Some of the world’s best musicians go unnoticed by the mainstream. Talent comes in all forms, and Michel Camilo is one of the most gifted jazz pianists in the world. This piece looks at his life and accomplishments.
If you were only to listen to mainstream radio and mainstream media for your guidance on music, you might miss some of the world’s most famous and talented musicians. Michel Camilo is a Grammy-award winning pianist and composer who was born and raised in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Active since the 1970s, Michel specializes in the piano, writing and performing music that crosses genres from jazz and Latin to classical music.
An Early Start in the Dominican Republic
Although Michel is known around the world today for his jazz performances, it was classical piano music that first caught his attention. He developed his love of classical music from listening to the albums of his cousin, who played a selection of classic artists from his personal collection on a weekly radio show in Santo Domingo. He started playing the piano when he was just five, writing his first song at the age of six.
When he was 14, he discovered the art form that would make him famous: jazz. The first time he heard jazz it was a song on the radio, the solo piano rendition of “Tea for Two” by Art Tatum. He was hooked instantly. He became a professional musician by the age of 16 when he was appointed the youngest member of the National Symphony Orchestra of the Dominican Republic. This would provide the stepping stone his career needed to launch on an international stage, gaining recognition he may never have achieved in Santo Domingo.
And so to New York City
Make no mistake, Michel has an amazing combination of both inherent talent and classical training. His parents recognized his musical ability at a young age, sending him to the Elementary Music School, part of the Dominican Republic’s National Conservatory. Here he gained the formal, classical training to excel on the piano, earning him the spot in the National Symphony Orchestra. But there was also a bit of chance involved that would help him on his next step in life.
Michel explains that at that time the Dominican Republic was just inaugurating a new National Theatre. Had he not been in the National Symphony Orchestra, he may have missed his chance to travel and study abroad:
“They welcomed me very well. It was very important to be there for my formative years but also because at that time the National Theatre in the Dominican Republic was inaugurated and they brought 3 musicians from New York, American musicians. I remember clearly, middle of rehearsal, I went to the piano started playing Jazz and all the Americans came around and said ‘oh, you play jazz? Oh my God, how can you play that?’ and then they said ‘You should be in New York’ and they planted that city in my mind. One of them, invited me to come over, ‘I think you’ll love New York’, and I went to visit. At 17, at 17 years old!!”
Michel did indeed arrive in New York City aged just 17 years and pursued further education in music. He attended the Mannes College and The Julliard School, where he studied under fellow Dominican and famous pianist Oscar Luis Valdes. Michel blossomed under his mentorship, but spent his nights playing jazz clubs across the city, attending jam sessions, and even auditioning on Broadway.
Going International in Jazz
After just four years in the United States, Michel’s multiple endeavours garnered him greater attention. Even as he pursued post-graduate studies at The Julliard, he continued performing at jazz clubs and auditioning on the side for the pure love of music. One night in 1983, he was performing at the now-defunct 7000 on South club, and playing one of his own songs, “Why Not.” That’s when his life changed again:
“The lead singer of the group Manhattan Transfer, Janis Siegel, loved the song, it was instrumental at that time, but she asked me to put lyrics to it, and she would present it to the group, and they recorded it and they won a Grammy award in 1983 with the song, for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. The year after, I used to go, like I said, to the jam sessions, and one of the musicians who I used to play with played this mascaraed solo, he was Argentinian and he really liked the way I played it. He had a conflict of dates, and he needed to go to Montreal Jazz Festival to play, so he recommended me. … he had never heard me, so he called me out of the blue and said ‘Meet me on stage in Montreal, I’m sending you the ticket.’ Just like in the movies you know. ‘I need a piano player’ and I thought it was a joke, but no it was him, himself, so he said, but you don’t know how I play. He said it doesn’t matter, You’re recommended, highly recommended, I’ll meet you on the stage, don’t worry, trust me, just follow me, and I went there and he sent me cassettes to learn his music, which I did, and I went there and showed up.”
While Michel’s musical career was taking off, taking him around the world to places such as the Montreal Jazz Festival, Carnegie Hall, and the Jazz Festival in Paris, France, it took time for his family to come to love his music in the way he did.
Overcoming the Drama and Healing Souls
Michel admits that it wasn’t a smooth transition from student to professional musician for him, at least, not as smooth as it seems when viewed on a piece of paper. Behind the scenes, at home, it was a dramatic shift. Many cultures in the Caribbean do not view musicians as professionals. His parents preferred that he pursue it as a hobby, and focus on a medical degree at university instead.
He never did finish his medical degree, halting his studies with about a year and half to go. It was traumatic for his family, he admits, but he doesn’t regret it. He believes that all music, his jazz and classic piano pieces included, has the power to heal. Music is full of positive vibes that can be used to heal the mind, and he finds it interesting that some of his own songs have been used by institutions such as the Pentagon in the United States to treat emotional issues in soldiers.
Despite the heights he’s reached, he says there’s still so much more to do. He wants to continue traveling the world and performing, branch out into different areas and genres of music, and help the next generation of great jazz musicians. He lectures in Europe and the US, as well as at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico. The Berklee College of Music even has a scholarship program with his name on it that is geared toward helping young Dominican students.