[Editor’s Note: Follow this link to Theo’s tribute to Joseph Flip Nuñez on the Academe 2 page in the form of liner notes for Gonzalves’ CD entitled Novemberly.]
Presented at the Third Annual Pilipino Studies Conference, May 1997, University of California at Los Angeles. Special thanks go to Nelson Nagai, Jon Jang, and Al Robles for their valuable comments.
ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE
Listening to Joseph Flip Nuñez
by Dr Theodore S. Gonzalves
The l.p. shop isn¹t there anymore. Like many other stores selling vinyl l.p.s, they¹ve been swallowed by c.d. chains. I can¹t even remember the name of it. It was only about ten minutes from where I live a neon sign flashing “used records” was all that was needed to draw me in.
I scoured for the usual. I have a short mental list of absolute things I know I¹d buy if I saw it lying in a bin: recordings by Pat Suzuki (a Japanese American jazz vocalist primarily known for her Broadway performance in Roger & Hammerstein¹s “Flower Drum Song”), Duke Ellington’s album for string quartet (I checked it out once from the Monterey Public library about ten years ago that was the last I’ve seen it), and, of course, anything by Charles Mingus (that I already don’t have).
And then, right before the large section marked off by a white plastic divider for “Parker, Charlie,” I found it: “My Own Time and Space,” by pianist, composer, singer Flip Nuñez (August 27, 1931-November 3, 1995).
Recorded twenty years ago, this is truly a rare album; it was his debut as a leader on a session. I wouldn’t know what was inside, I didn’t have a record player. And so it sat on my shelf for two years. Too long, really.
I kept putting off recording the album. I was hoping to tape it at a friend¹s house: not enough time, they’re not there when you want to record, whatever. Recently, I went to a music media lab on campus, and recorded from one of the listening stations. While everyone around me was buried under their headsets with Bach, Brahms, and Haydn (class assignments, music majors, would-be conductors, etc.), I was digging Flip’s music. I finally had my recording, twenty years after he had laid the tracks down. Two days later, some friends called from San Francisco: Nuñez had passed away. It didn¹t sound like a joke; and they knew better than to joke about something like that. He was gone. I see the tape sitting on my shelf.
I met him at a barrio fiesta in San Francisco, organized by the poet, Al Robles. Nuñez smiled when he heard from a friend who introduced us that I played the piano. Oh yeah? he said. The young folk gotta keep coming up. We talked about keyboards, which ones to buy, which ones to avoid, which ones would fit in the back of a car. He was generous and unassuming, comfortable sharing some time. We sat facing a highly-trafficked area, clouds of dust kicked up by passers-by. Across from us, folks had set up tables to sell lumpia, desserts, plates of chicken adobo and pancit. Behind us, smoke rose above our heads as lechon, which had been spinning since the night before, roasted on a spit. Little kids ran past by us, tagging each other, slowing down only to eat their halo halo. The older kids, moving more slowly, more slyly, checked each other out. And the oldest of us sat inside, coolin' out with the music and dance inside the larger hall. Nuñez and his group took the stage later that day.
Jazz developed out of the multicultural mix of New Orleans at the turn of the century. By multicultural mix, I don’t mean an easy-going set of grooves, sweet melodies, and lilting ballads. Jazz music still has those, to be sure. Instead, I mean a dynamic, sometimes violent, clash of noises, cultures, bodies, and instruments. It was more than an experiment it was the sound of human traffic: languages, dialects, religions, foods, clothing, insider words, slavery, hunger, stolen glances, unexpected strides, and tearful jokes layers of experiences which resisted strict definition. Filipinos were and have been a part of that kind of American moment: a moment of creativity pushed forward by survival, imagination teased into the light by changes happening right on the sidewalk. Folks danced, sang; even burying their dead with the music. By 1935, public historian Marina Espina shows us that Filipinos in New Orleans were big part of that jazz-making community; even making their public mark by entering and winning a number of the float contests during Mardi Gras season.
While the steamships and trains took this music northward, up the Mississippi river, through St. Louis, eventually to Chicago, boxcars also brought the country¹s most popular musicians across the West, through Stockton and to San Francisco. It was here that laborers found not only common work and living arrangements, but also common recreational activities. Key changes in technology and industry helped to shape how Americans would relate to each other, how they labored under harsh conditions, and how they expressed themselves through their music. This was a time when populations in cities slowly began to outnumber folks in rural communities. Recording technology in the form of the phonograph revolutionized how people heard what was "popular". Dance contests around the country helped to define what was cool: like the foxtrot, the tango, the Charleston. The record business launched into a multimillion dollar industry in the matter of a few short years. As the U.S. headed into its Depression Era of the 1930s, with massive numbers of folks without jobs and the ability to feed themselves or their families, Americans struggled to keep their sanity through folk arts and music. Sure, the federal government stepped up its role in supporting documentaries and other artistic projects which helped to shed light on the hard times everyone was facing. Even the film industry, which took over as the most popular entertainment medium from records and radio, made movies which featured characters who stood up and through tough times, offering audiences a sense of what the individual could accomplish if only he or she put his mind to it.
But it was in the popularizing of jazz music that folks filled large, decorative dance halls. The rhythms kept workers afloat with a bounce that contrasted with the monotony of stoop labor in the fields, and the discrimination associated with domestic and menial labor. Jazz was the sound of liberation. Some even found work as musicians a viable alternative to dead-end pay; maybe even a chance to tour. Up and down the coast, groups like the Manila Serenaders, a large jazz combo, chartered buses, and blew into towns with the latest tunes. Of course, life on the road was never easy. They had to keep their instruments together, their costumes pressed, and, of course, to watch out for signs of being unwelcome in certain towns. For black porters and Filipino farmworkers near Stockton¹s Delta, the dance floor was better than standing in line for a paycheck. There, they found freedom from frustration with racism, impatience with themselves, and the dirt from their shoes. This was the unofficial jazz mecca for Filipinos, with its height between the World Wars. Music was everywhere: during the Rizal Day parades, in the Chinese gambling houses, at the taxi dances. You got the latest scoop from Ambo¹s Lafayette Lunch Counter, a popular hangout. Budding jazz historians should start digging into the life-stories of folks like Charlie Abing, Rudy Tenio, and other musicians who played (and continue to play) throughout the area.
With the 1940s, Filipinos found themselves again on the cutting edges of unique cross-cultural movements and moments. Luis Valdez’ play Zoot Suit introduced Broadway¹s highbrow culture to "el pachuco". You might even remember how Spike Lee opens his film, "Malcolm X". A very young, smiling Malcolm is wearing an outrageously bright-colored zoot suit. He and his partner, Shorty (played by Lee), saunter down a busy Harlem sidewalk. Valdez’ play and Lee’s film pay a small tribute to this newest of characters coming onto the scene in the 1940s: whether it was the jazzcat, the hipster, el pachuco, la pachuca, the pinay and the pinoy. The street was theirs.
Zoot Suiters, redefining cool, worked across color lines: adopting a new language, dance-styles, dress-styles, clothing styles. But it wasn¹t all about style. It was about who could call the shots on the corner, whether in Harlem or along L.A.’s Temple Street, or running down San Francisco's Fillmore district. It was about taking back something from the squares. And for the longest time, it was white teens who had all the fun. The zoot suiters stole some of their thunder. Making matters even worse from the dominant perspective was the timing: at the height of America¹s involvement in World War II, young Chicana/os, blacks, and Filipina/os reveled in the jazz age, drawing attention to themselves, and begged the question of their wartime loyalties.
They weren’t supposed to be invisible; it was about being seen. The drapes were important: finger-length padded coats, the wide-brim hats, over-pleated pants which tapered sharply to the ankle, and, shiny pocket watches dangling on chains drooping past the knee. The language of the youth was also another key marker. Like the pidgin of Hawaii's plantation culture, or from the boppers of New York, jazz fans and artists developed their own vocabulary to keep the squares guessing, to keep the music one’s own for just a little while. Radical heroes of the day like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker experimented with rhythm and harmony, baffling most white "educated" critics. The boppers of the day accelerated the tempos, re-worked familiar tunes, and found new limitations and possibilities for their instruments. It was unsettling, brash, and definitely not from Europe.
After the war, and to this day, Filipinos continue to play the music. But as rockers like Elvis Presley took center stage, jazz artists struggled with sales, distribution, and keeping steady gigs. Flip Nuñez represented some of the best of the tradition. Again, working cross-culturally, he found himself on gigs with avant-garde artists like Eric Dolphy, key figures in the crucial transition of jazz after World War II from bop to free jazz and onward. Later, gigging in Hawaii and with Latin-jazz/rock combos like Azteca, Nuñez continued to forge meaningful musical conversations in the same ways that Ellington did with his Far East Suites, or when Dizzy began to dig deeper into Afro-Cuban rhythms with Machito.
But it’s in his sensitive and careful ballads that Nuñez shines as an artist for me. Without slipping into cliché and parody, Nuñez' songs are some of the most badly needed lessons for Filipinos today. At the tribute concert for Nuñez held in November of 1995 in San Francisco, piano-vocal duo Rudy Tenio and Josie Canion sang through a whole set of Flip’s tunes one of the highest points for the evening. The tunes had an understated power over the audience -- making strangers feel welcome, helping lovers remember. What many of us can take from listening to Nuñez’ works is the notion of how we've had to turn to each other to create this music. Listening to the music requires us to check out how we got there, why we needed to sing when we did, and to (at least try to) know the folks who worked, danced, and played with us along the way. He sang of loving tenderly, of facing each other honestly. He did this with the heart of a poet, and most importantly, with a grand soul.