SAX, SALSA and SUE MCKENZIE
If you have been to a live salsa gig in Scotland in the last 20 years, the chances are you will have heard the formidable sax playing of Scottish based musician Sue McKenzie. She has played with all our best loved homegrown salsa bands – Salsa Celtica, Rumba Caliente, Grupo Magnetico and others – and also teaches and writes music.
Sue has recently has been featured in a book called ‘En Clave’ by Saul Delhom (https://bailopinto.com/libro-en-clave-mujeres-artistas-salsa/). The book highlights the most influential women in salsa around the world in the last 100 years and more. A tremendous testament to her important role in the world of salsa, both at home and further afield.
This interview with Sue covers her love of sax and salsa and explores where it all started…
When did you start playing sax?
I started playing sax when I went to secondary school. It’s funny that they wouldn’t let me play sax right away, and said I had to play flute first (which I did) and even when I was allowed a sax I had to share it with someone else. We did week on, week off, taking it in turns! But I quickly became obsessed- I just loved everything about the sax.
Why this instrument in particular?
My Dad had a Glenn Miller double LP in his record collection and I used to look at the pictures of the sax section when I was really little and I remember being captivated by the pictures of the sax section on the inside of the cover – old black and white photos that had been colourised. Then when I was 9 or 10 I finally listened to the music and wow, the sound of that sax section playing together in a big band blew me away. I was obsessed from that second. There was just something about that sound, the way the different horns blended together. Then I discovered the Duke Ellington and Count Basie big bands. I was literally begging the school to let me play sax.
What was your musical training?
I had some great lessons at school with a fantastic Glasgow jazz musician called Mikey Deans and then went on to study at the Royal College of Music in London. I did a postgraduate degree in jazz at Edinburgh Napier University and have done various bits of study in Japan, in Portugal with David Murray of the World Saxophone Quartet as well as a sabbatical in the US at the University of Massachusetts.
When and where was your debut gig with a salsa band and what brought you to that point?
It’s a bit of a hazy memory (!) but I think I got a call at the last minute to step in for someone at a gig in Edinburgh somewhere with the Goats Stew Orchestra (now called Grupo Magnetico www.grupomagnetico.com). From there I then got called in to play with Rumba Caliente and then finally a call to join Salsa Celtica (www.salsaceltica.com) on a gig. They were already away on tour and I went out to join them in Greece (not a bad first gig!). I hadn’t met them any of them and there was no rehearsal so the first time I played with them was in the sound check on stage just before the gig. It was a gorgeous location – a little hilltop town next to a castle overlooking the sea. We had monogrammed towels, were taken out for a seven course meal after the gig and then to the beach for a swim in the middle of the night. I should say that not all gigs have been like that!
Alongside jazz, I’d listened to a lot of reggae and afro-beat growing up, so salsa just felt like a natural musical ‘home’. It also turns out that my grandmother (who I never met) was a great piano player and wrote some music. This was pretty unheard of for her generation and the small Scottish coal mining community that she lived in. She wrote a ‘latin style’ song and sent it to Edmundo Ros who, in the 1950’s, was a famous band leader in London playing at the Coconut Grove on Regent Street and had his own radio show. I think he’d come from Venezuela. He rejected the song but it’s a great story and I’ve got a photo of the headed rejection letter somewhere!
Do you have a favourite salsa song?
Inventando – Willie Villegas / La Rebelion – Alberto Barros (also anything by Issac Delgado and Diego El Cigala…..I knew I’d never manage to keep it to just one!)
What is your most memorable moment playing salsa?
It has to be playing in the club Galeria Cafe Libro in Bogata, Colombia. There were queues to get it because the place was so packed. I needed a bouncer to help me get on to the stage and the interval ended up being around an hour because so many of the audience wanted photos with us. The audience knew all the words to the songs and people had flown from other countries (including Brazil) to be at the gig, we even had people stopping us in the streets?! I think we were all blown away at the reception we got, it was quite incredible.
How do you feel when you are playing on stage in front of a live audience?
Playing live on stage can be an odd experience at times! The highs can be extreme and the lows equally so. There are so many incredible moments – playing great music, getting to travel to amazing places but like any other job there can be some gigs which are harder than others. Especially if you’ve been touring for a while and there’s been a lot of travel. It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling, whether it’s taken 24 hours of travel to get there, no sleep, horribly jet lagged etc, you want to give the audience the best experience. The best thing about music is that when you start to play, no matter how you’re feeling, it’s the passion for the music that carries you through.
How has the last 18 months been for you without live music?
Like everyone else, it’s been a tough year. I had a lot of international gigs happening in 2020 that had taken a long time to set up, and within a couple of days my diary was basically cancelled for the next year. It’s felt like a really busy and stressful year, looking after family and a LOT of home schooling! But I’ve been really lucky to have a fair amount of online projects happening – producing kid’s jazz videos for the Youth Music Initiative and Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival; being asked to do some online coaching in the US; and getting to work with fantastic students in Inverness region as well as Edinburgh, Newcastle, Durham and Northumberland Universities. Over the last year, like many other parents, the balance of home, child care and work has never been more stressful and challenging!
I have to say I haven’t missed the practical side of gigging like jet lag and packing but I have missed that musical and social bond terribly. I’m really missing my trio bandmates from Multifarious. Being based in three different countries (Scotland, France and the US) has been a real challenge, but we managed to release our first album at the beginning of this year and we’ve now started working on the next one!
Tell me a bit about how you got involved with the book En Clave by Saul Delhom
Saul Delhom had been in touch with Toby Shippey ( of Salsa Celtica and Grupo Magnetico) who then put him in touch with me. It’s such a beautiful book and a real honour to be included!
Plans for the future?
Keeping my fingers crossed for no more home schooling and a return to being able to travel a bit more normally. I’m looking forward to a quieter couple of months over the summer so that I can focus more on my own playing and writing (whilst keeping a nine year old entertained during the school holidays!)
Our thanks to Sue for her insight into why Sax and Salsa are what make her tick.
For anyone interested in joining us in Santiago de Cuba to learn how to play music Cuban style, click on this link for more details on our Cuba music holidays in 2022