audition and seven trios were ultimately picked for tours, with each slated to visit a series of foreign countries – at that point, still unannounced – for periods of 4-5 weeks.

As many as thirty New York-based trios auditioned at Steinway Hall on September 22.Each group had been asked to perform in full "battle gear" – that is, using their portable rigs. For the Dorough threesome, this meant an electric keyboard for Bob, a cut-down bass for Pat plus Steve’s electric guitar. The panel doing on-the-spot judging included other musicians plus officials from the Kennedy Center .Meanwhile, still more trios were being auditioned in other cities. The theme of the year, as determined by the State Department, was “The Blues.”

Some weeks later, seven trios were notified by mail that they’d been accepted. (Two alternate groups were also chosen.) The Bob Dorough Trio was assigned to perform in… Latin America .On October 8, they played a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington (all trios are "kicked off" in this way; you can view the entire set right here) and on the very next day flew to Buenos Aires. 

Here’s Bob’s take on the events which followed.

All in all, we visited thirteen cities in seven countries (no, Brazil wasn’t among them) and played something like twenty concerts and/or workshops. The first few days were quite wonderful:  an entire week spent in one place, one hotel, in Argentina. Then, as the days passed, we gradually worked our way northward, finally playing our last engagements in yet another very pleasant city, Port-au-Spain in Trinidad-Tobago. For Steve and me, it was the first time to "cross the equator."

Throughout the tour, we were received and presented (as well as protected) by the embassies in each country. That was, in itself, a wonderful experience. Often we would, upon entering a new country, be assisted through the immigration and customs lines, then taken for a courtesy visit to the American Embassy, sometimes even meeting the ambassador himself or herself. Another pleasure was encountering numerous local musicians and singers, some through the schools and workshops we conducted and others through the normal circles that musicians rotate in. The names of these people and of the many embassy representatives and employees are too numerous to list. But suffice it to say that it was an enriching experience.

Still, I must mention Dr. Federico Gonzales del Pino, who accompanied us in the van taking us to all our engagements in Argentina.  He was the Cultural Affairs Specialist, attached to the Embassy in Buenos Aires.  No matter what topic came up, Federico was able to expound on that subject at length, drawing upon what seemed a world of experience and training.  He's a polyglot and as thorough as anyone could possibly be.  When we flew into Buenos Aires on the morning of October 9, he zipped us through customs like a bandit, had us at the Embassy in a trice, put some of the local currency into our pockets while advising us on its value, then deposited us in our hotel and left us alone until the following morning.

We began October 10  by attending a meeting at the Argentine Authors Society, an organization roughly the equivalent of our ASCAP or BMI.  While it was not too fruitful a meeting, I gathered that they (local composers, publishers and bureaucrats, some 13 or 14 of them -- we were outnumbered) were proud of their work in protecting the rights of their music creators and felt it was superior to that of the North Americans.  

We were relieved to get out of there and proceed to a workshop at the University of Flores, where we were unofficially joined by Jorge Navarro, a pianist of international renown.  We all played, trying to encourage the students to sit in, with meager results.  All in all, it was the poorest of all our workshops.  We saw more of Sr. Navarro in the ensuing day and paid a visit to his gig one night.  He's an excellent musician whom we met through my friend Jomen de Mello, a jazz aficionado who lives in Sao Paolo.  

The next day we played a concert (our first) in the Teatro San Martin, with a guest drummer, and with Jorge sitting in.  This gave me a chance to practice my "stand-up act."  On Saturday we were free and Pat, who knows his way around in Buenos Aires, took Steve and me to a flea market where we mingled with the buskers and craftsmen.  We also walked through a large cemetery where to visit the tomb of Evita Peron.  On Sunday, October 13th, the van picked us up and we motored down to La Plata for a concert at La Sala Astor Piazzola.  During this ninety-minute drive, Federico filled our ears with the history of the town, the hall where we were to play, and the tango.  The man is a veritable lexicon of cultural history!  After our concert, which was well-attended and very exciting, we were escorted to a different hall in the Teatro Argentina complex to catch the end of a concert showcasing the music of Astor Piazzola, played by an excellent tango orchestra.  Dazzled and tired after the drive home, we contemplated our move to the second country, with only one more engagement in Argentina, a jam session the next day in a musician's bar.  It was a melee of singers and drummers and hornmen.

On October 15, after a short flight to Montevideo, we did two television shows and a jam session, followed by an exciting two days of travel by van through Uruguay to perform in two other cities, Minas and Melo. On October 19, after playing at noon for every schoolchild in Melo, we made the long drive back to the airport and took a night flight to Asuncion,Paraguay,where we played our first residency concert. Hosted by ambassadors, these are dressy and highly enjoyable affairs, with food, wine and a multilingual, multinational audiences. We stayed in Asuncion for three full days and took part in the Fifth International Jazz Festival there - this one dedicated to the late Wes Montgomery!

Now the pace was really picking up. On October 23, we flew to Quito , Ecuador to play at the ambassador’s official residence that night. We traveled early the next morning (one must fly early in the Andes regions because updrafts become dangerous around 7:30 or 8 AM!!!) to Cuenca , still in the Andes but at a lower altitude. After playing at the University of Cuenca , we flew the next morning to Guayaquil, situated in the lowlands near the Pacific Ocean .Our concert there at a riverside site was a glamorous, high-tech affair with a huge stage and large screens (we were filmed). During it, we presented some famous musicians we'd met that afternoon in a jazz school workshop: alto saxophonist Luis Silva, Ecuador's premiere senior jazzman, and Hector Napolitano, a smashingly good blues guitar man! A well-earned day off was spent in sightseeing and shopping. Then we were off to Colombia .

Jazz Ambassadors are always given a briefing paper in each new country they visit. According to the one we were handed for Colombia, " Bogotá is the most dangerous city in the world!" We spent four days there, in an excellent hotel (with sniffing guard dogs), protected and escorted everywhere by the officers of the embassy and their drivers. Mr. Berger, always in search of a good ping pong match, took a couple of "dangerous" side trips - at night! - but fared well. Highlights of our visit included several radio programs and an exciting workshop at La Universidad Javeriana. Mr. O'Leary distinguished himself with a tough, no-holds-barred critique of student jazz players at the university.

On our first evening in Bogotá, we also were given a party by the embassy’s Cultural Affairs Officer, during which we met professional musicians, singers and teachers, many of whom had studied in the USA .Several of them join us at our October 30 concert at Colsubsidio, a superbly apportioned theater with natural sound qualities.

That morning, knowing that the concert was to benefit La Escuela Oasis – a school for hundreds of misplaced Colombian children – I awoke at 3:00 AM.   Ever since the few days in Uruguay, I’d been toying with a blues number and had only a few melodic and lyric fragments in mind. But something nagged me to arise. I was determined to complete the song and present it as a premiere that night.

Fortunately, my electric piano was in the room, since I hadn’t needed it thus far in Bogotá, and it was of great help. Wearing headphones and drinking coffee, I worked out the basic musical part of the composition. By 6:00 AM , I was in the hotel’s business center, typing on a word processor to put my lyrics in legible form. Two hours later, I called our friends at the embassy and asked that the lyric be printed - and even translated to Spanish, if possible. This was done and the sheets were passed out to audience members that night.

Further tasks still required completion: writing and reproducing a score for the musicians and singers. We’d already agreed to have guests onstage to augment our trio - drums, two horns, and a second pianist. Now I put out the call to our university friends and three background singers showed up at the last minute for a quick run-through. The sound check became a rehearsal and I forgot all about dinner and other niceties, working literally all day until curtain time. As a result, we were able to close our 90-minute concert with the world premiere of “The Whole Wide Whackin’ World Has Got the Blues”!

On our final evening in Colombia, we played a most relaxing concert in a small and intimate room at Bogotá's Binational Center. Since we had no guests and no axes to grind, it was an antidote for three weary troubadours and we played quite a few numbers from our regular (non-blues) book.

On Friday, November 1, we flew (at a sane hour, for a change) to Port-au-Spain in Trinidad-Tobago!  For us, it was almost like coming home!  No more interpreters, although local accents were sometimes hard to understand.  No more fears of kidnapping. And people so friendly! It was a great ending to our tour. Our hearts were looking homeward, yet we wished those four nights in Trinidad would never end.

The following morning, we had another school workshop scheduled. As we pulled into the school’s parking lot, we saw a sign reading "The School of Creative Arts and Music." Inside, we discovered much talent among adults of all ages. Among them were two singing ladies, one of whom requested that I do "Nothing Like You" for her! They both sang songs from the jazz repertoire and the instrumentalists were not at all loathe to perform. Soon we had a full-blown jam going, with a hot tin pan man, several horns and an older gentleman at the piano. They were playing a Trinidadian calypso and I sat with the ladies. Suddenly, they were teaching me the lyrics of the song - something about "rum" - and after everyone had played a solo, we took over at the mics for the out chorus: three singers and full accompaniment!

On Saturday night, we played another embassy affair held in an official residence. This event honored all the Fulbright Scholars able to attend – one of whom was the Honorable Roy Austin himself, possibly the most personable and hip ambassador we'd met. He also attended our Sunday noon  concert the next day, as did many of the musicians we'd met. You can believe it was an auspicious closing with many guests and another rendition (by popular demand) of the Demon Rum song.

Aside from these three jobs, we were allowed to roam freely on the island, with our own driver. We visited a pan yard and heard three or four amazing tin pan orchestras. The coconut juice, the corn soup, the homebrews and the sounds of love, laughter and clangorous music, mingled with the numerous impressions still lingering in our minds from the other countries we’d just visited (the KanDombeh drums, the Mourgas acapella music, the amazing presence of jazz wherever you roam), all combined into a happy muddle as we undertook our final journey on November 5 toward home.

These words are a spin-off from the report I was required to file with the State Department and Kennedy Center, once our tour had ended.  I feel that we did our job with overflow:  all our workshops exceeded the required time, usually ending with impromptu private lessons, especially from Steve and Pat on guitar and bass.  What's more, I feel that I was able to communicate the feeling of jazz and blues (thanks to lots of help from our interpreters) to students and other audience members wherever we played.  Needless to say, we three were the main beneficiaries of the overall experience.  And the memories linger on!

© Bob Dorough (July 2003)