are many ways to measure the greatness of a musician.
You can talk dollars or awards or recordings or
even high-profile gigs. But for the best of the
best, put your money on the ones that other musicians
talk about. Among Latin bass players, that's Ruben
first big gig was with Johnny Colon in 1979. Since
then he's worked with Tito Rojas, Luis Ramirez,
Ray de la Paz, Willie Colon, Dave Valentin, Charlie
and Eddie Palmieri, Hilton Ruiz, Johnny Pacheco,
Jose Fajardo, The Fania All Stars, and the late
great Machito to name just a few. In the mainstream
jazz field there's people like Grover Washington
Jr. and Roberta Flack. And this is still a young
grew up mostly in East Harlem during the 60's
and 70's. But from 1969 to 1974 he lived in Puerto
Rico. It's where he got his first musical training.
An uncle in the states sent over a trumpet, and
Ruben took lessons from an old Puerto Rican teacher.
His father was also a musician who played classical
guitar, and Ruben learned something about that
instrument as well. It wasn't until 1977 though,
that he picked up the bass, in junior high.
it picked me. Nobody in the class would play the
darn thing. It was a big, wooden upright, and
from September of 77 to January of 78 I dealt
with that thing. Then the school got an electric
bass and I just switched."
then he's been mostly self-taught but spent some
time under the tutelage of the esteemed bassist
Venegas was my primary teacher. He was the one
who set me straight on this-is-the-fingerings
and this-is-the-way-you-do-things. In school they
taught me the staff and how to read music. With
Victor I got better doing it. He was bringing
me material and I would go on jobs with him. When
I started studying with Victor in 1979, he had
me on the acoustic and made my fingers bleed.
The action was so high on the instrument you know,
and I'd have to get the note out, and he would
press my fingers down on the fingerboard. Then
I got into the electric bass because I'd always
had one around, and started studying and listening
to people. At that time it was guys like Eddie
Gua Gua and Sal Quevas. Bobby Rodriguez
also played electric at that time, sitting down,
with his thumb. And swinging, all those guys were
swinging. Victor played electric also, on a lot
of things. I used to go with him and carry his
instruments and sometimes he'd have to double-up,
play electric and acoustic on the same job."
bassist Ruben credits with being his biggest influence
is the legendary Bobby Rodriguez.
is a god to me. And to a lot of bass players in
my generation and maybe the generation before
me too. He just had what epitomizes the New York
sound. He was born in 1927 and grew up during
the Be Bop Era. He's one of the few guys I know
who actually got to see Jimmy Blanton, one of
the true bass innovators in jazz, play with Duke
Ellington. Bobby played very melodically as opposed
to Cachao style, which is more a rhythmic style
like a melodic conga. To me it was like solo statements
in his accompaniment, which is what I like to
try and do. One of the main things I learned from
Bobby was how to say something without having
to take a solo. When he was growing up it was
in the Be Bop era. He was hanging out with guys
like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the
cats of that time, and he was influenced by them
and by the jazz bassists of that era. So he had
all that, and he brought it over to what he was
doing, which was Afro-Cuban music, Latin music."
Martin Cohen interviewed Ruben in the last days
of the 20th century, it was a time for taking
stock, for looking back as well as forward. For
remembering the music and the people that had
gone before and anticipating what was yet to come.
Martin asked him what musical memories were special
working with Tito Puente to me, is an honor. He's
even taken time to hang around with my son, who's
a timbalero. He was recording when my son was
about 2 or 3 years old, and he took a 10 minute
break and showed him his drums and gave him a
little lesson. And I cherish that. There was Machito
of course. And then there was Roberta Flack. Working
with her was special. Just her voice, the way
she sings the songs. You can't really deviate
much when you're playing ballads. You just have
to play what's there and what's right. You
don't play too much, just accompaniment."
addition to the fun I had playing with her-Buddy
Williams was in the band and Barry Miles-it was
a learning experience: keep it clean, keep it
would also have to say working with Grover Washington
Jr. was special. How we met was Sergio George
was producing tracks and Sergio was going to go
and put the saxophone track down, and he said,
You want to go to Philadelphia? And I said, Let's
go, Let's used to be here to quote the great Jimmy
Sabater And that's how we met. I think that was
the fall of 91. I was on tour with Roberta the
next spring and we did a show at Wolf Trap, Virginia,
where we opened up for Grover. So I got to hang
with him a little. Then in 93 I found out he needed
somebody. Buddy Williams called me and said, `Yo,
they're looking for somebody. Call now, here's
the digits'. So I called and I got lucky,
I got the job. And I was actually juggling both
gigs, his and Roberta's, for about 6 months. I
had a great time with both of them."
musicians are not necessarily great human beings.
But unfailingly, when people praise Ruben's bass
playing they also praise his humanity. This is
a man people love for his good heart as well as
his quick hands. Long may he play.
quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin
Cohen in December of 1999 for MPR.
by Jim McSweeney.