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John Santos: Bringing History Alive Through Music

Cole Thompson / Monterey Jazz Festival

John Santos leads his sextet at the 2011 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Cole Thompson / Monterey Jazz Festival

When John Santos takes to the stage in West Sacramento’s River Walk Park on Saturday, September 20, he’ll be bringing his special brand of Latin jazz from the Bay Area. Respected as an experienced educator, historian, composer, and percussionist, Santos continues the traditions established by great Latin masters such as Eddie Palmieri, Francisco Aguabella, and Pete Escovedo.

John’s passion for Latin jazz and his awareness of its historical context make him a valuable asset to his community.

“There is not a more historically aware musician in the entire Bay Area,” says baseball legend and music authority Orlando Cepeda.  

Santos currently teaches at the Jazz School Institute in Berkeley and the College of San Mateo.  He also conducts workshops, lectures and gives clinics throughout California. The topics of his lectures include “The African Presence in Latin American Music,” “Salsa for Social Change,” and “La Clave Misteriosa.” John knows how to engage his young students in the subject.

“We listen to rare recordings, we look at video clips, we analyze lyrics, study choreography, and look at how instrumentation plays into the specific aspects of Cuban and Puerto Rican music,” says Santos.

A native San Franciscan of Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean heritage, John grew up in a rich musical environment (his grandparents were professional musicians).  

“San Francisco has been a world destination for Latin jazz,” remembers John. “We have a long history of appreciation for this music.”



“I never consciously thought that I’d become a professional musician and educator,” he continues. “It just naturally happened via my enthusiasm and love for the music. I’ve been collecting recordings since I was 11. I have amassed a great body of material as well as having had the experience of working under the tutelage of many of the masters.”

John, in fact, has performed and recorded with a who’s who of jazz, Latin, and popular music icons, including  Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Max Roach, Billy Cobham, Zakir Hussain, Charlie Hunter, George Cables, and Arturo Sandoval.

Santos remains humble, given his vast knowledge of the subject and experience in many demanding musical situations.

“Even though Latin jazz has become a career for me, it also remains an avocation,” says John with an acknowledgement of respect for the idiom. “The more you are around the music, the more you realize how much more there is to learn. It is an incredible field. The music overlaps with history, social studies, language, dance, and the whole cultural experience of African diaspora.”

Santos performs with a sextet in the West Sacramento Riverwalk Park, September 20th, at 7 p.m. Admission is free. 

The lineup includes:

John Santos – congas, percussion
Saul Sierra – bass
Marco Diaz – piano
John Calloway – flute, percussion
Melecio Magdaluyo – saxes
David Flores – drumset


NPR: Monterey Jazz 2011: John Santos Sextet


Gary G. Vercelli

Jazz Music Director

Jazz Music Director Gary Vercelli produces CapRadio's terrestrial and online jazz programming, including JazzStream.org. He also hosts Excellence In Jazz and Acid Jazz and writes reviews of new jazz releases.  Read Full Bio 

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