This article is copyright 2010 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in the International Trombone Association Journal, Vol. 38, No. 4, October 2010. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

Luis Bonilla: Talking Trombone

by Antonio J. García

Associate Jazz Editor, ITA Journal

Californian-Costa Rican trombonist Luis Bonilla has described his musical style as reflecting his “natural inclination towards Latin rhythms meshed with rhythm and blues, free jazz, funk, rock, and even the sounds of AM radio from the ’70s. Employing jazz, with its improvisational protocols, as the foundation of my music maximizes the opportunities for individual and collective creativity and expression.”

Bonilla is a member of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy, with sideman credits performing or recording with such artists as McCoy Tyner, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, Tom Harrell, Freddie Hubbard, Astrud Gilberto, Willie Colón, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Billy Childs, Gerry Mulligan, Tony Bennett, Marc Anthony, La India, Paquito d’Rivera, and Mary J. Blige.

His 1998 album PASOS GIGANTES was named to Jazziz magazine’s Top Ten Latin Jazz Recording list of the year. He followed that with ¡ESCUCHA! (2000) and TERMINAL CLARITY (2007), the latter drawing inspiration from his mentor and friend Lester Bowie, with whom Bonilla toured and recorded for many years. Of his most recent release, 2009’s I TALKING NOW! (Planet Arts/Now Jazz Consortium), New York Times reviewer Ben Ratliff says, “The trombonist Luis Bonilla hears jazz as playful, rough, cathartic, chaotic, tender, swinging, funky, and inherently, demonstrably Latin. At any point in I TALKING NOW! his quintet usually satisfies at least three of those descriptions at once.” And that approach complements the sense of the title of the CD, which is a quote from Bonilla’s childhood as his father tried to get the attention of a noisy family at the dinner table.

I interviewed Luis in December 2009. In February 2010 The New England Conservatory of Music announced the appointment of Bonilla to its jazz faculty.

García: How did you and the trombone meet?

Bonilla: I enrolled in a class called Beginning Brass in seventh grade at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School in Los Angeles, California. As I sat in class the first day, the band instructor, John Rinaldo, told me he needed trombone players and chose the instrument for me. Quite honestly, I thought Beginning Brass was a shop class where I’d learn to make lamps and ashtrays.

AG: Which teachers, music and non-music, have influenced you the most?

LB: Certainly John Rinaldo. He was responsible for putting the trombone in my hands to begin with. Next there is Roy Main. He not only taught me a great deal about the instrument but in addition his guidance, love, and support helped mold me into the musician and person I am today.

My other major influence was Lester Bowie, whom I met shortly after moving to New York in 1991. Not long after we met, I began working with him. His unconditional love of music solidified my confidence and allowed me to take bigger risks in the music.

AG: What musical artists were you listening to as you grew up?

LB: The first trombone players to grab my attention were Carl Fontana and Frank Rosolino. As I began high school, my interests moved towards Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw. Outside of jazz, the first music I listened to was R&B, Funk, Soul, and Oldies such as Led Zeppelin (my favorite), Ohio Players, James Brown, Hot Chocolate, Little Anthony and the Imperials, The Temptations, WAR, Elvis…basically anything I could get on AM radio in the ’70s.

AG: What were your first breaks to get real gigging experience?

LB: The first regular gig I had was in late 1984. Trombonist Arturo Velasco (also a graduate of Eagle Rock High School) invited me to join the Latin band of Azuquita y Su Melao. This was my introduction into Latin music. Shortly afterwards, Gerald Wilson asked me to join his orchestra, as did Jack Elliot and his New American Orchestra. I also began performing with Poncho Sanchez and The García Brothers, which ignited my curiosity about Latin rhythms in jazz.


AG: Compositionally, you write across a wide range of musical styles; and your quintet on the CD delivers with fire as well as accuracy. Do you always compose with particular musicians in mind? Is it possible to keep your quartet/quintet together, or do you have to shift personnel now and then on a gig?

LB: I did compose the music on I TALKING NOW! with my musicians in mind. Each individual has the ability and dynamic range to play from finesse to absolute brutal strength. Another major factor in choosing Ivan Renta (saxophone), Arturo O’Farrill (piano), Andy McKee (bass), and John Riley (drums) is the extensive big band experience they possess. I wanted to create a big band sound with just the five of us. I’m very pleased with and proud of the results.

When we perform live, I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to present the same personnel as the recording. There are some dates coming up where we will have to bring different guys on board; but hey, this is New York: the best of the best! That’s why we’re here. There are lots of great musicians, which translates into no worries for me.

AG: I sit here in Richmond, Virginia and note that your composition “Triumph” apparently was inspired by the late athlete and activist Arthur Ashe. What connection do you feel to him?

LB: To me, Arthur Ashe is a symbol of integrity, compassion, and perseverance. His actions on and off the court were genuine and true to who he was and how he felt. As a jazz improvisor, that’s a plateau we all strive to achieve.

AG: You teach at two established jazz programs and so have no doubt met and mentored many fine young talented musicians. What do you find is the most challenging part of teaching? And what’s the best part of teaching?

LB: They learn so quickly and are always hungry for more. I’m blessed to have such dedicated students and am extremely proud in seeing the impact they’re making on the scene.

AG: Do you have any central themes that are at the core of what you teach jazz trombone students?

LB: To be a good improvisor, one must be a great instrumentalist. In addition to establishing a solid foundation as a trombonist, I encourage and guide them to explore within and to have trust in who they are. This helps brings out their individual voices. After all, what better compliment can you get than, “ Hey, you sound like you!

AG: So, as an “Iorican” myself—that would be half Puerto Rican, half Iowan—I have to ask you how your upbringing as a Californian-Costa Rican has influenced your life and music.

LB: California, as you know, is a pretty mellow place. My traditional Hispanic upbringing allowed me to see situations from a different perspective, and I learned how to adapt accordingly. Hispanic folks tend to be outgoing and generous. That, along with my tremendous curiosity, led me to play a multitude of styles with musicians from very different and totally separate scenes.

AG: And what was your work with the Puerto Rico Council on Higher Education?

LB: Several years ago I was asked by the PRCHE to evaluate the curriculum at the Puerto Rico Music Conservatory for its continued accreditation.

Specs & Speculations

AG: What equipment do you play on?

LB: I play a Bach 16M with a 36G bell custom-fitted. My mouthpiece has gone through many changes. It’s a custom Greg Black originally copied from a New York Bach 11C. The rim is 11C, but the cup and backbore have been considerably enlarged. I don’t really have anything to compare it to.

AG: What projects are ahead for you?

LB: We’re in the process of putting together a tour of Europe and North Africa for the Quintet in summer of 2010, and we plan to record a follow-up disc when we get back to New York in August. I’ll continue to teach, guest, and do residencies in the U.S. and internationally.

AG: Do you have any overall advice for a trombonist currently in school seeking a career as a jazz and/or commercial artist?

LB: Dedicate yourself to your craft. Pay attention to the details, strive towards continued growth, and be patient. To even have a chance, you must be undeniably good.

AG: Any other thoughts to share?

LB: It’s very important to ask questions and share knowledge. Being generous is not only a good way to be, it’s at the heart of how jazz came to be in the first place.

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Suggested Discography:


I TALKING NOW! (Planet Arts/Now Jazz Consortium), 2009

TERMINAL CLARITY (Now Jazz Consortium), 2007

¡ESCUCHA! (Candid), 2000

PASOS GIGANTES (Candid), 1998


PERCUSSION MADNESS, 2007: Luisito Quintero

MONTEREY MOODS, 2007: Gerald Wilson Orchestra

UP FROM THE SKIES, 2006: Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

SOAR, 2006: Donny McCaslin

KETUKUBA, 2006: Africando

NOCHE INOLVIDABLE, 2006: Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra

IN MY TIME, 2005: Gerald Wilson Orchestra

BEBO DE CUBA, 2005: Bebo Valdes

THE WAY, 2004: Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

ORIXAZ, 2004: Jorge Amorim/Hank Schroy

MI RITMO LLEGO, 2004: George Delgado

ELEMENTS OF LIFE, 2004: Louie Vega

WISE CHILDREN, 2003: Tom Harrell


NEW YORK, NEW SOUND, 2003: Gerald Wilson Orchestra

CAN I PERSUADE YOU?, 2002: Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

JUNGLE, 2002: Astrud Gilberto

NEW COLORS, 2001: Freddie Hubbard

MTV UNPLUGGED, 2001: Alejandro Sanz

MONOPOLY GAME, 2001: Toshiko Akiyoshi

LUCIA PULIDO, 2001: Lucia Pulido

GLOBAL EXCELLENCE, 2001: George Gruntz

BRANCHING OUT, 2001: William Cepeda

FOREIGN AFFAIR, 2000: Hector Martignon

ART OF GERRY MULLIGAN, 2000: Gerry Mulligan

TROPICANA NIGHTS, 1999: Paquito d’Rivera


TRIPLE PLAY, 1998: Gerry Mulligan

MY ROOTS AND BEYOND, 1998: William Cepeda

ENDLESS IS LOVE, 1997: Jon Lucien

ELECTRIC LADY, 1996: Nora Nora


COMBINACION PERFECTA, 1996: Combinacion Perfecta

CHILD WITHIN, 1996: Billy Childs


DICEN QUE SOY, 1994: La India


OTRA NOTA, 1993: Marc Anthony

DESERT LADY/FANTASY, 1993: Toshiko Akiyoshi

FIRE THIS TIME, 1992: Lester Bowie

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_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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