Victor Paz, Soaring Trumpeter Who Took the Lead in Latin Music and Beyond, Dies at 89
Victor “Vitín” Paz, considered by many to be the greatest lead trumpeter player of the modern era, died on April 3 at his home in Panama City, Panama. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by his close friend and student Ronaldo Whittaker.
Known for his technical virtuosity, soaring timbre and uncannily precise time feel, Paz was the most sought-after lead trumpeter of his time. The tally of his recording dates and live performances numbers in the thousands. As Wynton Marsalis wrote in 2015: “His tone is golden, attack pristine, accuracy and consistency definitive, and his ethics and integrity unsurpassed.”
The lead trumpet in a big band or symphony orchestra must be the most technically gifted of their fellow trumpet players. They must be able to play in the instrument’s upper register on a consistent basis for long periods, in tune and in time. “A lead player must interpret the music in the correct style,” says legendary lead trumpeter Bobby Shew. “Communicate effectively with other members of the section and the band. Consistently interpret phrasing and style. Have the strength to generate excitement through power when needed, and sensitivity enough to play gently when necessary and be a good jazz soloist with a natural feel for various jazz styles.”
Paz was known for his work in Latin music, with legends like Tito Rodríguez, Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Machito, and the Fania All-Stars. But he also performed with pop and jazz icons like Frank Sinatra, Julio Iglesias, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich and Dizzy Gillespie — not to mention his lead work in the Broadway pit and on the Dick Cavett Show.
Ross Konikoff, who worked alongside Paz on Broadway, with Liza Minnelli, and in the Mario Bauzá Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, attests to his legacy: “He is an astonishing player and never misses a note,” he says. “I swear, he has never missed a note that I can recall after having played second trumpet for him for over 15 years in a row!”
The Panamanian Minister of Culture, Carlos Aguilar, hailed Paz’s legacy in an official statement. “With his unfortunate death, Panama says goodbye to an icon of music of all time and a Panamanian who always put the name of his country at the top, along with the best and most complete artists of all time.”
Victor Nicolas Paz Solanilla was born in Panama City, Panama, in the barrio of San Miguel, on Aug. 30, 1932. Both of his parents were his first musical influences. His father, Víctor Nicanor Paz, played trumpet and was the musical director of the local municipal fire department band.
Victor began taking lessons with him at age 9. His mother, Silvia Solanilla de Paz, was a teacher who also sang; his sister, also named Silvia, eventually became an accomplished classical vocalist. At 13, young Vitín made his professional debut alongside his father in the fire department band, where he stayed there until age 19. At the same time, he worked with his brother (also named Victor, hence the sobriquet “Vitín” to distinguish the two) in a dance band named Los Hermanos Paz.
On the recommendation of Panamanian composer Avelino Muñoz, Paz became the lead trumpeter for the Orquesta de Planta de Radiodifusora in Caracas, Venezuela. It provided him with a panoramic musical experience that covered everything from popular and classical music to various Caribbean and South American styles. The orchestra also accompanied visiting Latin American vocal stars from Cuba, like Benny More, La Lupe and Roland Laserrie.
Panamanian jazz vocalist Enid Lowe first met Paz in the big band of bassist Clarence Martin in Panama City in 1956. “Everyone was impressed with Victor, he was outstanding,” Lowe recalls. “I had never heard a lead trumpeter play so flawlessly in the high register. Everyone knew that he was destined for greatness.”
In 1963 famed New York City based vocalist Tito Rodríguez had come to perform in the annual carnaval celebrations in Caracas, where he heard Paz play. Impressed, he encouraged the young trumpeter to come to New York City and join his newly formed big band. The job would entail not only becoming the band’s lead trumpeter, but also its musical director.
Rodríguez’s orchestra was part of the triumvirate known as “The Big Three.” Alongside the Machito and Tito Puente orchestras, they were considered by the cognoscenti as Latin music’s Holy Trinity. A stickler for precision, Rodríguez found his musical soulmate in Paz. “When Vitín came into that band,” notes pianist and NEA Jazz Master Eddie Palmieri, “he transformed it into something that became a force of nature.”
Percussionist John “Dandy” Rodriguez, who became the bongó player in the band in 1964, recalls: “Every band has their own character. I had come from the Tito Puente Orchestra, where he wrote most of the arrangements, and everything was based around him… there was a lot of room for solos, a lot of excitement. In Tito Rodríguez’s band, everything was based around his voice. Mind you, he was also a great percussionist in his own right. But the whole vibe was to accompany his voice. I had never played in a band with that many dynamics before. The orchestra had a reputation for being super tight. That was because of Vitín. It was very disciplined… right down to the clothes we wore. We were the best dressed band on the scene. Tito himself wore the hippest clothes, even to rehearsals.”
In a video interview conducted by Castillo Salsa TV, Vitín recalled his entrée to the jazz world, initially with a big band led by guitarist Sal Salvador. “From there I started working at the Copacabana,” he said, “accompanying everyone from Sammy Davis, Jr., The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy…”
From 1969 to 1975 famed drummer, percussionist, bandleader Bobby Rosengarden became the musical director for the Dick Cavett Show on ABC. The show was on opposite NBC’s Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Both shows had full big bands, with the Tonight Show Orchestra fronted by lead trumpeter Doc Severinsen. Rosengarden chose Vitín to be his lead trumpet player. Musical guests were frequently featured on both shows, accompanied by both orchestras. Many viewers, like yours truly, would switch back and forth just to see the segments played by both bands going to commercials, where they would roar with some the hippest big band jazz that could be heard.
Paz’s schedule became one of constant motion. In the morning, he’d record a jingle date or two. In the afternoon he’d tape a Cavett episode, then hit a soundtrack session for film or television, or a record date for artists as varied as Dizzy Gillespie, Deodato, or The Village People. By this time, he had also become entrenched in the Broadway show scene, working for shows like Guys and Dolls, Cabaret and Cats, to name just a few. But through all of this, he never abandoned his love for the city’s vibrant Latin music scene.
“Vitín would send a sub to Broadway — where he was making at that time around $150 a night, which was a lot of money back then — to play with us for $50 in someplace in the Bronx,” recalls Mario Grillo, musical director and timbalero for the Machito Orchestra. “That’s how much he loved the music.”
Subsequent work with legends like pianist Eddie Palmieri and the father of Afro-Cuban jazz, Mario Bauzá, yielded recordings that have become iconic. “Sitting next to him in a trumpet section was always a master class,” says trumpeter Ray Vega, who also worked in Bauzá’s orchestra. “He was a Zen master. He was hard on me when I first started to do sessions with him. There was no B.S. to be had when he was around. His standards were extremely high. He put me through the gauntlet. You might call it being vetted. I’m grateful that he took the time to school me.”
Jon Faddis, a prominent lead trumpeter in his own right, recalls first hearing Paz in the 1967 Dizzy Gillespie Reunion Big Band. “I’m thankful that I got to work with him, because he pulled my coat and showed me the different articulations used in playing trumpet in Latin music,” Faddis says. “It’s totally different than jazz. Vitín was also a disciple of Carmine Caruso, who had a unique method of developing endurance, volume, time, intonation on both brass and reed instruments. Your body became the instrument. Victor was his greatest student, and he passed those teachings on to the next generation.”
One day, on a jingle date I was playing with maestro Chico O’Farrill, the trumpet section was a murderer’s row: Faddis, Lew Soloff, Marvin Stamm, and Victor Paz. O’Farrill, who’d written the jingle, said: “Gentlemen, we have a conundrum. Who is going to play lead?” Without dropping a beat, Soloff, Stamm and Faddis spoke like a Greek chorus: “Victor.”
Paz lived and worked in New York City for more than 35 years. In 1999, he decided to return to his homeland. He began teaching at the University of Panama, led his own big band, took on students and occasionally performed concerts. Through the efforts of pianist Danilo Pérez, the 2011 Panama Jazz Festival was dedicated to him.
On a personal note, I had the privilege of working alongside Victor as drummer for Mario Bauzá, in the studio and on tour. Vitín’s sarcasm, wit and wisdom — always combined with some hidden truth — was as virtuosic as his trumpet playing. Every musician who had the privilege of working with him has a “Victor quote.” When asked whether a certain conductor on Broadway was doing an adequate job, Vitín simply replied: “Well, he tries.”
And once, when a certain saxophonist showed up extremely late to a rehearsal with Mario Bauzá, the entire orchestra was in silence waiting for Mario to explode. This saxophonist took his time to take his instrument out, put it together, and finally sat down. With his Panamanian accent combined with the drama of Count Dracula, Victor calmly said: “Remember, just because you are here, doesn’t mean you are here.”
Paz is survived by his daughters Elia Paz and Sadit Paz, and his son, Victor “Lito” Paz Baraona, Jr. He will always be remembered by the countless students carrying out his motto: “Study and truth are the key to tranquility and true happiness.”
Special thanks to Enid Lowe, Ronaldo Whittaker, Frank Anderson, Ben Lapidus and Mauricio Smith, Jr.