Recap! Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, Day 1 and 2

Palabra del dia: Picoteo

Explanation: I learned this word from multiple musicians describing the struggles of making a living off of music in Santo Domingo (and in most of the world). It means playing for money. For example, when a musician has to play cheesy jazz as background music in a hotel for tourists, that’s picoteo.

Comida del dia: Guanabana


I’ve discovered all sorts of tropical fruits since I moved here. This one is probably the most funny looking, and the most fun to say: gua-na-ba-na (now say it five times fast!) The inside is white with black seeds, and it has a slippery texture with a subtle, citrusy taste.

Foto del dia:

fan photo
Fan photo with the Pedrito Martinez group, after playing in a jam session with them at the DR Jazz Festival!


The Dominican Republic Jazz Fest was a five day marathon of concerts, workshops, jam sessions, and interviews. I went to four of the days. The last night of the festival was the highlight for me, when the audience kicked aside their chairs for some serious salsa dancing, accompanied by Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez and his group. It got even better when Pedrito’s group decided to make a showing at the post-concert jam session and my new friends from the conservatory and I got to play with them!

The festival was five days long, with concerts in four cities on the north coast of the DR: Santiago, Sosua, Puerto Plata, and two in Cabarete (I made it to all of them except the one in Santiago). The concerts were free and open to the public, though VIP tickets were available ($150 for all five concerts, plus unlimited drinks). The audience was a mix of locals, expats, tourists, jazz fans, people who wanted to hear good music, and people looking for a good time with a crowd on the beach. There were also workshops with the performers for students of all ages, and open jam sessions after most of the concerts.

The John Patitucci Trio gives a masterclass to students from the National Conservatory of Music.

During the festival, I logged a few more interviews and added a whole bunch of names to my list of people I would like to interview, so I definitely have some new ideas for my research going forward. But before I get to any of that, I’d like to recap the events at the festival so that in case you aren’t able to make the trip here, you can still get an idea of what it was like and listen to some of the excellent music that I was immersed in for four days and four (very late) nights.

This post recaps day 1 and 2 of the festival (day 3 and 4 coming soon). I also made you this Spotify Playlist with music from the performers from the festival, so happy listening!

Day 1: Merengue Meets the Middle East

The first concert I attended was in an ampitheater in Sosua, and I went with a big group of my students from the DREAM Project. It was a great chance for them to hear some high-quality live music, since concerts and cultural events in general are sparse in this part of the country.

First on the program was the Big Band from the National Conservatory in Santo Domingo. Check out this performance of Días de Decision, written by Dominican composer Pengbian Sang, who also performed at the festival with his group Retro Jazz. The performance features three guest soloists (all professors from Berklee College of Music): Jim Odgren on sax, Jason Camelio on trombone, and Jim Kelly on guitar.

I was impressed by the band’s volume, tight arrangements, and talented soloists. They played a diverse repertoire, and many of their tunes incorporated Dominican popular and folkloric music, whether that meant including traditional rhythms or starting a tune with an extended guira solo.

I had the opportunity to speak to the Big Band’s director Javier Vargas a few weeks ago while I was in Santo Domingo. He also directs the Department of Popular and Folkloric Music at he conservatory. Javier discussed how the band plays various Dominican-jazz arrangements from Colorado-based Dominican composer Socrates Garcia, and how how he would like to expand their repertoire to include works from more composers.

Big Band director Javier Vargas on combinations of jazz and Dominican music:

“It’s like a spice that you can only get here. It’s a spice that you can add to what you have, and it gives it a different twist because you’re able to add all this rhythmic richness. Jazz is already rich when you talk about rhythm, but when you add all of this it becomes something else.”

Big Band

Javier Vargas directs a Big Band rehearsal at the conservatory in Santo Domingo a few weeks before they perform at the jazz festival.

Next on the program was the Roy Assaf Trio. Roy Assaf is a New York-based Israeli jazz pianist, and elements of Israeli music were evident in his playing, in the same vein as how Dominican musicians I’ve spoken to incorporate aspects of Dominican music. Assaf played with Raviv Markovitz on bass and Jake Goldbas on drums, and I enjoyed watching how the musicians interacted and responded to each other while playing.

Listen to the Roy Assaf Trio on the first track of my DR Jazz Fest Spotify Playlist

The trio ended their set by inviting the percussionists from the Big Band to play with them, creating a truly multicultural musical collaboration with influences from Israel, the Dominican Republic, and the United States. Don’t worry, I got it on camera for you:

I remember experiencing cross-cultural musical collaboration while participating in jazz festivals in Italy two summers ago as well. These unique musical combinations make me appreciate the setting of international jazz festivals and how they bring together musicians from across the world.

Day 2: Saxophones in the Rain

Day 2 was a rainy Friday night and despite my doubts I decided to brave the weather and the hour-long trek on public transportation (shared taxis called carritos or carros publicos, with up to six people squished in!) to go the concert in Puerto Plata. I was met with four impressive and varied performances, and even though I got home at 2 am with soggy sandals, it was very much worth the trip!

Here’s an overview of the four performances:

Manuel Tejada is best known as an arranger, and has collaborated with a number of famous Dominican artists, including Juan Luis Guerra. I had the opportunity to hear him perform on the piano with a fun group that included sax, drumset, percussion, bass, and guitar. Check out this clip of his arrangement of the famous merengue tune “Juanita Morel” (and check out a more traditional version with vocals on my Spotify Playlist!

The Berklee Global Jazz Institute Student Group is a group of Berklee students from around the world, including Spain, Jordan, the United States, and Japan. The cross-cultural musical collaboration that the group exemplified was a theme not only for this group, but throughout the entire festival. They played a wide variety of music with an emphasis on Middle Eastern and flamenco sounds. My favorite part was a female Spanish cellist who used a neck strap to play her cello while standing up!

They ended their set with an arrangement of the popular Dominican song “Por Amor” written by composer Rafael Solano (see Spotify Playlist), which had the audience singing along both nights that they played.

David Sanchez is a Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist who has won multiple Grammys and combines music from his home of Puerto Rico with a modern jazz sound. In his most recent album Ninety Miles, he collaborated with trumpet player Christian Scott and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Listen here
The evening ended with legendary merengue-jazz saxophonist Sandy Gabriel, who, as a Puerto Plata native, was met with a highly enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. Here’s a clip for you…so many fast notes!

So that wrapped up Day 2 of the jazz fest. I’m still sorting through the videos for day 3 and 4, but if you want a preview of some of the music, make sure to listen to my playlist and explore some of the artists on your own!

5 thoughts on “Recap! Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, Day 1 and 2

  1. Great music. I like the quote from Javier Vargas. Jazz is like a universal cuisine that can blend in flavors from different cultures.
    Speaking of food, the guanabana looks more like a reptile than a fruit.


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