Maestro Leslie López: Ricardo Morales’ first teacher(2)

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Leslie says that Allard emphasized that it isn’t the quantity of air, but rather the velocity that makes the sound project. He said you have to have the sound that you want "en la mente" ("in your mind") in order to play well. In the beginning of study this is achieved by imitating the teacher, says Don Leslie. And, "Si no sale, uno tiene que saber porque." ("If it doesn’t sound right, you have to know why.") "¿La caña?" ("The reed?") Joe said you have to get used to it.

During his four years in New York City, in addition to taking his lessons with Joe Allard in the little five-story building next to Radio City Music Hall, Leslie joined the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802. At one dance job he met the famous bandleader César Concepción.

Don Leslie López with his saxophone, about 1990 Leslie returned to his native Puerto Rico about 1947 and joined the Orquesta César Concepción, for what became seven years, playing clarinet, saxophone and flute. The group toured often ("viajaba mucho") including trips to the New York Palledium, and to Maracaibo, Venezuela, where Leslie remembers playing 24-hour dances ("bailes") before the beginning of Lent ("la cuaresma.")

In the 1950’s he and five other musicians (Lito Peña, woodwinds; Luisito Benjamín, piano; Berto Torres, trumpet; Juan Vajanda, bass; and Manolín Mena, vocals) formed their own group—"la Orquesta Panamericana." The hotels in Puerto Rico were booming, bringing all the big name entertainers to town. Sammy Davis Jr. was the inaugural show when the San Juan Hotel opened, and other greats, such as Nat King Cole, passed through. For large events, the Panamerican Orchestra expanded to five saxes, four trumpets, one singer, and five in the rhythm section. They toured on and off the island of Puerto Rico, and, on occasion, played long parties in the Dominican Republic, invited by the dictator Trujillo’s son, Ramfis.

Leslie speaks of this time as an "epoca de respeto" (a respectful era) and is proud of his "35 años al lado de Lito Peña" (35 years working with Lito Peña.) Puerto Rican readers of this article are nodding their heads at the previous statement. Angel "Lito" Peña Plaza (1921-2002) was another of the island’s great, gentleman master-musicians. He played flute, clarinet, saxophone and piano, in popular and classical circles, studying, as Don Leslie did, at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico from the day the doors first opened in January of 1960. Lito was also a composer, an arranger and a band director, being the head of Puerto Rico’s Banda Estatal (State Band) for many years.

Here it is important to document a second, important family in the history of music in Puerto Rico—the Peñas, of which Lito was the second generation. His father, Don Juan Peña Reyes, was the music teacher in the Alcaldía (Mayor’s office) in the east-coast city of Humacao in the early 1900’s. Besides giving lessons to the poor children of the town, Don Juan made sure that his sons also learned music: Juan and Manuel played trumpet; (Angel) "Lito," Jesús, Germán played woodwinds, and Miguel played trumpet and violin. All were key figures in performance, as well as in music education, in Puerto Rico during their lifetimes. Their children (the third generation) include (among others,) Michelle, flutist and Kodaly specialist educator, currently teaching in Rochester, N.Y., and "Cucco," a trumpet player/Grammy-winning Latin conductor, who says "My father was very lucky to have friends like Leslie. As the story goes, they played next to each other for more than 40 years, and never had as much as an unkind word to each other." A fourth generation is also studying music, and Cucco’s son "Tito" is a recording engineer.

But, back to Don Leslie López, Ricardo Morales’ first teacher—Leslie was as much a part of the Peña family as he was part of the Figueroa family throughout many decades of the 20th Century, and they shared the exciting times of the 1950’s in Puerto Rico. The constitution for the Estado Libre (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) was approved in 1952 and the island began governing itself. Don Pablo Casals, the famous Spanish cellist, first visited Puerto Rico in 1955, deciding within three months to move there, marrying his beautiful young Puerto Rican student, "Martita," nearly 60 years his junior. The governor, Luis Muñoz Marín (for whom the airport is named) was a poet and a man of vision, and, consulting with Casals, helped with legislation establishing the Casals Festival (1957,) the Puerto Rico Symphony (1958) and then the Conservatory (1959.)

When the Conservatory opened in 1960 Leslie was at the door, enrolling in classes to study with Professor William McColl, the clarinetist with the Soni Ventorum Woodwind Quintet, and with Felix Skowronek, the flutist. Professor McColl recalls Leslie was "a great student, and an expert bee-keeper, as well." Another professor held in high esteem by Leslie was Juan José Castro, the Argentinian conductor. Able to speak seven languages and easily read scores at the piano, Castro told Leslie "Cuando usted crea que está tocando lento, debe estudiar 40,000 veces mas lento todavía." ("When you think you are playing slowly, you should practice 40,000 times slower yet.") Leslie credits Castro with teaching him that every note must sound. ("Lo importante es que cada nota suene.")

Thus, Leslie was one of the thirteen students in the first graduating class at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico in 1964. Recommended by Carmelina Figueroa, he was offered and accepted a teaching position at the "Escuela Libre de Música de San Juan" (the Free School of Music in San Juan) in 1967. This public school, established by Puerto Rican law in 1946, specializes in music for students in grades 7 through 12. Don Leslie taught for 35 years in the Free School of Music in San Juan, nurturing Ricardo Morales, as well as other noteworthy students, such as clarinetist Genesio Riboldi, Josué Casillas (now principal flutist of the PRSO,) and saxophonist Edgar Abraham Marrero. (Bernie Williams of New York Yankee fame is also an alumnus of the Escuela Libre, where he studied guitar.)

Don Leslie’s students speak of him with great reverence. Ricardo Morales calls him "espectacular" ("spectacular") and credits him with teaching him about the important things—"sonido, articulaciones, como practicar, y a tomar las cosas en serio." ("sound, articulations, how to practice and to take things seriously.") Ricardo quotes his teacher as telling him that in order to play well you have to be a noble person.

And Don Leslie, likewise, speaks of his students with great affection, saying of Ricardo "ese muchacho es bién noble." ("This boy is very noble.") Leslie says he has never believed in criticism, because everyone criticizes what they can’t do. He says he has always lived his life giving importance to the opinion he has of himself. He says "Yo nunca hablo mal de nadie—nunca, nunca—y yo hablo la verdad." ("I never speak badly of anyone—never, never—and I speak the truth.")

Josué Casillas, now principal flutist of the PRSO, is another of Leslie’s students who speaks of the great influence of his teenage years’ work at the Escuela Libre de Musica: "Perhaps the most influential quality that Leslie instilled in me was a sense of self-worth based on reality. Through my teenage ups and downs, Leslie was the anchor that kept me focused, disciplined, and always striving for the best. And he did it in a gentle, almost imperceptible way; through every word, every glance, he proved to me that my efforts had artistic merit, that I could really make it if I tried. And this factor alone gave me the impetus to make it through school at The Cleveland Institute of Music and to become the Principal Flutist of the Houston Grand Opera, the Symphony of Southeast Texas and now, of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. I still think of maestro Leslie with great reverence, and the thought of him still inspires me to be the best."

Now retired and enjoying his three daughters, eight grandsons and seven great-grandchildren, Leslie was honored on May 4, 2008 in a gala concert presented by the Escuela Libre de Música de San Juan. A man who doesn’t smoke or drink, he believes strongly in smiles, laughter and jokes as good medicine for life’s ailments.

In the words of his life-long friend and colleague Miguel Peña (Lito’s youngest brother,) Leslie "…Comparte lo que sabe y lo que tiene. Amante de su país y su cultura. Hijo, esposo, padre, abuelo, bisabuelo. Maestro de una legión de discípulos. Maestro de maestros. Transmite la civilización a futuras generaciones enseñando amor, arte, nobleza, cosas que sensabilizan al estudiante y se mantienen a través de su vida formativa. Merece llamarse Maestro." ("Shares what he knows and what he has. Lover of his country and his culture. Son, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather. Teacher to a legion of students. Maestro of maestros. Transmits civilization to future generations, teaching love, art, nobility--things that sensitize the student and stay with him throughout his formative life. Deserves to be called Maestro.")

And on May 4th, Don Leslie, coming slowly to the podium at the age of 80 to receive all the accolades, spoke simply, in these typically Leslie, beautiful words: "Muchas gracias, y que Dios les bendiga." ("Thank you, and may God bless you.")

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