Charlie Arbelaez: Making Music in the Pandemic
I have a distinct memory of the first time I heard Charlie Arbelaez play the saxophone. I had been invited by a band member (bassist Antar Martin, I believe) to witness the debut performance of a new San Diego-based band, (Coast Bop) at the sadly moribund 98 Bottles at the north end of Little Italy.
New bands come and go in the San Diego jazz scene, but Coast Bop had some fascinating items in their bio. Mainly, being led by two active members in the United States Marine Corps, trombonist Matt Hall and Mr. Arbelaez on alto sax. Coast Bop also featured Martin on bass, the magnificent Irving Flores on piano, and the always fluid Charles Weller on the drums.
I was curious to hear how that dynamic would play out and remember being blown away by the tightness of the band and especially the hard bop intensity of Hall and Arbelaez, who seemed to burst out of nowhere and onto the bandstand, kind of like a musical big-bang theory. Back then (August 11, 2013) I described Charlie’s playing as “countering with intense velocity, muscular projection, and a wicked squeal.”
At the time, I wondered where all of this bop-centric energy was coming from. Fast forward to the present, I had the opportunity to spend some time communing with Charlie remotely, via Zoom (this is the wave of the future, I guess, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic).
Our interview only made me more curious about Charlie’s music, so I dug into his self-released, eponymously titled album from 2015, which features a killer band comprised of Gilbert Castellanos, Matt Hall, Jason Shattil, Danny Weller, and Willie Jones III.
Charlie considers himself an alto saxophonist, and he mentioned the hallowed trifecta of Charlie Parker, Jackie McLean, and Charles McPherson as key influences in developing his personal approach to the instrument. He also considers the music of John Coltrane and Michael Brecker to be crucial.
From what I can tell, Mr. Arebelaez isn’t just a fantastic musician, he seems to be a genuinely nice guy. He finished up our initial Zoom interview by playing a wistful rendition of Benny Carter’s “Summer Serenade” for me, and when I took ill a day later, he delivered a bag of organic lemons and oranges to my house.
SD TROUBADOUR: Where were you born and raised?
CHARLIE: I was born in Brooklyn, New York. We moved from there to Philadelphia, when I was about four years old for a very short period of time. That’s where my brother Jerry was born. Then we moved to South Florida, to a town called Plantation, which was right next to Fort Lauderdale. We moved right after Hurricane Andrew hit, when I was five or six years old. A few years later, my youngest brother, Luigi, was born. So, I am the oldest of the three.
SDT: Were you a happy kid?
CHARLIE: Yeah, it was a good time. My mom and dad are both from Colombia and they are devout Catholics and that’s the way I was raised. We had everything we needed; there was an abundance of love. We went to church and were very involved in the ministries. I played soccer and I was a pretty good student.
SDT: Did you come from a musical family?
CHARLIE: As far as being a professional, I am the only one. My grandfather played a little violin, but that’s about it.
SDT: So, tell me about discovering music. Was saxophone your first instrument?
CHARLIE: I really wanted to play drums, but the band director said I should choose trumpet because the drum chairs were already filled. So I told my dad, but something got lost in the translation, because he bought me a saxophone. He always worked very hard to make sure we had what we needed.
SDT: Did you take to the instrument right away?
CHARLIE: Yeah, I was pretty quick picking it up. But the next semester when I got into the jazz band, the other kids were much more advanced. I felt I was holding them back so I told my teacher that I was thinking about quitting. He was very adamant that I needed to stick with it.
SDT: What happened next?
CHARLIE: I started to get more confident. I moved to first chair out of about eight saxophonists. That’s pretty good. I learned, little by little, but it was always what was on the page. I started playing off the page when I played for our church. I got better at learning songs. I still know all of the church songs in Spanish.
SDT: What else were you doing at the time?
CHARLIE: Eventually I got to high school. I was never into the mainstream. I didn’t really hang out with the popular kids. I always found my own way of connecting the dots. Growing up as the son of immigrants, I was very keen on creating a better future for ourselves. I’ve always been a worker and the one who would come up with ideas. So when I was 16 or 17 years old—I’m trying to find gigs. So, I would go to different restaurants and hotels. I didn’t have a band, just backing tracks and a speaker, but I was making about three or four hundred [dollars] a night!
SDT: Dang, that pretty awesome!
CHARLIE: I know, right? Like for prom night, I didn’t go to the prom, I booked a gig. I didn’t hang out. I went to all the football games because I was in the band, but I didn’t join any groups. I’ve always been on my own wavelength. I tried working at a regular job. I even worked at McDonalds for two weeks, and I quit and never went back.
SDT: When did the idea of joining the military come into play?
CHARLIE: In 2005, I auditioned for the Marine Corps music program and got a high score, so they let me choose where to be stationed, so naturally I chose New Orleans. A month later, Hurricane Katrina leveled the city, and I was notified that I wouldn’t be guaranteed a spot in New Orleans and that they would send me wherever they thought I should go. Meanwhile, we are seeing all the news on TV about the Iraq war, and my mom is begging me to do something else. To satisfy her, I auditioned to one college—and that was Florida International University. I got accepted there on a full scholarship and I won several awards around that time for jazz and classical saxophone playing.
I also played in shows like Grease and Hairspray, and then I set off to college in 2006 at Florida International University.
SDT: Did you graduate?
CHARLIE: Well, that’s where things get pretty interesting. It was my first taste of freedom. I was 18 years old and living away from home. Everything was paid for; my folks didn’t have to pay a dime. I had no bills and I still had a lot of scholarship money being direct deposited into my account. So I had money and I was young and there was a whole lot of life to be lived. I joined a fraternity. I was partying a lot. I went off the path and after a year, I dropped out of college. I started telling myself I wasn’t good enough, and, at the age of 19, I quit and became a firefighter.
SDT: Holy moly! That’s a turn in the road I didn’t see coming! How long did you do the firefighter thing?
CHARLIE: For about a year and a half. I stopped playing saxophone altogether, but I was still listening to music every day. I was listening to everything from Michael Brecker to Celia Cruz, because it’s a very diverse musical scene down there with all kinds of cultural influences. South Florida is such a wonderful melting pot of people from all over the world!
SDT: What brought you back to music and when did you decide to join the military?
CHARLIE: After about a year, I was missing music, so I got a saxophone and started playing for a month or so and, suddenly, I’m playing gigs again. Wedding bands, or little solo gigs playing with tracks. I didn’t know much about leading bands. I looked at jazz from an outsider’s perspective. I wasn’t one of these guys who grew up around it in their family. I was always trying to figure out what they were doing, which is still what I’m trying to do today. I was a good firefighter; I could have gone on to be a paramedic, and then climbed up the ranks. I was inspired to be a firefighter by 9-11. That was a big deal, especially for a guy born in New York. But I quit because music was really calling me. I even became a lifeguard for about six months at the Boys and Girls Club. And I thought, “what kind of career combines physical action and playing the saxophone?” And I thought about the Marines and maybe playing in the elite “President’s Own” ensemble.
I walked into a recruiter’s office and said, “sign me up.” They weren’t very happy with me at first because I was a bit cocky, but they remembered my previous audition from a few years back and I had gotten a little bit better. I scored very high on their scale again so they asked me where I wanted to be stationed. This time, I did a lot of research and decided that San Diego was the best place for me. So, on April 16th, 2011, I arrived at the airport from Virginia to be stationed at MCRD here in San Diego. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life. Perfectly shining sun in the impeccable blue sky, no clouds, and that wonderful cool breeze welcomed me to the place I was not aware that I would eventually call home. I think it took me one night to get used to that feeling. I began to investigate the scene and later that summer I met Gilbert Castellanos at El Camino. I think I remember his band included Katie Thiroux on bass and Mike Holguin on drums. I was solely focused on my career as a Marine at that point, but a year later I met my brother Matt Hall in 2012, and he really began to influence the way I approach music.”
I met Charlie when we were both enlisted in the United States Marine Corp. We played a blues (“Blues Walk” by Clifford Brown to be exact), and we discovered our mutual love for bebop and chicken wings—the rest is history. He became my brother. He and I have performed all over the United States together. We moved to pursue our undergraduate degrees at SUNY Purchase, which we did in two years. Now we’re back in San Diego and enrolled at San Diego State in pursuit of our master’s degrees. If I get called for a gig, the first person on my list to call is Charlie. As Dizzy Gillespie said of Charlie Parker, “He was the other half of my heart beat.” I cannot help but feel that way about my brother Charlie. We’ll be doing this for a long time to come—look out!
—Matt Hall, trombone
SDT: What else was going on for you back then?
CHARLIE: That summer, I joined Joe Garrison’s [band] Night People, and I got to play with Kamau Kenyatta. There were so many great players in that band: Richard Sellers and Charles Weller on drums, Ian Tordella on sax, Derek Cannon and Doug Meeuwsen on trumpet, Kevin Esposito on trombone, and Antar Martin on bass. These are just some of the members that are also part of the jazz community. Other instrumentalists included an oboist, a French horn player, and Joe was even experimenting with some electronic works from the mind of Dr. Chis Warren. We rehearsed every week at UCSD and we performed often. I’ll never forget my time in that band. There was no one else in the world playing the kind of music Joe Garrison writes. That experience definitely flavored my transition from the Marine Corp to civilian life with a strong dose of San Diego—meaning I got to experience the band that felt much like a family. While in that band I met many wonderful people that I’m still friends with like Julia and Bob Giffen. Julia is the daughter of the wonderful Frank LaMarca, and they were so kind to me. I learned a great deal about San Diego history just hanging out with them.
We always learned a lot from Gilbert and playing the jam sessions. Matt and I would don our Dress Blues and participate in the jam session scene of the Federal Jazz Project in April of 2013, which was a lot of fun! In 2014, I finish my four-year contract with the Marine Corps and became a civilian. I moved to La Mesa with new roommates Charles Weller, Kevin Jones, and Ricky Giordano. I was freelancing and teaching, but things were rough. Not a lot of money, not enough gigs. I really had to work outside the box to make things happen.
Soon enough, I was finding more work and booking performances. By January 2015, I was definitely on a roll with a completely full calendar! It was my first incredible month of many personal victories, but I remember one really nice gig that stands out at the time. It was the third or fourth time I performed at The Loft (UCSD), which Brian Ross had reached out to set up. The band included Gilbert Castellanos, Danny Weller, Kei Akagi, and Willie Jones III. I remember having a blast on that gig. I recorded a self-produced CD the next day, with Jason Shattil replacing Kei Akagi. You can only get the CD from me. You won’t find any of it on the internet unless you search on Jazz 88.org’s website. From time to time, some of the deejays will play my CD and so I think they document what they play on the air. Toward the end of 2015, Matt Hall would finish his four-year contract in the Marines, and in the next few months, we decided to audition for SUNY Purchase. In 2016, we moved to New York.
SDT: What was the reasoning behind that move?
CHARLIE: We decided to use the GI Bill, and after evaluating like every school in the entire United States, we decided that SUNY was the best deal. Basically, you pay state prices for school and you get teachers that are also teaching at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. But instead of paying $60 grand a year, you’re paying $6 thousand, so it was a no-brainer.
SDT: How was that experience?
CHARLIE: I got to study with Ralph LaLama and Gary Smulyan, and I owe a lot to Charles Blenzig and David Hazeltine. I loved participating in Kenny Washington’s jazz history class. Todd Coolman and Jon Faddis directed the big band and John Riley was there teaching drums. It was incredible to be surrounded by such a great faculty. It was also inspiring to be doing all of this in the Mecca of jazz: New York City.
SDT: Did you ever think about staying in New York?
CHARLIE: I think about New York City every single day of my life. It’s an incredible place because there is absolutely no where on earth like New York City. The music, arts, culture, people, food, architecture, the electricity in the air, and so much more… all combine to forge the effervescent rhythm of life over there—I absolutely love it! I survived two winters and completely experienced what it feels like to live somewhere that never shuts off. There’s a constant buzz about being on the move over there. The sounds are nonstop. New York City will always find a way to get a bite out of you, but it’s also interesting to see how these circumstances can change you. I’m not trying to complain, but simply put, this is just not my daily style of living. I just can’t live there. I like space. And time. And mother nature. I am absolutely fascinated with San Diego, because all year round, I go outside and truly enjoy it. So I just had to come back, and in the summer of 2018 I was welcomed back with open arms. This is more than a music community, it’s like a family, and people like Gilbert Castellanos and Holly Hofmann have a lot to do with that. Same for musicians like Rob Thorsen and Bob Boss and Mikan Zlatkovich. And Christopher Hollyday. Also, there is my peer group, to whom I am very grateful for sharing the stage with over and over such as Ed Kornhauser, Mackenzie Leighton, Matt Smith, Ian Harland, Louis Valenzuela, and Fernando Gomez. These are just some of the people my age who are doing what I am trying to do—get better at making music everyday. I value every chance I get to play and be around these musicians because they are wonderful humans beings. I learn from just hanging out with them. And, finally, I have also had the privilege of meeting and making music with very special and legendary musicians such as Charles McPherson, Marshall Hawkins, Mike Wofford, and Mundell Lowe, to name a few.
There has always been a sense of adventure when participating on the scene. One Wednesday night, Matt surprised me by coming to my barracks room at MCRD San Diego and he began to bang on my door; I was asleep. It must have been around 9:30 pm. He communicated to me a clear message using a few choice words which got me to move fast, so I cleaned up and got dressed. I grabbed my alto and we went straight to the Seven Grand, which was completely packed for Gil’s jam session. We went in through the back door, and as soon as the people saw us, they started clapping and cheering, and then they parted to create a pathway. We immediately marched right on stage as Gilbert announced, “These are my friends Charlie and Matt.” We played all night and then ended up making the hang at the Red Fox Room at the Lafayette hotel. It was already a great night, but then, somehow, a few of us ended up at a recording studio and laid down a track with Ed Kornhauser on an awesomely out-of-tune piano, Matt on trombone, Gil on trumpet, and Richard Montoya reciting a monologue. This was a truly epic night for me here in San Diego. Ask me if you want to hear the track, it’s unavailable to the public. The events of that night were all possible because of Peter Graves, to whom I am thankful because in 2019 he entrusted me to host “The Jazz and Cocktail Party,” which was happening every Tuesday night at the Seven Grand. The last night I played there was Tuesday, March 10, and to say that I am itching to get back to it or that I miss it seriously understates my true feelings.
San Diego jazz fans are lucky to have the young and talented saxophonist Charlie Arbelaez in the jazz scene. Charlie brings a prodigious array of bebop chops in addition to a huge sound that gives him an instantly recognizable and fiery sonic fingerprint. In addition to leading his own band and performing as a sideman, he is on staff as a teacher at the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory.
—Rob Thorsen, bass
SDT: You’re a year away from earning your master’s degree at San Diego State, and you are also teaching some classes there. Plus you teach at Palomar College and the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory. How did you manage all of that before the shelter-in-place order came down?
CHARLIE: It can be difficult to be involved with very little personal time to operate. Assignments, lessons, homework, meetings, rehearsals, performances, gigs, phone calls, emails, composing/arranging, recording, etc… You could quickly get burned out. You have to be smart, stay ahead, be physically active, source your energy carefully, rest well, and take care of your mental health. You must be able to make difficult and important choices. Sometimes you have to put others first and sometimes you put yourself first. But the bottom line is you have to hold up your end of the deal. And the magic is not in what you do, but in how you do it. Combined with a real sense of why you’re doing anything at all, the mission objectives can become very clear. I am very driven to know myself and seek self-improvement.
SDT: What affect has the Covid-19 shutdown have on you? How are you surviving it?
CHARLIE: My story probably doesn’t differ much from most others. I had plans. Friends from NYC were coming for a tour. I had gigs booked throughout San Diego—concerts, public and private work. We were ready to record a new album. It was really looking like a prosperous and exciting spring that would undoubtedly launch us into what would be the best summer of my life to date. Some stuff was being planned a year out, and there would have been lots of traveling. Suddenly every gig got canceled. Our way of life got canceled. The central theme—people are getting sick and dying. Humanity is going through a crisis together.
SDT: How have you been adjusting to all of these changes?
CHARLIE: I was making zero dollars on the internet, and overnight, I am making every penny from my work on the internet through teaching, recording, and collaborating. I was also a student and I had to learn fast. Technology is the future; the future is here right now. Making art and making money are two different things. We are all currently undergoing deep changes. Not being able to connect with others through music has greatly impacted my well being. I miss being around all the people and all the music. I know that everyone is going through their own thing right now and all perspectives are valid because we are going through something new that has never happened like this before. But I feel I should still share my feelings because this isn’t about money. I know the first thing everyone gets fearful about is finances. That’s why the USA is passing out money to everyone. Work, employment, and livelihood all go hand in hand with making money and paying bills. This is a major concern for a majority of the population. But the reason I make music is to share it with others. It’s as fundamental to my life as oxygen. I don’t make music to make money. Although I do acknowledge that I am now blessed to be in a position where all my income is derived from musical affairs. But I make music because I am addicted to it. Playing music, listening to it, learning it, learning about it, preparing and finally sharing it with the community—that’s what makes my heart beat
SDT: Any final thoughts on the crisis?
CHARLIE: I try my best to maintain communication with my friends from all over the world. Everyone is going through this thing right now, and it doesn’t look like it’s getting better yet. The numbers are actually getting worse, especially right here in the United States. I have friends in the ICU just barely recovering from this thing. I refuse to live my life in fear, but we have to be aware of danger and potential threats. Now is the time to remain balanced. Please think not just of yourself. I don’t think that there’s a right or a wrong way to get through this time. Some people are exploring their creativity right now. And that’s a good thing. But I strongly feel there is no real need to take unnecessary risks. Try to connect with as many people as possible, but also take very good care of yourself. Make sure you are getting high quality information, because I learned very early in life not to believe everything I see on TV.
This summer will consist of self-care and music. It makes me sad when I wonder how far away are we from putting on the next concert? But I pray that perhaps we might one day find ourselves in a transformed society and that we may experience a type of renaissance on a global scale, only because so many people right now are starting to get a clear understanding of what life is like when the culture is restricted. That’s my hope. And that is exactly what I will be preparing for.