Saxophonist Nestor Zurita shares his talents when he performs onstage but it’s a special person who can teach another to play a musical instrument. While Nestor taught himself to play the saxophone, most aren’t as quick to pick up an instrument and teach themselves to play-not like Nestor Zurita anyway. Miami locals are familiar with Nestor Zurita who has played at venues like the Van Dyke Café, Arts at St. Johns, Alliance Francaise and has concerts at the Gusman Hall at the University of Miami, the Steinway Gallery in Coral Gables, and the Bass Museum of Art.
This summer Nestor will share his talents at the Summer Jazz Camp at the Arts at St. Johns where he will act as Camp Director. This is a great opportunity for aspiring musicians from every level to learn from teachers like Nestor, who will be directing jazz ensembles, improvisation workshops and teaching jazz history. Nestor knows the importance of starting young as he started playing at the age of 15. At 17, Zurita began playing the saxophone with the University of Montana Big Band. After that he studied at Miami Dade College and later at the Manhattan School of Music, where he was awarded several scholarships. Zurita has also studied with musicians Steve Slagel and Bobby Watson, and also with Reggie Workman at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City.
Nestor Zurita is certainly no novice teacher by any means. He has taught independently as well as working with high school and conservatory students in Paris, Brussels, Genoa, and Miami. Before moving back to Miami, Nestor created and directed the Ecuadorian National Conservatory’s Jazz Program with an enrollment of nearly 1200 students. Here Nestor Zurita shares some insights on his life, his loves, and his music.
At what age did you start playing the saxophone?
I started playing at age 15, in Quito, Ecuador. My sister was studying piano at the time and she wanted to learn how to play the saxophone, so my parents bought one for her. I remember how exciting it was to see it for the first time. I thought to myself how beautiful it was and so complex with all those keys.
How did you learn?
One day when no one was watching, I put the instrument together and blew my first note. I knew then and there that I was going to dedicate myself to play the saxophone for the rest of my life. I pretty much taught myself to play. I got some tips from some local musicians but I had to learn mostly on my own. Since I didn't know how to read music, those first years I spent most of my time playing scales, improvising, and learning from the only jazz CD I had.
Why did you choose the saxophone as your instrument?
Looking back, I think that it was the fact that the sound is born from the breath; it is ephemeral. Once you start a sound, it can be extended and shaped, but it is condemned to die with the breath. This death is an opportunity for the birth of a new note, and so the cycle goes on. This was fascinating to me. I believe that instrumental music is the closest thing we have to God, and it connects us to our spirituality in ways we are still not able to understand. The experience that a listener has of a live concert remains stored in the soul far longer than the duration of the concert. It is like an aroma from your childhood that, as soon as it is perceived, it brings pleasant memories from the past.
What or who has inspired you as a musician?
My inspiration comes from many sources. Human struggle is perhaps the strongest inspiration for me. I have witnessed countless great musicians struggling to keep their music alive against all odds. My son has also been an incredible source of inspiration. His smile, his kindness, and his unconditional love. Having to put food on the table for him with my jazz music performances as a source of income is a struggle, but it makes me feel triumphant when I do it. My students, colleagues, and every musician who has ever dedicated him- or herself to practicing are committing an act of non-violence. Instrumentalists are constantly defying society by the simple act of playing music. The government is constantly cutting funding from art programs. It is a shame. There is no point in having schools without the arts and music. Art and music defines us as a society. I am inspired by those artists who think outside the box. Those who use lateral thinking.
When did you start playing professionally?
Music is a way of life! Defining music as a profession has been a tragedy for musicians. I think a musician should be compared to a priest or a shaman and not to an architect, doctor or lawyer. I guess the first time I received money for playing was when I was 16.
What’s been the highlight of your career?
This morning! Every day that I survive as a real musician true to my principles is a highlight of my life. Today's society was not designed to include creative musicians. I know so many great musicians who have had to give up their music so they can provide for their families or to simply fit in the social scheme. Playing with Steve Lacy would be the most important jazz musician in my career. I lived with him in Paris, and it was a great experience. In classical music, it would be master pianist Jose Ignacio Diaz Gravier, with whom I played at the Gusman Hall long ago. He is a virtuoso and I learned much about pushing the limits from him.
Will this be your first time working as the Camp Director for Summer Jazz Camp for Arts at St. Johns?
Yes. I am very excited to be able to share musical experiences with everyone involved.
Explain your role with the Summer Jazz Camp.
My role is to inspire students to become better musicians and learn about the great world of real jazz. I want to prepare students for college auditions and for what lies ahead in their lives regardless of whether they choose music or any other profession. Music teaches you discipline, sacrifice, teamwork and leadership, humbleness, and to appreciate the beauty of life through sound.
Are these experienced musicians or beginners?
Both - we will combine the students in the accordance to their level of musical knowledge.
Will you also perform during Summer Jazz Camp?
Yes, the classes are hands on teaching approach! So it means most of the time I will have my instrument with me playing next to the students.
And we plan a concert at the end that will include the students.
Why do you feel it’s so important to work with young people?
I've been living in Florida for the past two years, and I've been fortunate to have a great following of people that come to my concerts. They are mainly people who are over 60, and it is totally opposite than Europe and Ecuador where I have a young group of jazz aficionados who come to my concerts. The elderly are so full of knowledge and I feel extremely connected with them, but 20 or 30 years from now they won't be around anymore and I want to have an audience! We need sensitive doctors, lawyers, and politicians and music does that for people. It provides a mystical understanding of the world. At the Conservatory in Ecuador I had the opportunity to work with brilliant young minds. They all enriched my life. I know that not all of them are to become famous, but I want all of them to have in music a companion for life. I want teens to gather to play music just as they do to play sports, and when they grow older, to get together after work, to play in a quartet or duos, just for the pleasure creating music together!
What’s your earliest memory of enjoying music?
My sister Kathy playing the classical piano and me dancing to it. I must have been four years old.
What do you have planned for the future?
I would love to say four more children, but the world already has a lot of people as it is. I want to play as many live concerts as possible for as many people as possible. We need to bring live chamber concerts to people's living rooms.
What are your career goals and have you met any of them?
I once read a book that was titled The Path is The Goal by Trungpa. That is where I stand. In music, it is difficult to define a goal because music is extremely difficult to define. I want to be able to change positively people's lives and bring them joy and pleasure through music. I like to believe that I have achieved this goal many times, but it is something that will be a lifetime objective.
Who’s the one person in your life that’s been the greatest musical influence in your life?
Charlie Parker, for sure. My dad bought for me, a Charlie Parker CD, which I memorized top to bottom. This was In Ecuador where I was raised. It was a fortunate coincidence that out of all the CDs my father could have picked, he picked that one. The Bird (Charlie Parker’s nickname) was the first jazz musician I listened to. Actually, when I came to the US as an exchange student, I thought that Parker was still alive. I was so disappointed when, in Missoula, Montana, my teacher told me he had died many years earlier. My teacher must have laughed so much in his office when I left.
How would you like people to remember you?
I really don't care to be remembered. Please recognize me now! I need to pay the bills at the end of the month! I see all of those awards given to musicians who died in poverty and it's a shame. Our local governments have to do much more with incentives for jazz musicians to continue. We need to appropriate public spaces with art and music. Florida needs to implement more measures designed to protect musicians, and find ways to keep the musical talent in the state. When I die I hope society forgets me as quickly as possible so that they can support the living jazz musicians who are still around. What I have to give I can give now!
While Nestor says he doesn’t want to be remembered, his performances are indeed memorable. The talented Nestor Zurita is certainly giving now, on stage and in the classroom at Arts at St. Johns. Those interested in the Summer Jazz Camp at the Arts at St Johns (July 18-August 18) should call 305.613.2325 or visit www.artsatstjohns.com. For more info on Nestor Zurita visit http://www.myspace.com/nestorzurita.