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Big Music Feature

Men at Work

They May Be Internationally Renowned, but the Members of Rumba Club Are Keeping Their Day Jobs

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Skin Game: (Back row, from left) Josh Schwarzman, Paul Hannah, Ben Frock (filling in for Alex Norris), and Craig Considine; (front row, from left) Rudy Morales, Sam Turner, and (barely visible) Jim Hannah.
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Sam Turner
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Rudy Morales

Big Music Issue 2002

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By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 7/17/2002

Over the past decade, Rumba Club has generated a steady stream of recognition in its Baltimore base and beyond. But last year the 15-year-old Latin-jazz outfit earned two distinctions that neatly sum up its split identity. The band's fourth album, Radio Mundo (Palmetto), won glowing notices in such national organs as Downbeat, JazzTimes, and Latin Beat. And Rumba Club was singled out by Style magazine as Baltimore's best wedding band.

With its thoughtful layering of danceable Latin rhythms, ear-catching melodies and harmonies, and first-class solos, Rumba Club has earned the respect of the national jazz community. That this acclaimed band has simultaneously charmed Charm City's bridal consultants and event planners reflects its appeal and versatility. It also speaks volumes about the working lives of these Baltimore players--and about the challenges that face a longstanding band determined to stay close to its hometown roots.

"In the rest of the country, we are thought of as a Latin-jazz group that's doing some prominent, unusual things," says Josh Schwartzman, Rumba Club's musical director and bassist. "But here in Baltimore, people say, 'Are you guys still together?'"

The band's shrinking local name recognition is frustrating. Sam "Sequito" Turner, a well-traveled percussionist who joined the band four years ago, describes Rumba Club as "a hometown story" about "local boys who've grown up and are making enough noise that the whole world can hear." (The Club is rounded out by trombonist Craig Considine, brothers timbaleor/trapset player Jim Hannah and saxophonist Paul Hannah, percussionist Rudy Ramon Morales, pianist Tim Murphy, and trumpeter Alexander Norris; marimbist Orlando Cotto is no longer a full-time member but is called in to play tours.) But like all the other members, Turner plays in several bands.

"This is the first one that comes off my tongue," he says. "It represents very much what I want to do musically. If we could get 15 gigs a month, I'd be real happy."

But there are fewer and fewer places where Rumba Club--or any jazz band--can play in Baltimore. While Rumba Club remains a monthly fixture at the Belvedere's Thirteenth Floor in Mount Vernon, Norris says the group has outlasted "three or four generations of clubs." It has also become pickier about gigs, no longer working some of the low-paying clubs and dance halls it used to frequent. This year it may only play 50 to 75 gigs, compared to more than 100 per year at the height of its popularity in the mid-'90s. Today, Rumba Club would prefer to play more serious jazz venues out of town, or at major events such as September's Equinox Jazz Festival in Boston.

Maintaining that goal is easier said than done. Rumba Club has toured extensively throughout the United States, including several appearances at the legendary Blue Note and Birdland clubs in New York and a week-long stint at Los Angeles' Jazz Bakery last August--but it still has trouble cracking the international tour and festival circuits. Part of the problem is the band's size: "If we had four pieces instead of nine, we'd have traveled the world several times over by now," Jim Hannah says.

In the meantime, Rumba Club still works the occasional wedding--maybe five or six a year, Hannah says. It is one of the ways the members make ends meet. They can't be too proud to freelance with a wide variety of groups, some more commercial than others, and do nonperforming work--at least half of Rumba Club's members either teach music or have some other day job. Turner and Norris are the closest to full-time musicians, but they still do a bit of teaching. Murphy is chairperson of jazz studies at Towson University and an instructor at the Peabody Conservatory; the other members are employed in fields ranging from software development to piano repair.

Staying in low-cost Baltimore has helped the members keep the Club their primary professional commitment. "A critical mass of us are really dedicated to this pursuit," Hannah says. "We haven't imploded like most bands end up doing." The musicians regularly turn down other gigs to keep a Rumba Club engagement. Pianist Murphy--who's played or recorded with several notable jazz artists over the years, including Pat Metheny and Woody Shaw--says he wouldn't cancel on a Club date "unless it's for a job that's paying a fortune, or with [someone like the late, great] Joe Henderson. . . .

"If your expectations are to work a lot and make lots of money, that's one approach. Or to become very big really quick, that's another approach. But ours is just to make the music. It's really a labor of love, whether we're playing for $40 a man or at the Blue Note."

Though its core remains steadfast, the band's sound has shifted since its late-'80s inception. What started in 1986 as the Rhumba Club was a mainstay at local clubs as well as the fledgling Sowebo Festival and various Maryland Institute College of Arts events. It was a fun, somewhat theatrical party band that dabbled in African chants and rain dances mixed with calypso, rock, and jazz.

Over time, the band began specializing, largely by following the natural talents and inclinations of its members. Murphy and Norris, both Latin-music fans and well-versed jazz players, joined in the '90s and enabled the band to explore the Latin idiom extensively. "Once we started playing the Latin stuff more and more, we also started playing different rhythms [within that tradition]," Considine says.

The band's one-letter name change points up its musical evolution. In music, the label "Latin" covers Afro-Cuban rhythms such as yambu and charanga as well as styles that originated in Puerto Rico (bomba, plena), Colombia (cumbia), and other Central and South American countries. The Afro-Cuban styles in particular derive from bata, a form of religious music that uses only percussion, singing, and dancing. "Rumba" is the secular version of bata and was originally invented and performed by bata musicians. Rumba-without-an-h bears only a distant musical connection to "rhumba," the once-popular Americanized dance. The band dropped the "h" from its name in the early '90s as a commitment to a more authentic Latin sound.

That commitment helped Rumba Club slowly but steadily build its reputation as a Latin act throughout the previous decade. Staying together for so long also has made for a highly cohesive unit--so much so that the tracks on Rumba Club records are often first takes with minimum overdubbing. All four CDs, and especially Radio Mundo, are close to being live recordings.

The band's solidity coexists easily with a healthy openness to new influences. Band members note that Rumba Club has served as a permanent workshop for its steady players, and for a long list of substitutes and apprentices who, over the years, have often taught the permanent members as much as much as they've learned.

"This band has been our postgraduate work, our community service, our cross-cultural bridging," Hannah says. "Maybe you'll make some money, and maybe you'll get something to eat."

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