Oscar Hernandez has the blustery charm of a native Nuyorican. Even on an occasionally glitchy Zoom call, his energy, passion, and emphatic personality come through loud and clear. Sure, he is a legendary Latin jazz pianist who has worked with all the greats—Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Ruben Blades, Ray Barretto, Gloria Estefan, Paul Simon, Juan Luis Guerra, and a constellation of Latin music stars. He is also the founder and artistic director of the renowned Spanish Harlem Orchestra, with a mantel full of Grammys, a composer and arranger, and a teacher and mentor to up-and-coming musicians. But, what is most engaging about this outstanding artist is his love of music, which pours out of him in two languages in the excited tones of a young man on his first world tour.
Hernandez, whose new album, The Latin Jazz Project, can only be described as joyous, has been a fixture on the Latin music scene for over four decades, his virtuosity on the piano undeniable. And yet, he didn’t stroke the ivories for the first time until he was 14 years old when his older brother, a super, was given a piano that he installed in the basement of their building.
“I think of it as divine intervention!” Hernandez says. With the basement area becoming a gathering place for budding musicians, young Oscar found himself “doodling” on the piano. His formal musical training up until that point had been on the trumpet and one of his major influences was his junior high school teacher, Mr. Morris.
“He was so engaged with the art of music and you could feel his passion. It was palpable,” Hernandez recalls with a smile. “My junior high school band was killing it at that time!”
Soon, however, Hernandez’s “doodling” was revealing a world class talent. The piano became his focus and his musical network began to expand. “I started playing professionally at the age of 16.” Hernandez says, “Once I started playing with bands that were getting paid, I was on my way!”
The path blazed by Oscar Hernandez from that point on was a brilliant one. His collaborations have been a Who’s Who of Broadway, film, and television artists. But his passion and abiding commitment has been to the music and there is nothing he is more proud of in his professional trajectory than his work with Spanish Harlem Orchestra which he calls “one of the best bands that exists for salsa and Latin jazz.”
It is clear to Hernandez that he is a custodian of a rich musical history. “I’m extremely proud of representing the best of my culture through what we do,” he says. “We all have an incredible passion for this music.”
Yet, while Hernandez clearly adores performing and has played every major stage worldwide, he is adamant that Latin jazz is more than just “dance music.” He understands his audiences’ itch to get up and dance when his band plays, but he is clear that what he is performing is an “organic but sophisticated” art form and he worries that regarding salsa and Latin jazz as dance music trivializes their impact and legacy.
And, legacy weighs heavily on Hernandez’s mind. After having achieved so much on a global stage, he is deeply invested in making sure that this art form that has been his life’s work does not fade away for lack of support. In fact, he wishes Latinos would be more engaged with this music.
“Sometimes you want to knock people on the head and say, ‘don’t take this for granted.’ If you take it for granted and don’t support it we’re not going to have it,” he warns. It’s all too easy to imagine the vibrant, life giving sounds and rhythms of this immensely influential art form being forgotten, and that is something Oscar Hernandez will not allow.
The kid who grew up in the Bronx and who never shed his New York accent—despite the thousands of miles he has traveled since he first looked up in wonder at the Eiffel Tower while on his first European tour at the age of 23—is a man who takes his music and his culture very seriously. Even if his sound is pure joy!