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March 1, 2022IM -
It seems surprising that Gilbert Sedeño, a kid from San Angelo, West Texas—country music territory—would grow up to be a formidable jazz pianist. Sedeño, a member (and also longtime board member) of Local 65-699 (Houston, TX) would agree. “My dad, uncle, and grandfather were migrant workers and played in a band that did a variety of Mexican songs and standards. My mom sang with them, and they actually recorded a 78 RPM record.”
Sedeño’s own musical interest took off after his father bought a piano. “Our church was getting rid of one of those old uprights. It was painted neon green,” he laughs. “My dad gave them 10 bucks for it. And that changed my life.”
The iridescent piano took up residence in the family’s carport, where Sedeño would tinker with it and pick out melodies. No jazz yet, though: he says the local radio stations only played country and easy listening. His mom encouraged him, paying for piano lessons. These eventually led to his first official gig with a band made up of his high school classmates. “We played covers of whatever was popular back then in the late ’60s,” he says. “I also played with other bands doing Tejano music, standards, country, and dance band tunes.”
This was also when he joined the AFM, the beginning of over a half century of union membership. “I still have my first union book from back then,” Sedeño says. “I had to buy a white dinner jacket. I learned a ton of music. But I still didn’t really know about jazz.” That came in college. A mentor suggested North Texas State, one of the leading music schools in the country. “I had no idea,” he laughs. “One of my roommates had albums of Herbie Hancock of Local 802 (New York City), and I devoured those. Also, the lab bands at school were a revelation. I would sit there and listen to one band after another.” Sedeño also got more familiar with arranging and orchestration and took improv classes.
After college he went on his first road gig with a band. “These were all union contracts. We toured to Los Angeles, and there were union reps checking cards to make sure we were members,” he recalls. Jazz—and the AFM—were now constants in his life. Aside from Herbie Hancock, Sedeño lists McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans among his influences. “Once I started listening, I absorbed everything I could. They all had something to offer. People sometimes tell me they hear these guys in my playing. To me that’s a compliment. I’m taking ideas that I assimilated, and I extend that same concept to my own students: use it and learn from it. Understand why it works, and why it’s so mesmerizing.”
Sedeño proudly recalls his decades of touring with some of the biggest names in the music world. Fluent in everything from jazz to Latin, R&B, pop, salsa, country, and Broadway, he has performed and toured across the United States with a bevy of stars including Grammy award winning producer and vocalist Steve Tyrell of Locals 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and 802 (New York City). Sedeño finally (but ultimately not quite) left his life on the road in 1974, settling in Houston. He enjoys recounting stories from his 18 years of playing with a jazz trio at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston. “Artists, athletes, celebrities, they all stay there. I’ve entertained any number of them: the director of the Natalie Cole Orchestra, Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds. The entire Earth Wind and Fire band was at the bar once.”
In Houston he has also composed and produced jingles for local businesses. He says he received lots of offers to tour over the years—but steadfastly declined them. “I just wanted to stay put. And then, long story short, I got a call to tour with Ray Price. Country music. They didn’t know who I was. We did a sound check, the downbeat came, and I sight read it. Because of course I knew how to do this stuff. I wound up being Price’s music director for nearly eight years.” In the years before and since the Ray Price tour, Sedeño did everything from recordings (many of which he also produced) to live shows in venues like Radio City, the Kennedy Center, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
Given his decades on the road, Sedeño understands and values the importance of a union contract. He also served on the local board in Houston for 20 years. “Many musicians don’t know what the union is really about,” he says. “I didn’t either, to be honest.” He got elected back in 1977 when someone resigned from the local board. “I was hesitant. But then I started to learn about the challenges working musicians have to contend with.” Sedeño has since attended several AFM conferences, and in 2009, he traveled to Washington, DC, with the MusicFirst Coalition to lobby Congress for full performance rights for all creators of music.
In recognition of his long career in music and unionism, Sedeño received the AFM’s Diversity Advocate Award in 2019. The AFM Diversity Awards were created in 2005 to recognize outstanding examples of diversity in the Federation. He accepted the award at the 2019 convention. Last year, he was recognized by the AFL-CIO during National Hispanic Heritage Month along with other Hispanic and Latino labor leaders and activists who have made diverse contributions to the labor movement. He is especially proud to have been named the 14th recipient of the Kemah Boardwalk Lifetime Jazz Achievement Award. The Kemah Boardwalk Jazz Festival, one of the few all-union festivals in the US and Canada, features famous artists as headliners—“all AFM members,” he stresses—and also celebrates local achievements.
“The AFM was always there to help,” Sedeño says, “and I hope to continue doing my part.” Though no longer on the board, he plans to continue his affiliation with Local 65-699, which he considers “one of the best locals in the US and Canada.”