Music as Work and Life: Susie Hansen
Susie Hansen comes from musical stock. Her father, James Hansen, her first and main music teacher, was a violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 37 years. Hansen began taking lessons from him at age 5. So you’d think, given all that training, that Hansen would have followed in his classical steps to build a musician’s career in a philharmonic orchestra somewhere.
But along the way, Hansen, who plays the Autry’s Sizzling Summer Nights on Thursday night, discovered Latin jazz.
“When I was in college I started playing some rock-n-roll, and I played some folk, and then I got into jazz, and jazz was the only thing that really held me,” Hansen said after her Aug. 4 performance in Azusa. “Jazz was the only thing that really held me — until I was introduced to Latin jazz. And then I went, ‘Wow! This is better than jazz.’ And I’ve never looked back. “
Hansen and her Latin Band have been playing the Los Angeles circuit for 22 years, and she’s been in Los Angeles for 24 years. She says she felt at home from the moment she arrived.
“I had a gig within the first three months,” she said. “Francisco Aguabella was the first guy who hired me, and I played the trombone book on the viola. I played with him for about nine months.”
Even though the band-leading field still appears to be dominated by men, Hansen has held her own.
“It’s just not a problem,” she said. “As long as you run a band well, it’s professional, and people get paid, they get the directions to the gig and when they get there it starts on time … people like that. The guys have no problem with taking direction from me. If I start messing up, they get annoyed at me, but that I think they would do that with anybody.”
Hansen’s busy season is in the summer: in July, the band played 24 dates. Throughout the year, they play about 150 gigs, mostly concerts, weddings, and corporate events.
“It’s hard to work that hard,” she said. “Every gig takes a lot of preparation .… We have to advance the gig, make sure there’s enough space for the band, make sure we have the right sound, the right electrical, the right lights. We’re concerned about food and water, a place to relax on the break. There’s a lot of work to be done for every single gig.”
Amid all this planning, you’d think the music might get lost.
“The music is the payoff,” Hansen said. “Since we’re all such good professionals, and we come in and we do a great show, then it’s worth all the work. It’s worth all the effort.”
The band’s membership has changed from time to time, as it does with any outfit that has been around for decades. Pianist Joe Rotondi, Jr. has been performing with Hansen since 1996. Hansen credits him with being one of her strongest resources while she was learning more about salsa. Bass player Rene Camacho, who has played with Celia Cruz and Aguabella among others, joined about 15 years ago. The lead singer, however, has only been with the band since last winter.
“He’s been very good,” Hansen said. “I did auditions in the studio of the producer of my record, and we sent them songs ahead of time that we wanted them to learn. We auditioned about four guys and this was my favorite. I just threw him a lot of music, and he learned it.”
Because her instrument is the electric violin, Hansen has developed her repertoire around charanga, an older, more refined and more traditional style of salsa that recalls the Cuban clubs of the 1940s and 1950s. But she has also arranged other, more contemporary pieces to showcase her band’s strengths. It turns out that the violin, in these settings, becomes something else.
“It’s a horn,” Hansen said. “I play the trumpet line in my band. But violin is a traditional instrument in Cuban music. Charanga, danzón, mambo always had violins. I am using the tradition, I’m playing some of the tumbaos the violins play, but I’m also making it a more modern thing by playing a trumpet role and playing solos, which the violin players would do occasionally but not as much as I do. I do it all the time.”
Hansen says she doesn’t see herself slowing down anytime soon, or really ever. And in that, she takes after her father.
“My father died playing his violin,” she said. “He was practicing. He had played a concert the night before with the Chicago Symphony, and he had a stroke and he died with his bow tightened .… It’s not a sad thing, it’s a wonderful thing. I intend to play ’til I die, there’s no question about it. There’s no need to retire when you’re doing what you love.”