Garrett Saracho in We Jazz Magazine!
Who exactly is Garrett Saracho? The question has loomed over anyone fortunate enough to have come across the one-time Impulse Records signee’s sole release, 1973’s En Medio, a half-forgotten daydream of bacchanalian Latin funk and avant-garde jazz, baked in the California sun over one Memorial Day weekend in Santa Monica and since lost to time. Released in the midst of the ongoing dissolution of jazz’s sonic borders, with Horace Tapscott’s Pan African People’s Arkestra and the American Indian & Chicano civil rights movements in the background, the album is an anomaly in the Impulse catalog, seemingly in a universe of its own. For decades, En Medio – the man and the album – tiptoed undetected, invisible to the cultural radar of even the most well-versed, card-carrying members of the jazz cognoscenti, wholly unaware of any sort of reignited interest in crate digging or jazz at all. It took several years of cold calls and dead-ends, but in the Spring of 2017 I finally met the reclusive Mr. Saracho, a proud fourth generation Angeleno with Apache ancestry, whose silvery hair and sunken eyes conceal his youthful exuberance. Our meeting took place on the outskirts of Los Angeles in a studio tucked away in a nondescript industrial zone. A conversation with Garrett can go in any direction, because Garrett has seemingly been everywhere. His journey as a musician took him from East Los Angeles to South Central to Westwood and beyond, befriending one of the LA jazz underground’s most prodigal talents, the pianist Herbie Baker, rubbing shoulders with luminaries such as Herbie Hancock and Jaco Pastorius, and writing some of the most original jazz of the era, music that combined influences and tore them apart, constructing a new idiom for how Latin sounds and culture could be expressed in jazz. While my excitement was met with confusion as to why anyone would be interested in something so seemingly far removed from the present, Garrett was kind enough to grant me an audience and, over the years, share recollections with me: how he became a musician, the making of En Medio as well as the record’s cosmic misfortunes, and where he wandered off to in its aftermath. It’s the story of a brilliant and fiercely dedicated storyteller, whose persistence and uncompromising vision have remained intact and ambitions set firmly on the future. Today, Garrett continues laboring on what has consumed most of his creative life: The completion of a four-part play cycle, dedicated to the lives, hardships, and victories of several generations of Native Americans and Chicanos. As of writing this article, Garrett has just put the finishing touches on And They Were Challengers, his epic retelling of his father’s and uncle’s childhoods during World War II. At all hours in his studio, he continues to write new music, conceptualizing soundtracks for TV shows or revamping the songs he wrote when he was a young man. For Garrett, his best work will always lie ahead. Here, in his own words, is his story. This interview has been edited for clarity.
WOLFGANG MOWREY: Tell me about your childhood.
GARRETT SARACHO: I grew up in East LA, not far from North Broadway, where my pop grew up. It was all white picket fences, very aspirational, that sort of thing. My pop was a war veteran, who came home and became a graphic designer, one of the most successful Latinos in Los Angeles at that time. He had his own office in Hollywood. My uncle was a boxing trainer, he trained prizefighters and actors, over at the local Teamsters gym. I used to go over there a lot when I was a kid, and sit on a stool and just take it all in: the gangsters, the fighters, the jazz they would be listening to. Eddie Cano, Cal Tjader, Miles Davis. Back then, the people I grew up around were very keen on assimilating. Everyone who was in a band did dances, top 40 stuff. When I’d go to South Central, to Watts, it wasn’t like that. People let me into their homes, and I made some of my best friends by playing jazz. But when I would invite them over to my part of town, they would be met with all kinds of looks. One time I tried out for the varsity basketball team at my high school. I didn’t make it, and I took it kind of hard. At the end of the year, my coach comes up to me and he tells me that “the reason you didn’t make the team was because of the company you keep”. That was it, man. From that moment on, I turned away from sports, away from that mentality and just focused on music. I had my pop’s blessing, and that was what mattered. I started hanging around UCLA, eventually got in as a music major, and I never looked back.
WM: Was your new environment any more receptive to what you were trying to do?
GS: Oh, definitely. Me and the guys would do shows around campus all the time. It was like Shangri-La over there. We played fashion shows, sorority parties, and they loved us. We brought that South Central jazz culture to West LA. I was one of the first Latinos to ever win the Frank Sinatra Music Award, a scholarship they gave out every year. I won that with Herbie Baker.
WM: Could you talk a little bit more about who Herbie was?
GS: Herbie was my best friend. I met him in Watts. He was a few years younger than me, but we hit it off right away. I played vibes in his group, the Herbie Baker Quintet, he played piano, Roberto Miranda played bass. I met Horace Tapscott through Herbie, and we played a few shows with the Arkestra. We had an almost telepathic relationship, Herbie and I. I remember one time, we were driving around UCLA, and I got pulled over. I told the cop that Herbie was a hitchhiker I had picked up, and he told Herbie to beat it, and took me in. I just looked at Herbie, and looked down at the floor mat, and he knew that that meant I had a spare set of keys down there. Pretty soon we’re at the station, and the cop’s telling me that my car went missing. The next day, I go over to Herbie’s, and of course my car is parked right out front. He was just special, man. He died two weeks after we won the Frank Sinatra Award, in a car accident. When I found out about that, I had a nervous breakdown. I was totally despondent. I just got up and dropped out of school, left everything, and went to San Francisco for a while. I started playing piano in honor of him. I loved him more than any wife or girlfriend. We were just connected in a way that I will never be connected with no other human being.
WM: What helped you come back from that?
GS: I had to pick myself up. It was hard. I eventually moved over to Laurel Canyon, with my cousin Tito. We had this great place on Weepah Way, on top of the hill right where the canyon opens up, so all these homes were facing our patio, and if you played music it would reverberate all over. Lots of people would come by then. The Doors came by once. I met a lot of people during that time of my life. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Airto [Moreira], Joe Zawinul, Jaco Pastorius. I met Buddy Miles, which led to me playing with Jimi Hendrix one night in 1970, out of nowhere.
WM: What was playing with Jimi like?
GS: It was a trip, man. Buddy Miles was at one of our parties, walking around with a little lunch bag. I didn’t know who he was, so I went up to him, asked if he’s good. He tells me to come down to Hollywood, to play at this club by the Motown office on Sunset, so me and my cousin load up our van, get our two great danes, and head over there. When we get there, there’s a crowd outside, and all of a sudden John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin pulls up, and then Jimi Hendrix. I’m thinking this must be some kind of prank that my cousin is putting me on, but he has no clue what’s going on either. We get called on stage, and Buddy is behind the kit, and Jimi is up next to my vibes. He turns to me and says, “I dig the way you play them vibes, man.” I tell him, “Thanks Jimi, but there’s no way you’re gonna hear me.” He wails on his guitar, looks back at me, and says, “I’ll hear you, brother!” That actually happened!
WM: So when did you first conceive En Medio?
GS: Well, a lot of those songs had existed in some shape from when I was in college. I had songs that I had played with the Quintet, some that I had just written. I would workshop new material over at the Troubadour, at their open mic nights. Ronnie Laws would sometimes play with me. I wanted to make En Medio as a tribute to Herbie, to honor his memory. I got a group together and recorded an 8-track demo with the producer Tom Wilson, and went to see Lee Young, who was an A&R at ABC-Dunhill at the time. They were the parent company of Impulse. I tried to convince him to sign me, but it didn’t work. I was way too nervous. At the same time, I got offered a deal at Motown, but they wanted to sign me as a band, not as a solo artist, so I turned it down. Eventually, after several attempts, Lee finally signed me to a one album deal. I remember him asking me, “Do you know why I signed you this time? Because when I asked what you thought of your music, you were confident.” Right after he signed me, though, he jumped ship and went over to Motown! So I ended up working with Ed Michel instead.
WM: How did the band come together?
GS: I put the word out, no ads, just asked around, and said it involved doing an album for Impulse. Three days later, I had a line outside my house in Hollywood! Roberto Miranda, I had known from the Arkestra and playing with Herbie. Owen Marshall, he was another one from that circle. Bruce Morgenthaler was just a teenager, but we had jammed together a few times. I can’t quite remember how I met Jamie Herndon, the guitar player. I remember he was from Texas. Lawrence “Patience” Higgins had played with Wilson Pickett, and actually lived not far from my dad’s office. Jeffery Bahir Hassan, Carmelo Garcia, both incredible percussionists. Carmelo had played with Mongo Santamaria. It was less so a band than a group of guys that I hired to do an album with.
WM: How did the recording sessions go?
GS: Quick. Overall, we spent no more than 12 hours recording the entire album. We worked fast, recording in four, five hour stretches.
WM: You can definitely hear that immediacy in the finished recording. I spoke to Ed not too long ago, and he recalls the session going fairly smoothly, that you knew what you wanted to accomplish before stepping into the Village Recorder, and he was fairly hands off.
GS: And there was still stuff that didn’t make the album! We had one musician, Charles Telerant, whose contributions got entirely removed. I had two songs, “Yo-Yo” and “Arroyo Seco”, which got cut. But Ed was great to work with, let me do what I wanted to do. “Sunday’s Church” is like a comic exaggeration about worship. “Happy Sad” is in reference to the contrasting masks of tragedy and comedy. One moment in life, you’re devastated, the next, you’re happy. It’s a neverending cycle. “Rose for a Lady” is very special. It’s meant to be a love song. I was thinking of writing something in a Chick Corea vein, with various rhythms and what not. “Señor Baker’’ is more than a tribute to Herbie, it’s about my real purpose in life, fulfilling something that both he and I wanted to do. “Conquest de Mejico” is part of a two part composition, the second part, “Aztlan”, we never recorded. This was about how people were beginning to realize that the feeling of triumph was fleeting. There’s this huge party, but it’s dizzying. Cortés may have conquered Mexico, but he died penniless.
WM: Tell me about the pictures you took with the band, the ones that are displayed inside the En Medio gatefold.
GS: We took those over in East LA. That picture in front of the mural was taken at what was known as the Cleveland Wall. Marvin Palatt, the violinist, was the only one of us who showed up wearing a suit! The picture of me standing was taken over by a water tank in Laurel Canyon. It overlooks all of Hollywood. I had initially wanted my pop to design the front cover, but he declined, saying I should hire this much younger guy, Ignacio Gomez instead. I was a little bummed out, but Ignacio did a great job.
WM: Did the band gig much?
GS: We would play Royce Hall, and other venues around Los Angeles, like Shelly’s Manne-Hole. We traveled to San Francisco to go play at the Keystone Korner, over on Vallejo, where McCoy Tyner recorded Atlantis. The band would be billed as En Medio, not Gary Saracho. There was one gig, I got the call the morning of. ABC was filming a concert at Cal State LA with Jose Feliciano and Vikki Carr, two of the biggest Latino performers at that time, and they needed an opening act. So I get the gear ready, get the guys, and we head on over. A lot of other bands are there, like El Chicano, but we were the only ones who didn’t have roadies carrying our gear. So when the stage manager comes and says, ‘I need an act on stage now’, we’re the only ones who are ready! We do the show, everything is great, and I’m loading the gear back into my van, when all of a sudden, my cousin comes up and says to me, ‘Hey, there’s this guy who wants to talk to you.’ And over in the distance, I see this big, older white guy coming towards me. His name was Ben Barkin, and he was the VP at Schlitz Malt Liquor. He starts telling me ‘You guys belong in Europe! You guys belong in Montreux!’ And as it turns out, he wants to put me in touch with George Wein. George Wein was the biggest jazz promoter in the world, and he wanted me for his festivals.
WM: So what happened?
GS: Well, the album came out around Fall of ‘73, but ABC-Dunhill didn’t do much to promote it. A few radio DJs would call and say they loved the album, and we got written about in Downbeat and in the Los Angeles Times, but that was it. Downbeat gave us a great review. They loved “Señor Baker”. I remember the only one of my friends calling to congratulate me was Herbie Hancock. He told me, “Medio, congratulations! You got a higher score than I did on my debut!” And I tell him, “Yeah, but you wrote ’Watermelon Man’, and that got you a Shelby Cobra!” Anyway, it’s early ‘74, and I get a call one day. “Hello, this is George Wein. I love your album, and I want to book you.” I was ecstatic, man. Then I come to find out that ABC doesn’t want to buy my radio time, that they’re not going to be pressing any more copies of my album, and I’m off the tour, and John Klemmer takes my place. I was told by Ed Michel that Jay Lasker and Howard Stark, the ABC executives, said it was because of the oil embargo.
WM: Ed Michel informed me that the higher ups were expecting some kind of crossover hit, and ultimately opted to only do one pressing of the album.
GS: Crooks, man.
WM: Did you ever try to do music after En Medio?
GS: Not really. I kept in touch with Herbie Hancock for a while, and I got to befriend Jaco just a few years after my album came out. We were really close, we jammed together a few times, but I never talked about my album. That was all in the past for me.
WM: Do you ever wonder how things might have gone differently?
GS: All the time and not at all. Once the tour fell apart, so did the band, and I just moved on with my life. I traveled for a little bit, then I re-enrolled in UCLA, I got my degree in film, and I fell in love with it. Do I wish things would have gone differently? Sure. But without that setback, I wouldn’t have found my way into the film industry. I worked in the labor department, and later ran the tool shop for Universal. And that’s when I began to develop my vision for my screenplays. I want to tell the story of our people, not just the adversity we faced, but our triumphs. Latinos, we helped build LA, and that story, the story of my father and my uncle, needs to be told.
WM: Tell me a little about the music you’ve been working on.
GS: I’m writing music almost every day in my studio. If it’s not scripts, then it’s music. There’s Native American songs, latin, jazz. When I got into film, that was all I focused on. The music I would be working on was for my stage plays. I had an album that I recorded in the late nineties called Dare To Dream, which never got officially released. It has some of the numbers I’ve written for my musical, which was then called North Broadway. I’ve been rewriting some of those songs since the eighties: love songs, dance numbers, rhumba, cha cha, you name it. In my earlier demos, they almost have a house music feel, because of the drum machines I was using at the time. Now, I’ve been trying out salsa versions, swing versions. Last summer, I got to work on a project that was really special, which will be coming out later this year. I can’t say much now, except that it brought me back. I’ve also been playing with younger musicians, which has been inspiring. A lot of talented cats have been dropping by the studio, and I’d love to get a live band together soon. There’s just a lot that I’ve been working on that I can’t wait to finally share.
WM: How do you feel about people rediscovering and taking an interest in music you recorded nearly fifty years ago?
GS: It’s funny, man. It’s like Rip Van Winkle waking up and everyone acting like he’s the hottest thing around.
WM: If Herbie Baker or your dad were around today, what do you think they would have to say?
GS: “What the fuck took them so long?”