Thursday, October 4, 2012

Interview: Latino trumpet master for Santana, Bill Ortiz

"It's been an amazing ride, all the places we play and the musicians I've had a chance to play with."

By Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor, LatinoLA: October 4, 2012

Bill Ortiz is the lead trumpet player for Santana - a chair he has held for twelve years and in the one million years yet to come. In addition to his world travels, Las Vegas showcases and arena gigs with Carlos' crew, Ortiz's sweet, assertive trumpet attack has made him one of the most in-demand players on the San Francisco Bay Area music scene.

His performing and recording credits include work with such diverse artists and groups as Patti Austin, Cachao, Don Cherry, The Dramatics, Destiny's Child, En Vogue, Sheila E, James Ingram, Tito Puente, Flora Purim and Airto, Todd Rundgren, Arturo Sandoval, Boz Scaggs, TLC, Tony! Toni! Tone!, Cecil Taylor, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and Steve Winwood. In addition, Bill has been very active as a studio musician in Hip-Hop, R&B and Jazz.

A proud San Francisco native, Bill took up the trumpet at age ten and played in R&B bands as a teenager. He feels that this experience was invaluable to his subsequent jazz work. "I consider myself a jazz player," he said, "but my musical upbringing contains a large amount of Latin playing - I'm part Cuban myself, and I started out playing R&B. What I'm trying to do with my music is reflect all those elements of who I am as a musician. It's basically all African music; it's all branches of the same tree. I'm not a purist at all. I try to bring it all together."

Ortiz is proud to present his new full-length release titled Highest Wish. A follow up to his Winter in America EP released earlier this year, this new album project features conscious emcees such as Casual, The Grouch, Zumbi (of Zion I) and K-Maxx, as well as fellow Santana member (and eleven time Grammy Award Winner) Tony Lindsey, and iconic poet/vocalist Linda Tillery, featured with a spoken word performance of Dr. Martin Luther King's Nobel Peace Prize speech.

Bill said, "Carlos has always used music to inspire and bring people together. I try to follow in that tradition. I've been really inspired by some of the Bay Area hip-hop artists like Casual, Zumbi and the Grouch who make music with enlightened lyrics." When it comes to choosing his guest artists, "We often celebrate ignorance in our society, so I wanted to celebrate consciousness."

On his EP, which charted in the top ten on CMJ's hip hop charts for over a month, Ortiz covers Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson's 1973 hit on the track Winter in America as an homage to the recently departed Heron. The concept video for this track has been featured on many mainstream hip-hop websites. Contributing Editor Dr. AC had an opportunity to get to know and now tell an interesting story about another one of his friends from the Santana Family.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (Dr. AC): Why did you decide on becoming a musician? Why the trumpet? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up?

Bill Ortiz (BO): Well, before I started playing the trumpet, music already played a big part of my life during my early years. My parents played music in the house a lot and had a pretty extensive record collection- everything from classical and pop music at the time to soundtracks for movies and plays - stuff that is referred to sometimes and the 'great American Songbook', songs that became jazz standards.

The one record that made the biggest impression was called "Satchmo The Great"- Louis Armstrong performing live with Louis Armstrong performing live with a full orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. We also had a few records of Louis' Hot 5 and Hot 7 bands.

In addition to that, I was ALWAYS listening to the radio. Top 40 at that time was still an important model for radio, much more eclectic and less programmed than it is today. You would hear everything from Motown to Sly and The Family Stone to The Beatles to anything else you could think of. When the high school band came down the hill to my elementary school recruiting for our music program, I was all in. My folks said yes to the trumpet because when they got married, the song "Trumpeter's Serenade" was part of their ceremony. Fortunately they said 'Yes' before they found out they would have to buy me a horn!

Dr. AC: Do you think growing up in SF affected your musical sensibilities? Back in the day the music in the Bay Area was quite eclectic.

Bill Ortiz (BO): Growing up in the Bay Area during the '70's had a huge impact on my musical sensibilities, and that foundation is still strong today. I consider this era of music as a real golden age- it was paramount for many artists at that time to be innovative, progressive and conscious minded, at least the ones I gravitated to. In addition to all the great music coming out of the bay area such as Sly, Santana, and Graham Central Station- there was Curtis Mayfield, Weather Report, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, the whole punk movement, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder with "Inner visions", The Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson Band, '70's Miles Davis and all the great vocal groups coming out of Philly.

When you can throw in such voices as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dick Gregory and Alex Haley with "Roots" -- it was a pretty heady time. Most musicians I hung out with at that time strived to find always something new and innovative to play, and to have their own sound and approach. There weren't that many young musicians in suits running around putting down anything that wasn't 50 years old.

Dr. AC: Was it when you landed first chair in the SF All City Band that you decided to make music a career? Who inspired you to pursuit your dreams?

Bill Ortiz (BO): Although I was first chair at All-City Band and started playing in bars with R&B bands at 16, I didn't really decide to be a full time musician/artist until my senior year. What inspired me to choose that path was a private music teacher I had named Ron Madden, a student at San Francisco State College at the time. Ron was a remarkable teacher who taught me a lot about the whole creative process of improvisation, and how different musicians approached it -- Miles, Wayne Shorter, and John Coltrane. He helped me to understand what was behind licks and scales. I also studied with trumpet guru John Coppola, who also not only helped me to get a clue with improvising but helped me with my embouchure and the mechanics of the horn. I owe them both everything.

Dr. AC: As a teenager you started playing local clubs. What was that first experience like? Did you do R&B and Top 40 cover tunes? What did you family think about you and the club scene? Any ridiculous memories of those days?

Bill Ortiz (BO): My first gig for a local radio station with a band called Charles Stanford and the Saints- I think I made a whole $15 or $20 bucks, and had the time of my life. We played mostly R&B and blues -- stuff like Tower Of Power, Sly, James Brown, Van Morrison, B.B. King, Donny Hathaway, Ohio Players, and Earth Wind and Fire. Off the gig, we'd play all kinds of stuff -- Sun Ra, early Crusaders, Freddie Hubbard, Coltrane. We didn't care; if we liked it we would try to play it.

In regards to ridiculous memories, I'm struggling to think of something I could actually share in public. I have one I was in a club playing a solo-maybe 20 years old. I thought it would be cool to start off with holding a high note for a real long time for dramatic effect. Being a young player pushing his high range, I hyperventilated and passed out for a few seconds. I ended up landing backwards into the drums and onto the floor. I look up and the bass player, still playing the song, is peering over me, saying "Damn!" I get up and finish my solo. The kicker is that on the break, some guy comes running up to me saying, "That was off the hook. How did you do that?" He thought it was part of the show!

Dr. AC: Who are your top five favorite trumpet players of all time? Whose style do you pay homage to? Who is your favorite horn band?

Bill Ortiz (BO): I can't pin it down to 5, but let's start with Louis Armstrong of course, Lee Morgan, Miles, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, Armando "Chocolate" Armenteros, Tom Harrell, Luis "Perico" Ortiz, Don Cherry, Wilber Harden…

Horn bands? All the Motown stuff, New Birth, Sly, Tower, Earth Wind and Fire, Chicago (up to the mid 70's), Ohio Players, Cameo when they had horns, all the Parliament/Funkadelic stuff, early Kool and the Gang.

Dr. AC: Did your ethnicity inspire your pursuit of the genre? Do you view yourself "ethnic" at all?

Bill Ortiz (BO): Being part Cuban, I did have an interest of learning more about Cuban music, although outside of my grandfather, I didn't have that much influence of Cuban culture growing up. That came later as a musician. As I started working professionally, I became involved in the great Latin music scene that still exists today in the Bay Area.

In my early 20's I started working with such artists as John Santos, Pete Escovedo, Francisco Aguabella, and a lot of other great Bay Area bands. I also worked with artists like Tito Puente, "Chocolate" and Israel "Cachao" Lopez when they would venture out to the west coast. As to being "ethnic", I think that would be all of us.

Dr. AC: Tell us about your college years. Where did you go and how was music a part of that? How did you get exposed to Latin music?

Bill Ortiz (BO): Most of my time in college was spent in the library listening to Coltrane and Miles. I was also gigging 5 or 6 nights a week and going to school the next day, and jamming every other minute in the practice rooms with whoever was around - usually a piano and upright bass player, maybe a sax player, too. We would play standards and Coltrane, Coltrane and standards.

Dr. AC: What was your first major gig and how did you land it?

Bill Ortiz (BO): I guess that would be my recording and doing a few gigs with Robert Winters and Fall. Robert was an amazing singer that had a big hit called "Magic Man" on the R&B charts- that was in my early 20's. I would consider my time with Pete Escovedo, John Santos and Peter Aphelbaum and The Hieroglyphics Ensemble as major gigs. With Peter, we played jazz festivals in the US and Europe- both by ourselves and backing up iconic jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. My first touring gig was Tony Toni Tone'.

Dr. AC: Tell us about Tony Toni Tone. What was that whole experience like?

Bill Ortiz (BO): All in all, that was a terrific experience, musically and otherwise. The band was just killin'- the core of the group all came from gospel music backgrounds, and they all just flat out played their asses off. Playing live, we'd add lots of elements that weren't on the original recordings- great arrangements, solos sections and musical interludes. All three of the principals of the group, Raphael Saadiq, Timothy Christian-Reilly and D'Wayne Wiggins are great writers and producers, and all the other musicians were as well. There were long hours on the tour bus with that band, 24-7 of watching Scarface, playing Madden football, brutal cap sessions, listening to gospel quartet music- lots of laughs and good times. We were having more fun then we realized at the time.

Dr. AC: Elaborate, if you will, on working with En Vogue, Janet, Destiny's Child and TLC.

Bill Ortiz (BO): My time with En Vogue, TLC and Destiny's Child mostly involved studio work, although when Santana played at The Super Bowl a few years back, Beyonce performed some songs with us as well. I worked with En Vogue along with a number of artists while working for the producing team Foster and McElroy, who also produced Tony Toni Tone's first 2 CDs.

I used to work the same club circuit when during my late teens and early twenties with Cindy Herron's sister- Cindy was just a kid at the time but already had a reputation as a young talent with big promise. What I mostly remember with working with Cindy and the rest of En Vogue was they all were just basically very nice and down to earth. Recording with TLC took place in Dallas Austin's studio in Atlanta.

I had the pleasure of playing on Janet Jackson's tour with Tony Toni Tone', who was the opening act. Her show had lots of high production- it's really something to see such an elaborate presentation every night, and to see how it all works behind the scenes technically with the video, special effects and sets ... pretty cool! She had a great band and dancers, and she performs her tail off too-it's a total show.

Dr. AC: Did you get type-cast as strictly an R&B player?

Bill Ortiz (BO): I guess it's pretty natural for people to define you by the work you are doing. Hopefully they like or appreciate what you do. I've been the "Latin guy", the R&B guy, the jazz guy, the Latin guy again, the R&B guy again, the guy who's never home…. I am very fortunate to have played lots of different stuff genre wise- it's all good.

Dr. AC: How is it to work with Boz Scaggs? And tell me about your long time association with Lavay Smith.

Bill Ortiz (BO): Working with Boz was great- he always has an outstanding band with top musicians and graciously gives his musicians room to play themselves. He's like Carlos Santana in the regard that they both never got away from being the inspired musician who's driven to play and listen to music. It's important for any musician not to get jaded and lose that total love for music, and the drive to play it.

Lavay Smith and her band are always a blast to play with. Her group is influenced by the tradition of such artists as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ray Charles. Lot's of world class players in that group as well- a great mix of older and younger musicians. Besides Lavay being a wonderfully soulful singer, her and Chris Siebert (co-band leader) are about the best people I've ever worked for.

Dr. AC: You have been with Carlos for twelve years. How did you book the gig and how is it living the dream? Is there a downside to fame and fortune?

Bill Ortiz (BO): I became full time band member of Santana in 2000, but had recorded with Carlos on his "Milagro" CD in '92, and gigged with him once or twice previous to my joining the band. He had also seen me play locally with various Bay Area groups. I also knew and played with several members that were in the band. After recording on the song "Smooth", I got the call to join the band.

It's been an amazing ride, all the places we play and the musicians I've had a chance to play with. The group itself is a band of assassins- Dennis Chambers on down. When we hit, it's like wild animals going after raw meat- it's the way of playing with total abandonment to the moment, like it means something to you. It ain't cute and clever. As for Carlos, long before playing with him, I always loved the way he phrased a melody- how he held notes out, milking every drop out of it, especially with the way he uses feedback. I've always been drawn to musicians and singers who had a special gift of lyricism.

In regards to any downside to fame and fortune, I'll have to wait to let you know if it ever applies to me!

Dr. AC: You did your first solo album "From Where I Stand" in 2009 and it was a huge critical success. Tell us about that.

Bill Ortiz (BO): That was my debut release as a solo artist. I feel good about that CD as being my first release, but it was also a huge learning experience. I believe that I've grown as a producer and musician since, and hopefully that growth is reflected on my newest release "Highest Wish". I guess growth means not making the same mistakes, but making new ones.

Dr. AC: Tell us about your latest release 'Winter in America.' Why Gil Scott Heron? Are you trying to make a socio-politcal statement and if so, what is it?

Bill Ortiz (BO): Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson produced some of the most important work of their time, and their music and words are as valid and timely as ever. It seems like we've come full circle and are back ... still dealing with the same issues and problems in society. The words of the song "Winter In America" are as meaningful now as they were when the song was recorded. The lyrics themselves pretty much speaks for itself as to what the message is. Gil was always quite eloquent and clear.

Dr. AC: You've said, "We often celebrate ignorance in our society, so I want to celebrate consciousness." What does that mean to you?

Bill Ortiz (BO): That's a question that could take up a whole interview. In short, all you have to do is look at the tone of reality TV, how our political and religious leaders talk to each other, how we resolve our conflicts with others, the general dumbing down of our society. Music doesn't always need to be about changing the world or bringing a profound message- sometimes it's about getting people from Monday to Tuesday, but it's important to have both.

Art has always had a place in changing social consciousness, and music definitely is one of the things that bridges the gap between people and cultures. I'd say that's a good thing, since we live in a time which we as humans are quite divided and often fail to recognize the humanity of others.

Dr. AC: You seem to have a serious understanding of Hip Hop as an art form and incorporate MC's into your work. Do you think Hip Hop is as legitimate an art form as jazz, R&B, or the rock you play with Santana?

Bill Ortiz (BO): The music of Hip Hop is as valid as any other genre that you mention. On a lyrical level, artists like Chuck D, Mos Def, The Hieroglyphics, KRS-1, Talib Kweli, Zion I and The Grouch are true artists of the word, as are Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Curtis Mayfield and Patti Smith. Musically, Hip Hop can be extremely innovative with harmonic tonalities and textures with the uses of samples and live playing. As a next step in the development of R&B, it's a blend of the great tradition of the music's past, and new elements introduced into the mix by the new blood and creativity of younger artists.

Mind you as in all genres, there are examples which don't fit that description. As Miles Davis once said, "music is like food, take what you like and leave the rest."

Dr. AC: Tell us about your work with young people regarding music education.

Bill Ortiz (BO): I'm a product of music in public schools, something that is being whittled away as time goes on-I see it first hand, not only by my involvement with music programs in high schools and middle schools, but also from my wife being a public school music teacher. I jump at the chance to work with young musicians because I know what music education in public schools meant to me.

Dr. AC: How is the Santana ride going for you so far? How long do you plan on staying on the road and how have other band members inspired you?

Bill Ortiz (BO): After 12 years, it's still a dream gig. I've become a much better musician from the experience. I've not only learned a huge amount from Carlos, but also from the experience of playing in front of such large audiences and different situations. Carlos enlists his band members to be present in the moment, to be focused on the note you are playing right now, not what you just played, how the audience might react, or what you are going to have for breakfast tomorrow.

He's looking for you to play with a total abandonment of everything but the creative act you are engaged in at that moment. It's about bringing it 100%, no matter what gig it is, how tired you may be- not phoning it in, EVER. When you see Albert King playing his ass off, making faces and in a crouch while playing, it's because he's in the moment, bringing all he has, not because he's mugging or cultivating an image or persona.

Dr. AC: Any cats you haven't worked with that someday you would like to?

Bill Ortiz (BO): Well, for starters- Erykah Badu, Mos Def/Yasiin Bey, Bjork, Pharaoh Sanders, Neil Young, Rance Allen….

Dr. AC: What kinds of plans do you have for the future and what would be the ultimate project for you? Would you like to produce? Start your own label? Teach?

Bill Ortiz (BO): I have a few projects on the drawing board that I hope to get to soon- hopefully a few surprises coming up. I also would like to do a project involving gospel music. In addition to the many jazz and R&B artists that straddle the lines between these genres and gospel music such as Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman, I've also been musically inspired by people like "The Rance Allen Group", Daryl Coley, The Mighty Clouds of Joy with Joe Ligon, Vanessa Bell-Armstrong, Lashaun Pace, and Paul Porter. I would like also to get more involved producing other artists- I love the craft/process of making a record. It's an art in itself.

In regards to starting a label, my wife Anna Karney and I run our own label together. She is a gifted artist/singer-songwriter who performs as "Karney"-you can check her work out at and She has some great releases available on iTunes, including here latest CD entitled "Love & Respect"-check her out! I also hope to continue to teach and pass along whatever I know. I learned by making every mistake you can, so perhaps I can spare someone else that journey.

Please check out Bill Ortiz at

Edited by Susan Aceves

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