Louie Cruz Beltran Is a Master of Making Worlds Collide With His Congas

In any genre, drums and percussion are usually considered the most forceful instruments in a band. While that may be true, the ability to make worlds collide in smooth, effortless fashion is what’s set Louie Cruz Beltran’s playing apart for decades. Whether it’s a heavy handed conga solo, rapid fire trills on the timbales or banging on a cowbell, Beltran is like a chef coaxing a multitude of flavors out of his instruments, often with the most minimal ingredients. The only thing you can count on is that they’ll be always be spicy. He’s known around the world for his Afro-Cuban style a la Tito Puente or Willie Bobo, infused with hints of everything from jazz, blues, soul and pop, Beltran’s feel for his signature conga sound comes from a position of mastery and humble appreciation.

“I merge music, sometime I stay true to the music, but I’m a Latin jazz artist and I take any style of music whether it’s pop or Latin or jazz or any style and put it in a nice little Latin Groove,” says the multi-instrumentalist bandleader, songwriter and composer. “That’s what I’m about.”

Throughout several decades behind the congas, his talent has meshed his style on stage with
Latin music godfathers like Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Francisco Aguabella, and Jorge Claudio. Recently he has performed with legends Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Poncho Sanchez. This weekend, his thunderously eclectic sound will echo through the halls of the Public House by Evans Brewing Co., formerly known as Steamers—the jazz capital of OC. The small club that once cast a long shadow over the SoCal jazz scene was replaced by Public House last year, though the new owners are one-hundred percent committed to continuing the jazz legacy Steamers left behind.

“The festival is to bring awareness to people that the place is continuing to bring in the kinds of acts it had for Steamers.” Beltran says. It lets people know ‘don’t worry, we’re still here.’” Performing there under its new ownership for the first time, Beltran will bring a full band of talented virtuosos including bassist Andrew Ford bass, drummer Ramon Banda of Banda Brothers fame, vocalist Carlos Vivas, and sax/flute playerJustin Jaynor. The venue’s first major jazz event also includes sets from Blue Fish and The Tony Guerrero Quintet.

Though he’s performed around the world and in just about every jazz venue you can name in California as well as big outdoor events like the Playboy Jazz Festival, Beltran’s track record with the dim light and intimate setting of Steamer’s goes back about eight years.

Beltran began his formal music education as a student at Bakersfield City College in the early 1970s. He played with the Bakersfield Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Doc Woods and later worked as a percussionist on “The Writer’s Album” as a member of the Cal State Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Charles Argersinger. But his real first introduction to music began as a kid growing up in Bakersfield, a city often regarded as a Mecca for country western music. But for Mexican families that grew up there, it was more than a one horse music town. Funk, soul, regional Mexican and tropical sounds permeated from his backyard parties and radios all over the neighborhood.

“When I grew up in my house, my mother had the art deco radio in the kitchen always playing. She was a great singer, she would sing out loud while she was preparing dinner for eight brothers and two sisters,” Beltran says. “You could hear Tito Puente and Lola Beltran, and my mother would change it a lot, she was very eclectic. So I had a wide range of music to listen to as a boy because my mother was very open about music.”

Instilled with a love for music and fantasizing about playing the congas after watching images of Desi Arnez playing them on TV, he was overjoyed when a neighbor bought him his first pair of congas as a kid and he never looked back. Those early memories of music appreciation inspire Beltran’s work with inner city youth across LA ingrades as young as Elementary today who are in need of some life lessons and musical training. He speaks at a number of local schools every year, sharing his love of the congas with them in hopes of piquing their interest in the arts. His skill with talking with his mouth instead of his drums for a change is partly comes from his days working as a parole officer in Bakersfield for a few years before jumping into music full time.

“I moonlighted as a musician for years but then I got an opportunity to go on the road and I decided to let my 8 to 5 job go. It was a big decision for the rest of my life. But I just dove into music.”

Three albums and countless tours and performances later, Beltran’s  is still in love with the music and more importantly, the power of what it accomplishes just by its presence in people’s lives. His career continues to blossom thanks to his ability to incorporate traditional Latin styles into genres that open the door for a new fanbase everyday from people all over the world.

“I realized that music carries a great sense of ambassadorship. It was like an ambassador that brings people together,” Beltran says.

Louie Cruz Beltran performs at Jazz Fest at the Public House in Downtown Fullerton, Sun. Jan. 29 with Blue Fish and the Tony Guerrero Quintet. 10: 30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. For tickets and full info, click here

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