The worst advice I ever received was to get a government job. And it came from my mother.
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Heading for Carnegie Hall
The Mecca for any aspiring or experienced musician is Carnegie Hall, New York, one of the world’s premier concert halls. Once you’ve hit Carnegie, you’ve reached the heights. So imagine the thrill for local sax, flute and woodwind player Tony Paul (aka Tony Woodroffe), now registering his presence as a performer, at being selected as a participant in an intensive five-day workshop run by Cuban sax maestro Paquito D’Rivera at Carnegie Hall, from May 12–16. Originally alerted to the workshop (which aims to develop the skills of emerging young artistes interested in Latin jazz) by Maria Nunes, Woodroffe joined other worldwide applicants in the fierce competition for a place, not daring to think he might be successful. “There’s no way I’m going to get it,” he recalls, “but I’ll apply.” D’Rivera obviously thought otherwise and next week Woodroffe wings out to the Big Apple to take his rightful place among the new set of Young Turks, who will be taking Latin jazz on some giant steps.
Those who have been following Woodroffe’s career will not be entirely surprised at his winning a place. Following in the footsteps of fellow Fatima College alumnus, jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles, he has already reached discerning ears and audiences far beyond the shores of Trinidad. Most recently Woodroffe made his first appearance as a solo artiste at the Tobago Jazz Experience. It’s never been easy for jazz music or jazz musicians in Trinidad, or indeed the Caribbean, where despite a long tradition of Creole jazz (reaching as far back as the 1880s when experiments with the beguine in Martinique matched Scott Joplin’s syncopations in New Orleans) popular musical taste is shaped either by Carnival genres, roots and dance music or transnational fashions.
Woodroffe’s interest was initially sparked by his musician father’s friend kaiso-jazz pioneer Clive Zanda, and his teacher at Fatima, composer/arranger and pan virtuoso Ray Holman.
After A-levels, he played with Ernesto Garcia’s Latin Jazz band and Joel Perez’s Fuego Latino. He cut his performing teeth at such venues as the Country Club, Squeeze Bar and the inimitable Arthur’s in St James. It was a Squeeze Bar gig that first brought both him and Etienne Charles to the attention of Chantal Esdelle, our local young jazz diva and founder of the band élan parlé (which has already distinguished itself by appearing at the Havana Jazz festival). With limited opportunities to develop at home, Woodroffe shipped out to the UK, where he studied at the prestigious Leeds College of Music 2006–9, earning a BA (Hons) in jazz studies. At Leeds, he had the opportunity of playing with legendary Cuban violinist Omar Puente, while extending his instrumental expertise, so he’s now proficient not only on sax and flute but also on clarinet and bassoon. At college, he played flute in the Latin Big Band and was lead alto sax in the Contemporary Big Band. With college friends he also formed a traditional Cuban quintet, which gigged at the Leeds Viva Cuba venue.
One of the highlights of playing with the Contemporary Big Band was a concert performing composer/trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Time Suite: “It was so surreal…the music was gorgeous and we were playing it with the writer of the music…The underlying thought in my mind was I wanted to play my part as perfectly as I could manage because it was such an honour to be part of that performance.” After graduating, Woodroffe returned home where he’s been passing on his expertise and passion for excellence to UTT performing arts students in his capacity as senior instructor of woodwinds.
While he’s now made his mark on the local jazz scene (with performances at Tobago Jazz Experience and Jazz on the Beach at Mt Irvine), the call to Carnegie Hall could not be more fortuitous in terms of his personal development. “Since completing my time at Leeds I haven’t had the opportunity to play in a dedicated Latin group that only plays Latin standards.” Headlining in Tobago recently was gratifying but he’s more excited at the prospect of his Big Apple time: “I’ve been looking forward to this more. I miss being in an environment where everyone is on top of their game, it really helps.” Although he has some trepidation (“I’m gonna get my a-- kicked”) he’s more than willing to give it his best blow, as besides the superb opportunity for personal development “Anything I learn there I can use at UTT.”