UMass Professor Felipe Salles wins Guggenheim to compose ‘Dreamers: The New Immigrant Experience’

  • Felipe Salles, who is an associate professor of jazz and African-American music studies at the University of Massachusetts, has won a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is in his office at the Bezanson Hall, Friday, May 4, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Felipe Salles, who is an associate professor of jazz and African-American music studies at the University of Massachusetts, has won a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is shown in his office at the Bezanson Hall. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Salles’ “The Lullaby Project” explores song traditions.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Felipe Salles, jazz musician and associate professor of jazz and African-American music at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, started playing the saxophone at age 14 in his native São Paulo, Brazil, with dreams of joining a band with his friends. Enamored by the instrument, he soon set a goal for himself of becoming a professional saxophonist. At 17, Salles was writing his own music.

Last month, Salles, now 44, found out he was one of 173 recipients of the 2018 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. 

Although Salles has won several awards for composition in the past, he never expected to nab a Guggenheim. “It took me about four or five years to get the courage to apply because it’s so prestigious,” Salles said, during a recent interview at his UMass office, decorated with posters of jazz legends like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. “It’s one of those things you hope you’ll get in life, but you imagine you’ll never get — like an Oscar or a Grammy. It’s hard to believe!”

Every year, 3,000 artists, mathematicians, historians and scientists apply for Guggenheim Fellowships, which are awarded to “individuals who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.” As part of the application, musicians propose an idea for music they want to write, explaining the crux of their composition.

For Salles, inspiration struck one day last September when he was biking to work from his home in Florence. He’d been thinking of his friend Tereza Lee, “the original Dreamer,” whom he had met while getting his doctorate in jazz at the Manhattan School of Music, Salles said. In 2011, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois recalled how Lee and others inspired him to create the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act 10 years before in 2001. At the time, Lee, a gifted musician, had been accepted into several prestigious music schools, but she was unable to move forward with her education because she was undocumented. (Lee was born in Brazil to Korean parents before the family moved to the U.S. when she was 2.) 

“People don’t realize how complicated it is to stay legally in this country,” Salles said. “A lot of people come here legally, and something might happen. I was just lucky that I had enough opportunities and enough money to pay for immigration lawyers. And in the case of Dreamers, coming here wasn’t a choice they made themselves. It wasn’t their choice at all. It was made by their parents.”

With Lee in mind, Salles said, he decided to explore through his music the experiences of Dreamers “in terms of how you see yourself as an American and as an immigrant.”

Salles’ ambitious proposal, titled “Dreamers: The New Immigrant Experience,” will examine the role that language plays in shaping both culture and people’s identities. As part of his project, he plans to conduct a series of interviews with Dreamers — from countries including El Salvador, Poland, Pakistan and the Philippines — who live in New York City. The music will be inspired by the interviews, a translation of ideas derived from these conversations into rhythms, melodies and different phrasings. “It’s my impression of our conversation through the lens of language,” Salles said. “A lot of people don’t realize how much language influences music.”

This is an enormous undertaking for which Salles only has a year to compose, record and perform his work. He hopes to debut his music in New York City by April 2019. “It’s terrifying,” Salles said. “It is a dream, but it’s a lot of responsibility. I feel very honored.” Salles will also integrate a visual component into his project — a video of excerpts from his interviews, which will be compiled and played during a live performance of his music. 

Salles has now lived in the U.S. for the past 23 years — longer than he lived in Brazil. (“This is the flipping year for me,” he said). He left Brazil with hopes of becoming a better jazz musician. “I knew that, if I wanted to learn this music the real way, I had to be here,” Salles said. “Composition was not my original plan. I wanted to play the saxophone; I wanted to be a good performer.”

Salles’ first memory of being exposed to jazz was at the age of 9 when his father played a Michael Brecker and Claus Oberman record titled “Cityscape.” It wasn’t long before Salles began badgering his father for a saxophone of his own. At first, his father resisted: The family had an old flute lying around, and he urged Salles to take up that instrument. But Salles was adamant. “I wanted something more dramatic,” Salles recalled. His persistence eventually paid off, and his dad bought him his own alto saxophone. Handing it over to the young Salles, he said, “It’s up to you to earn it.” 

At first, playing music didn’t come easily to Salles. “I was very much interested in visual arts and architecture and mathematics. All of that came easily to me,” he said. “I felt more challenged by music than by the other areas I was more naturally talented for.” This challenge invigorated Salles, who went on to study popular music at the State University of Campinas in São Paulo.

Salles came to the U.S. to get his master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and he immersed himself in American culture, absorbing different elements of the musical tradition ranging from pop to blues to swing styles. Being here — first as a student, then with an optional practical training visa, followed by three artist’s visas and a green card and, now, as a citizen — has helped Salles to grow as a musician, allowing him “to understand deeply the culture, play with people who grew up in this culture and with this music, and perfect my English,” he said. 

“The music that you do is a reflection of who you are and the times you live in,” said Salles, who incorporates Brazilian musical styles, including bossa nova and choro, into his own compositions to acknowledge his Brazilian heritage. “Those things happen by osmosis. Brazilian music influences everything I write in a certain way,” he added. “My students make fun of me because I always compare everything to cooking. If you grew up in Brazil eating and cooking Brazilian food, and you decide to go study French cuisine somewhere, even if you master that, your early influences will seep into your French food. It’s your palette, and it’s going to come across.”  

A review of his 2009 album “Timeline” on the New York-based website All About Jazz notes that “what is most striking …, aside from the musicianship, is the way that Salles seamlessly integrates Brazilian rhythms into the jazz structure.”

Salles’ most recent work, “The Lullaby Project,” explores how culture and identity transcend national boundaries through the singing of lullabies. “My grandparents immigrated from Europe to Brazil and sang these lullabies to my parents, who sang them to me, and I eventually sang the lullabies to my kids,” said Salles, who is the father of Bruno, 8, and Luca, 4. Salles’ wife, Laura Arpiainen, is a freelance violinist and music teacher at Pelham Elementary School.

Working on “The Lullaby Project,” Salles was struck by the power carried by such traditions. “Dreamers: The New Immigrant Experience” is the “next chapter,” said Salles of his exploration of how culture shapes identity. “The Lullaby Project,” his first large jazz ensemble album, will be released in September 2018.

Although initially inspired by jazz music, Salles — who has also studied classical composition and different styles of Latin music — hesitates to call himself a jazz musician. “Philosophically speaking, that would be the closest thing to what I do, because jazz can incorporate almost any style of music. I feel like my music really navigates between these different things,” Salles said. “It’s jazz in the sense that the spirit of the music is completely connected to improvisation, self-expression, flexibility, and a lot of European/African influences.” 

He is wary of labels, and that makes sense. He’d rather blur boundaries. “That’s about all I want — to write music and have people play it all over the world,” said Salles with a grin. “It doesn’t get any better than that!”