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December 1, 2023IM -
Venezuelan trumpet player Raul Agraz, member of Local 802 (New York City), says decades ago, when he was growing up, his home country had many similarities to the United States. “It was a fairly prosperous country, and it was a melting pot much like the US. Musicians from all around the world lived and worked in Venezuela, and there were great music schools.”
Agraz was an eventual graduate of one of those schools, the Escuala Superior de Musica in Caracas. But his music education began long before that through a distinctly Venezuelan educational product: the El Sistema program.
Even earlier than that, Agraz says, there was music in the house. “My dad was a singer. Some of my earliest memories are going to his gigs and sitting behind the band—actually right behind the trumpet section—and that got me interested.”
When he was 7, Agraz was recruited to join the internationally renowned children’s choir Niños Cantores De Villa de Cura. “The music director went around to schools and did a small exam for every kid to see if they could sing, if they had an ear, and had any talent,” he recalls. “In my case, I sang perfect pitch.” From there, Agraz learned to read music, and how to prepare for rehearsals. He started traveling internationally at the age of 8, performing with the choir in France, Spain, Belgium, Austria, and the US.
At 9, the same music director recommended that Agraz learn an instrument. “Like the other kids, I started with the recorder, until they asked me what I wanted to play. After sitting behind the trumpets for years, I picked the trumpet,” he says. Only one problem: they didn’t have one. So, he started on horn, and changed later when they got a trumpet.
And then came El Sistema (The System, in English). El Sistema is a publicly financed music education program founded in 1975 by Venezuelan educator, musician, and activist José Antonio Abreu. The program’s motto, “Music for social change,” reflects its aspirations to improve the lives of school-aged children, arming them with the tools and drive to succeed, regardless of their backgrounds.
“I came from that system,” says Agraz, who grew up in the town of Villa de Cura, in Venezuela’s Aragua State. “I was there at the beginning. Abreu hired many of the great professional teachers who were working in Venezuela at the time. He went to every school and held little auditions for young students to figure out what talents they might have. Then, he got support from the Venezuelan government to get them instruments.” At the heart of the program was a symphony orchestra, which gave students the opportunity to play at a near-professional level from a very young age. Those students, says Agraz, later became teachers themselves, and the system became self-perpetuating.
“The system worked well for more than 40 years,” says Agraz. “And it worked in every city in Venezuela, regardless of economic conditions. Abreu was trying to get poor kids off the streets and use music to lift them out of their circumstances.” Many of these musicians, he points out, now work all over the world as de facto representatives of El Sistema’s success—including Agraz himself. These days, El Sistema is also a successful initiative here in the US.
While enrolled in El Sistema, Agraz started making 2.5-hour trips to the capital, Caracas, for music lessons. When he turned 16, he began studies at the Escuala Superior de Musica in Caracas. “My trumpet teacher was a German player in the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra, and I would go with him to rehearsals. Eventually, he let me play in the rehearsals. I started preparing myself for auditions to play in an orchestra and I got the opportunity to play in a few of them. But that wasn’t really my goal.”
Agraz wanted to be an all-around trumpet player. “I started getting calls to record jingles for commercials,” he says. “Then, I started playing for singers. That led to opportunities to record with probably every big name in Venezuela, and I traveled all over the country with them.” In 1996, he got his first American invitation: an offer to play with a big salsa group in New York City that included the most famous names in salsa music at that time.
He has mostly resided in New York since then. “When I started, it was salsa purely because I didn’t know anyone else,” he says. “But from there, I got asked to play on some recordings and some classical sessions, and I did everything I could. People started noticing where I came from, and what I could do.”
Getting noticed led to a call to do a national tour for a Broadway show, the Billy Joel musical Movin’ Out. “I took it on for six months as a sort of tryout to see if I liked it, and ended up traveling with the production for two-and-a-half years.”
Following the tour, Agraz returned to New York City, where he had opportunities to play on more shows, leading up to In the Heights, which became his first full-time Broadway chair. That was followed by the Broadway trumpet chair on The Book of Mormon, where he stayed for more than 12 years, until he got called to play Back to the Future.
Today, Agraz’ goal to be an all-around trumpet player has been fully realized. One reviewer dubbed him “an acknowledged master of jazz, Afro-Cuban music, and classical repertoire, equally at home playing the music of Bach, Machito, or Coltrane.”
Agraz has his own studio at home, and aside from playing, he also tackles arranging and composing. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “I have a few of my own pieces on my first solo album from 2016. I got a Grammy nomination for that, for which I’m very fortunate and grateful.”
Agraz made an impressive North American debut with that first solo album, Between Brothers, a compilation of Latin-oriented jazz. He hints that the term “brothers” is used in a metaphorical sense, referring to the album’s ever-changing group of sidemen that includes a guest appearance on the title track by clarinetist (and former Local 802 member) Paquito D’Rivera. Agraz wrote four of the album’s 10 tracks. He solos on trumpet or flugelhorn on every track.
These days he’s working on a new solo production, which he says includes jazz, but is more of a mix. “I might sing, play a classical piece, include big band or a combo, and I’ll certainly try to compose something.” He says his first album garnered enough interest for people to ask for a follow-up, but it’s important for him to make it different from the last. He’s hoping to release it next year. Right now, the biggest challenge is working around his pit commitments on Back to the Future.
Playing so many different types of music is a constant challenge, he says. “With a Broadway show, you develop muscle memory. I don’t spend a lot of time warming up because these shows can be very demanding. It’s about preparing myself to be as accurate as possible for the live performance. On The Book of Mormon, for example, the overture starts with piccolo trumpet, the very first note. In those 12.5 years, I missed that first note only one time. Man, was I angry,” he laughs.
Back to the Future, by contrast, is more orchestral. “I work on getting as big and round of a sound as I can. A good warmup and warm down is crucial,” he explains. And then there are studio gigs, which present their own issues. “The biggest problem in the studio is that sometimes you play a few lines, and then sit for an hour.”
One thing is common to every kind of music Agraz plays: the need for union involvement. “The AFM is always there for the musicians, providing protection in case of a disagreement with the producers. It’s crucial to have that backup,” he says. The union also helps with physical health and safety on the job. Agraz himself experienced this recently following an accident on the show. “Local 802 has been working with the producers to help prevent these sorts of things from happening again.”
Union wages also make it possible for him to live, work, and raise a family in New York City. He’s grown to love its crazy variety of experiences and opportunities over his nearly 30 years of residence. “There is so much to learn from this city,” he says. “I can see and hear the most famous musicians and orchestras in the world. I see the NY Phil on one day and a big jazz name playing a concert the next day. In between, I can go to a great museum or play with a big band.”
He loves the diversity of people who come to the city and their part in its arts scene. “You can learn something from each one of them and grow as a human being,” he says.
Asked what he misses about Venezuela, he is quick to answer: “The food, my family, friends, and the people I grew up with.” At the same time, he points out that many of those people have left the country due to the current economic and humanitarian crisis. “Going back is not the same thing. My mom, dad, and sister are still in Venezuela. I visited four years ago, but the political situation was getting bad, and even my mother has started to tell me I might want to think about not going there.”
Despite that, Agraz says he has been approached about giving some masterclasses on trumpet, and he is looking at his schedule to see what might be possible. “Things are increasingly tough in Venezuela, and millions of people are living on the street. But I believe it’s important to give back to the system that nurtured me.”