John Santos

John Santos


   Oakland, CA

Five-time Grammy-nominated percussionist and US Artists Fontanals Fellow, John Santos, is one of the foremost exponents of Afro-Latin music in the world today. Born in San Francisco, California, November l, l955, he was raised in the Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean traditions of his family, surrounded by music. The fertile musical environment of the San Francisco Bay Area shaped his career in a unique way. His studies of Afro-Latin music have included several trips to New York, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil and Colombia.He is known for his innovative use of traditional forms and instruments in combination with contemporary music, and has earned much respect and recognition as an educator, composer, and record and event producer. He’s been a prolific performer, composer, teacher, writer, radio programmer, and record/event producer whose career has spanned over 35 years.

John has worked with acknowledged, multi-generational masters such as Cachao, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Bebo Valdés, Max Roach, Eddie Palmieri, Patato Valdés, Lázaro Ros, Bobby Hutcherson, Chucho Valdes, Chocolate Armenteros, John Handy, Billy Cobham, Zakir Hussain, George Cables, Rene Lopez, Generoso Jimenez, Joe Henderson, Francisco Aguabella, John Faddis, Ed Thigpen, Giovanni Hidalgo, Steve Turre, McCoy Tyner, Batacumbele, Poncho Sanchez, Omar Sosa, Mel Martin, Ignacio Berroa, Danilo Perez, Los Pleneros de la 21, Jose Luis “Changuito” Quintana, Armando Peraza, Pancho Quinto, Tootie Heath, Jacqueline Castellanos, Malonga Casquelord, CK Ladzekpo, Pancho Terry, Yosvany Terry, Dafnis Prieto, Oscar Castro Neves, Mark Murphy, Larry Coryell, Lázaro Galarraga, Regino Jimenez, Luis Daniel “Chichito” Cepeda, Pedrito Martinez, Jerry Medina, Orestes Vilató, Paquito D’Rivera, Larry Vukovich, Arturo Sandoval, Nestor Torres, Anthony Carrillo, Paoli Mejías, Raul Rekow, Andy Gonzalez, Jerry Gonzalez, Jovino Santos Neto, Lalo Schifrin, Pete Escovedo, Claudia Gómez, Maria Márquez, Jon Jang, Ray Vega, Chembo Corniel, Wayne Wallace, John Calloway, Mark Levine, Elio Villafranca, Bruce Forman, Linda Tillery, Charlie Hunter, Joyce Cooling, Bobby Matos, Mark Weinstein, Jackeline Rago, Roberto Borrell, Sandy Perez, Jesus Diaz, Roman Diaz, Pablo Menendez, Yma Sumac, and Carlos Santana.

John is widely respected as one of the top writers, teachers and historians in the field and was a member of the Latin Jazz Advisory Committee of the Smithsonian Institution. He is currently part of the faculty at the Jazz School Institute (Berkeley, CA) and the College of San Mateo (CA). He has conducted countless workshops, lectures and clinics in the US, Latin America and Europe since 1972 at institutions of all types including the Adventures in Music program of the San Francisco Symphony, the Berklee School of Music in Boston, UCLA, Yale, Stanford, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Michigan, Cal State Monterey Bay, Cal State East Bay, the University of Colorado, Yakima Valley Community College, the Afro-Cuban Drumming and Dance Program at Humboldt State University (CA), Cal State Sonoma, Cal State Sacramento, Cal State San Jose, Tulane University of Louisiana, Jazz Camp West, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Los Angeles Music Academy, the Museum of the African Diaspora (San Francisco), he Lafayette Summer Music Program (CA), Skidmore College (NY), and La Universidad Inter-Americana in San Germán Puerto Rico. He has contributed to the international magazines Percussive Notes, Modern Drummer, Modern Percussionist, and Latin Percussionist.

John was the director of the Orquesta Tipica Cienfuegos (l976-1980) and the award-winning Orquesta Batachanga (1981-1985). He was founder and director of the internationally renowned, Grammy-nominated Machete Ensemble (1985-2006), who released nine CDs with special guests from Puerto Rico, Cuba, NY, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, mostly on John’s Machete Records label. He currently directs the John Santos Sextet, Latin jazz ensemble. Their second CD, Perspectiva Fragmentada, released in October 2008, was nominated by the Jazz Journalists Association (NY), and by Cubadisco (Cuban Grammys) as one of the top Latin Jazz releases of the year, and selected as one of the five top Latin Jazz CDs of 2008 by New York’s All About Jazz magazine, among many honors. John’s Afro-Caribbean Folklóric Ensemble, El Coro Folklórico Kindembo, has produced three full length CDs since 1994, two of which were Grammy-nominated including the most recent, La Guerra No, in 2009.

John’s work has been recognized and supported by the California Arts Council, United States Artists, the Zellerbach Family Fund, the Fund for Folk Culture, the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation, the East Bay Community Foundation, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, the Creative Work Fund, and the City of Oakland.

The San Francisco Bay Area community in which he still lives and works has presented him with numerous awards and honors for artistic excellence and social dedication. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued a proclamation declaring November 12, 2006 John Santos Day. And on October 9th, 2012, in a ceremony at City Hall, he received the 2012 San Francisco Latino Heritage Arts Award from the Mayor’s office. It came with a Certificate of Honor signed by Mayor Edwin Lee, and Certificates of Recognition from the State Assembly signed by Speaker Pro Tempore Fiona Ma and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Certificate of Recognition from the State Senate signed by Senator Mark Leno, a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from the US House of Representatives signed by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, and a glass plaque from the City and County of San Francisco.

John is an endorsee of Latin Percussion instruments, Remo drumheads, Sabian cymbals, Engelhart Metal Percussion, and Fat Conga Cajones.


What did the Fellowship or Laureate mean to you at the time you received it?

It was a vote of confidence that gives a certain validation to one's work and lifelong passion. It is very easy for an artist to feel that you are singing in the shower and no one is listening. A strong feeling of joy and gratitude accompany the news of a Fellowship.

What do you do now? Has your art evolved or changed?

The more I learn, the less I know. Perhaps my art has changed from the perspective that I am always trying and hopefully succeeding to improve technically and preparation-wise. And of course, life experience always colors one's work. But the basic direction and foundation of my work remains the same.

What is one piece of advice you would give to an emerging artist?

Understand the precious and powerful nature of art.

Briefly, how would you describe the state of the arts locally, as well as national and beyond?

Priceless, urgent, desperately needed, threatened.