Business Impact

A Latin Gig

Once a classic violinist, Susie Hansen now has her own Latin jazz band and the respect of musicians across the country.

Nov 1, 2004

Thirty minutes before musician Susie Hansen, SM 74, performs at S.O.Bs, one of Manhattans top nightclubs, shes on stage setting up music stands and plugging in amplifiers. This is not typically the job of a seasoned violinist or the leader of a band that performs up to 200 dates a year. But since the day Hansen decided to give up a career in computer science for one on stage, she has pursued her love of music with zest. She books the gigs for the Los Angelesbased Susie Hansen Latin Jazz Band, handles the finances, produces recordings, and leads the group on her electric violin with a captivating ebullience. She does it all with a steely focus and a touch of play, which are also elements of the music she performs later in the evening. As clubgoers finish up a mambo dance class behind her, Hansen, dressed in a black pantsuit, says setting up is all in a days work.

Hansens love affair with the violin dates back to her childhood in Chicago. From age six to age 14, she took formal lessons each Sunday from her father, James Hansen, a violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. By age 12, shed made such progress that he gave her his sweet-sounding Despine violin, made in 1828. He took it back two years later when Hansen quit playing the instrument in a fit of teenage rebellion. But he returned it in 1972 when she came to MIT.

Hansen had entered a doctoral program eyeing a career in software design or artificial intelligence. But soon she was  touring with the MIT Symphony Orchestra, playing chamber music with the Electrical Engineering String Quartet, and taking private lessons with a leading Boston violinist. After three years, she came to an important realization. As much as I loved math and science, I was just crazy about music. I finally had to choose. She aborted the doctoral program, graduated with a masters degree, and devoted her life to music.

For the next three years, she worked part time at a Cambridge research center while studying with top violin teachers in Boston. By then, shed moved beyond acoustic classical music to the amplified world of rock and jazz. In the early 1970s, electric violins had yet to take off on the market, so Hansen attached an electric pickup to the Despine herself. By 1977, she was playing swing and bluegrass with a group called Strings Attached on the sidewalks of Harvard Square and at Cambridge hot spots such as Ryles Jazz Club and Club Passim.

She moved back to Chicago in 1980 and started her own band in 1981, which played straight-ahead jazz. One afternoon in 1986, a Latin bandleader heard her at an outdoor festival and invited her to play with his group the next week. She agreed and discovered the magic of Latin jazz. In 1988, she moved to Los Angeles, and she formed her own Latin band the next year.

When she began performing jazz in the 1980s, Hansen set aside her acoustic Despine in favor of a five-stringed electric violin, which has the range of both a violin and a viola. In 1991, a burglar broke into her Los Angeles home and stole the cherished Despine. Hansen was heartbroken, but she used the $25,000 insurance settlement to finance her first recording.

In my heart of hearts, I dream that someday that violin is going to cross my path and Im going to get it back, she says.

The violin is no stranger to Latin jazz. It has long been an essential part of Cuban music, particularly of charanga, a forerunner of salsa that features violin and flute. In Hansens band, the electric violin replaces the trumpet as the lead instrument in the horn section. The songs Hansen plays range from danceable salsa to hard-driving improvisational Latin jazz. Sometimes she plays with the rhythm section, laying down the musical foundation for the soloists.

Theres such a joy in the rhythm section. You get into a meditative state; you lock into a groove, she says. Then I get to play the horn lines when I take the solos. Thats where the creativity comes in.

Percussionist Ralph Irizarry, who has played with Latin jazz legend Rubn Blades for the past 14 years, says Hansen has earned the admiration of players in the male-dominated world of Latin jazz. She has the attitude and charisma that men respect, says Irizarry, who plays with Hansens band when its in New York. She can satisfy any number of audiencesfrom those who love pure jazz to the funkiest salsa dancer.

Hansen plans to return to the recording studio in the spring of 2005. Like her first two CDs, her latest will feature both salsa dance music and Latin jazz. I think of them as one, she says. People make the distinction that for salsa, you need lots of vocals and not too many improvised solos. I dont agree.

That versatility is Hansens calling card. In New York, she has come for a week of performances at two Manhattan nightclubs, a suburban high school, and the International Association for Jazz Educations annual conference. At S.O.B.s, couples twirl on the crowded marble dance floor as Hansen leads her band in a rollicking salsa tune.

We love to see you dancing, Hansen says into the microphone. The more you dance, the better we play.