In 1984, at the age of 15, pianist Ed Simon left his home in Punta Cardón, Venezuela and moved by himself to Pennsylvania. The South American nation’s famous public conservatory program, El Sistema, hadn’t yet reached his hometown — a small port dominated by the booming petroleum industry — and Simon’s father thought his middle son’s best chance to thrive would come in the United States.
His dad was right. Enrolled at the Philadelphia Performing Arts School, a now-defunct private academy, Simon discovered jazz, and eventually connected with Philly masters like bassist Charles Fambrough and guitarist Kevin Eubanks, who encouraged him to move to New York.
Leaving Venezuela was just the first in a series of disorienting leaps that have marked Simon’s career. Landing in Manhattan in 1988, he quickly established himself as an essential new voice through touring and recording with altoist Bobby Watson and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Part of a wave of brilliant Latin-American musicians infusing the New York scene with influences beyond Cuba and Brazil, Simon recorded a series of acclaimed albums documenting his growing ambition as a composer. Years later, looking for a family-friendly environment to raise a family, he and his wife relocated to central Florida, which he used a base for a decade of international touring and teaching.
And then, much like Simon’s father sought out a fertile environment for his son, the Simon clan decided to head to the Bay Area last year — eventually settling in Emeryville, where Simon’s son attends the Oakland School for the Arts. In many ways, he’s in the process of introducing himself to the Bay Area scene.
“I’m still finding my way,” says Simon, 46, who opens a three-night run Friday at the SFJAZZ Center’s intimate Joe Henderson Lab with his New York trio featuring bassist Joe Martin and drummer Adam Cruz. “I run into a lot of people in a similar situation, and they all say it takes about two years before you feel like you’re in a groove. It’s kind of a drastic move at this age, much different than when you’re in your twenties or even thirties.”
It’s fair to note that Simon had a head start, as he’s held down the piano chair in the all-star SFJAZZ Collective since 2010. Impressed by many of the Bay Area players he’s encountered, Simon has primarily accessed the local scene via the extensive educational resources available to talented and motivated young musicians. As soon as word got out that he was relocating to the Bay Area, Simon got a call from pianist Susan Muscarella, the founder and director of Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory. Last year, he co-taught a CJC course on Afro-Venezuelan music with Jackeline Rago, the Caracas-born Bay Area cuatro and percussion master, “and hopefully we’ll be offering it again this fall,” he says.
This spring, Simon served as artist-in-residence at the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, and he’s been invited back as faculty in the fall. But the most important venue for connecting with Bay Area artists has been Jazz Camp West in La Honda, the immersive summer camp-like program that’s nurtured a family vibe among master musicians and students for more than three decades.
Oakland percussion maestro John Santos, a longtime JCW faculty member, had been telling Simon about the camp for several years, “but you can’t really understand what it’s like until you’ve done it,” Simon says. “It’s an incredible experience in terms of bonding and the communal vibe that’s generated. There’s no cell phone reception and no internet, so you’re immersed in this experience learning about jazz.”
Simon connected with East Bay players like trumpeter Erik Jekabson and bassist Scott Thompson, and bonded particularly with Denver pianist Art Lande. Something of an underground legend, Lande made a point of introducing him to the Bay Area players in his band Shapeshifter: reed expert Paul McCandless, bassist Peter Barshay, and drummer Alan Hall. “Art said ‘Edward just moved to town, you should do some playing,’” Simon says. “It was so welcoming, completely opening the door for me.”
With his singular vision encompassing jazz and Latin American standards and folkloric traditions, Simon is ideally prepared to contribute to the Bay Area fray.