Bio: Trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez is a visual artist, broadcaster, writer, educator, linguist/translator, and world traveler who has recorded 45 CD's, 10 LP's, and one 7" as a leader for European and American jazz labels. He has played with many of the leading lights in the international jazz scene, as well as performed in festivals, concerts, workshops, and television and radio programs throughout Asia, Europe, Central America, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, and in most major American cities for the past 34 years. He is a renowned visual artist with exhibits around the world and is fluent in 3 languages. He has taught in Texas public schools for 38 years. His Yells At Eels trio, with sons Aaron and Stefan, celebrated its 13th Anniversary in May of 2012. He is also the dean of the Big Thought/Thriving Minds music program, La Rondalla. He is the author of two books of travel poetry called Cu and Xi.
Hometown: Mercedes, Texas (first 16 years) / Dallas (last 36 years)
Favorite Dallas hangout: Home
AHD: As a prolific interdisciplinary artist and educator, is there anyone common thread that connects all that you do?
DG: I have always said that there is not only a thread connecting my various creative endeavors, but there is also a thread connecting all of our hearts and our minds. The thread that ties us together is the spirit of creativity given to all of us by the God who created us. This ability innate ability to create, the spark of the Divine, was given to us by our Creator and motivates me in every opportunity I have to create.
AHD: You seem to require creative expression like others need air. Where does your passion come from?
DG: From an early age I was taught to express myself linguistically and musically. I sang in the church choir at age 5, learning to read music 2 years after learning to read English and Spanish, at age 3. I also knew that I had been given the gift of expression at an early age, and I remember being told by my parents that if we were given gifts, we were supposed to become familiar with them and practice them, or else we would lose them. So I sought out the various media for expression: especially sound, vision, and writing. I am comfortable with form and improvisation, and I think that those two elements are the best ways for me to reach people and speak to them about what I feel we are here to achieve: balance and peace.
AHD: As a jazz trumpeter you’ve recorded over 40 albums. Your latest trio turned 13 this year. Can you tell us about Yells at Eels?
DG: I have played jazz and improv for something like 34 years, and church music for about 45 years. Sometime around 1995 or so, after all that time, I became disillusioned with the business of music. My thrust in the musical world was to write and play music that was both artistic and entertaining, sanctified and profane, not in the classic sense of a dog-and-pony show, but as a way of reaching listeners; as a way of helping put them in touch with their inner selves; as a way of bringing people together. But the business of playing music makes this a difficult proposition. So I stopped playing concerts and traveling with jazz, and I decided at that point to just play from time to time with my Tejano/Norteña accordion trio/quartet, Banda de Brujos. I had gone through a great creative period, recording on several European jazz labels, traveling all over the globe to play, but that came to a grinding halt.
My sons, who were really young at that time, 13 and 18, continued playing their duo punk/hardcore music, to great acclaim, and one day, in 1998, they sat me down and asked me to start a trio with them, just bass (my son Aaron plays double bass), drums (Stefan is my drum-playing son), and trumpet. In May of 1999 after about 7 months of rehearsing and writing music, we played our first gig, a concert at the Kessler Community Coffeehouse in my Oak Cliff neighborhood of Kessler Park. We decided early on to try to work with local musicians everywhere we went by inviting guests to play with us onstage and in the studio. In fact, just this past September we flew the premiere Polish bassist, Wojtek Mazolewsk, I to Dallas from Gdańsk for a week of recordings, performances, as well as a workshop-concert for my Rondalla program. It was uplifting, eye-opening, and just plain fun.
Along the way, I added cornet to the mix, as well as some vocalizing, singing, and percussion, and Stefan added vibraphone and balafon. We’ve now traveled worldwide in the 13 years since we debuted Yells At Eels in 1999, and altogether we’ve recorded 10 CD’s, one 7” vinyl record, and one LP for various European and American labels. And the greatest thing is that our Dallas fan-base continues to grow and prosper.
AHD: How can we learn more about the trio?
DG: We have a really minimal blog (http://yellsateels.blogspot.com) that we update weekly (sometimes daily if we are really doing a lot of performing), and we are also on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/yells.ateels. We post some interesting pictures and vids, but we also share news about what we’re doing and where we’re going to play next. There are links on those two sites with some pretty amazing videos and travelogues, so we encourage all to visit the blog and the Facebook page to get an idea of what we do.
AHD: A part of your zeal for music
and education led to the creation of La Rondalla, a free guitar program for kids. Can you tell us about the program, and why you think it is so important to help others through it?
DG: I had taught Mariachi (Mexican folk music) at North Dallas High School for 30 years, but the program was terminated by one of the principals about five years ago, and I was saddened by what I thought was a great resource for the students who really wanted to learn to play music. A lot of our students were not interested in staying in school, but they knew that at the end of the day they could come and hold a guitar and let their cares flow away with the music they were playing. So, not only were they learning to play an instrument; that instrument was also “instrumental” in keeping them in school. All around these kids, their friends were dropping out, but not a single one of my kids left school early.
Two years ago, Margie Reese, the Vice President for Programming for Big Thought, the great after-school program enabler in Dallas, asked me to start a program like the one I had at North Dallas High, except that this one would be for neighborhood children in the Jefferson Boulevard area of Oak Cliff. We started in October of 2010 with 12 students learning acoustic guitar and acoustic bass. It took us a while to find our way, but this past summer, our advanced students were all over the news and early morning shows, playing music for the viewers and talking about our La Rondalla program and playing some wonderful wake-up music for viewers all over the DFW area. People started calling and asking for a place for their kids in the fall program, and as of today, we have 75 kids learning guitar, bass, and percussion, with a waiting list of about 35. We have pretty well run out of room at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center, but we keep moving forward with our seven instructors and our 75 students.
AHD: For 35 years you’ve served Dallas as an artist, educator, and even a broadcaster for the National Public Radio affiliate KERA-FM. With such a wealth of civic experience, how do you view Dallas’ creative community? How has it grown, and what needs remain?
DG: The creative scene in Dallas is cyclical, as is everything else in this world. We have times of great movement and progress in the arts, and then it seems like the whole city is dormant for a while. The most creative aspects of the arts in
Dallas are the “underground” arts, put together by people with few resources or money, without spaces to perform in, without places to rehearse, without cash to even be able to buy materials for the execution of their visual ideas. The larger institutions seem to hold their own because they have history and because they have money for marketing. But I think that it’s always going to be about the struggle to come up with money to pay the creative people in our midst, and on the other side of the coin, we simply must teach people to respect the arts and the artists in our community. The people who come to see us and who hire us to work for them are basically in two camps: those who want to be entertained at as low a cost as possible; and those who are still in awe about the creative process and still have a healthy respect for artists. Many people are not aware that, just as going to a restaurant to eat a great meal fills and nourishes the body; so the taking in of a performance, or an exhibit, or a site-specific installation fills our spirits and keeps our souls alive and aware.
AHD: In addition to your time in Dallas, you’ve also performed throughout Asia, Europe, Central America, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, as well as most major US cities. How has performing around the world changed your perspective, not just on art, but life more generally?
DG: I was fortunately born into a family with a worldview, an understanding that people are different from each other in interesting ways. I have always enjoyed traveling in distant lands, in places where the people are not like me, places where I can learn other ways of being, of speaking, of thinking…even different ways of playing music and making visual art. The one thing that I’ve always brought back is that we are all different, and that is what makes us alike. I’ve learned that the will to survive is strong in all of us and that we must share this planet, so why not take care of it and each other? Why not spread love and understanding? It’s really a rather simple idea!
AHD: What’s the next creative happening we should know about, and how can we stay informed?
DG: I’m involved in all sorts of projects at the moment…finishing up a video recorded at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center with Wojtek Mazolewski, Aaron Gonzalez, and Gregg Prickett; working on sending liner notes and photos to For Tune Records in Warsaw and Ayler Records in Limours, France; preparing for the Dallas Observer Showcase where we are running for Jazz Group of the Year; finishing up a large-scale work on paper with shamanic symbolism as a theme that runs through the work. I supervise my faculty and students and teach at La Rondalla Tuesday through Friday from 4:30 to 6:45. Plus, I teach Spanish and French full-time at Spence TAG Academy Monday through Friday. In the holes left when I’m trying to rest, I am also working on 8 gigs that Yells At Eels is doing all over Dallas during the fall. Lots more stuff going on, but basically, life is good, and I feel truly blessed.
Be sure to check out Yells at Eels this Saturday at Index Festival on the Trees Stage at 8:30 pm. You don’t want to miss it!