A New Tune: Combining jazz and classical piano

Raul E. Blanco is awarded the Master’s Student Achievement in the Arts for a new style of music


By Yue Huang

Master’s student Raul E. Blanco has received this year’s Master’s Student Achievement in the Arts award from the College of Arts and Sciences. Raul is majoring in jazz studies at WSU and will graduate this May.

The Master’s Student Achievement award is offered each year to three master’s students who have outstanding academic performance, achievements in research and/or creative activity, and contributions or service to their academic unit. Raul received his award on April 18 during the College of Arts and Sciences Appreciation and Recognition Social.

“Raul has had a transformative effect on the School of Music and in particular the jazz area,” said Dr. Brian Ward, Raul’s advisor. “Raul has written music for several ensembles and has led both our Latin Jazz ensemble and Jazz Wires, our top jazz combo. He is an excellent teacher and mentor to undergraduate students in the School of Music. We are excited to see where Raul’s work ethic and talents lead him in the future.”

Getting Interested in Jazz

Raul was born in Cuba and lived there for 18 years. His grandmother was a piano teacher and cultivated a great zeal in him for playing piano. He began playing when he was 7 years old, and in third grade was selected to attend a music school in Cuba, where he received systematic education in classical piano. It was there he discovered jazz. Raul was fascinated by the melody made by jazz as it was distinct from that produced by the classical piano—the kind of music he learned in music school.

“Jazz is vivid, dynamic, and full of energy, passion, and ‘voices’ from the player,” said Raul about his first impression on jazz. With a desire to learn more about jazz, he was disappointed that he could find little information about the music style in Cuba.

“We had no textbooks about jazz in Cuba,” said Raul. Consequently, he could only search for audio files and try to imitate what he heard.

When he moved to Houston in 2008 for economic reasons, Raul was excited that he now had access to as many resources about jazz as he dreamed possible. This helped him develop his professionalism in jazz music, and later inspired him to pursue a master’s degree in jazz studies focusing on jazz piano, at WSU in 2017 fall. He had already earned his B.A. in music performance with emphasis in classical piano at Texas Southern University and had a few jobs playing piano in the Houston area.

Combining Cuban Music and Jazz Piano

Raul has long been interested in combining Cuban music with other types of music, such as the Scotland bagpipes. But combining Cuban music and jazz piano is special to him because it bridges his years of learning classic piano in Cuba with his personal interest in jazz.

To describe the combination of the two music styles—classical piano with jazz—Raul used the word “interesting.”

According to him, Cuban music is “rich and complicated in rhythms,” just as many other types of Latin music are. Thus, when Cuban music is integrated into jazz piano with the swing as one of the major features, a rhythmic richness is created. (Click the audio recording to listen to a piece of music that combines Cuban music and jazz piano played by Raul.)

Raul considered the most difficult part of the combination was to figure out an appropriate way to add notes to original melodies in order to express his own emotions as well as to touch people. In his opinion, different ways of adding notes to even the same melody would result in different listening experiences for his audiences.

As an example, he recalled the experience of creating his composition, Love and Thoughts.

“To express my feeling, I tried uncountable, various ways of adding notes to the original piece, another beautiful composition I created one year ago,” said Raul. “I also took other things into account, such as the harmony of the melody, because I did not want any branch to harm the entire harmony of the music.”

Raul also believed the combination mattered to the music field of Latin jazz. Thus, he wrote his master’s thesis, Ready Defining the Latin Jazz, to discuss in particular his experience of combining Cuban music and jazz piano as well as teaching students in WSU’s Latin ensemble.

In the past two years, Raul has created 31 official compositions, including five classical pieces and 26 jazz pieces. He and his six-person band called Jazz Wires has produced three albums. The song, Heartbreaker, from their third album, Land of Giants, has received more than one thousand views on YouTube. (Click HERE to watch the video.)

Making Music as His Language

Raul and his band are often invited to music festivals and concerts both on and off campus.

“This February, for example, I did about 20 official and unofficial performances,” said Raul.

At the 2019 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival this February, Raul won first place in piano solo performance, and Jazz Wires was one of the ensemble winners. He regards performing in these festivals and concerts as a good opportunity to practice as well as to communicate with people about his music.

“Music is my language,” said Raul several times.

Raul created his first Cuban/jazz composition, Finding Destiny, when he first came to WSU.

“This piece conveyed a feeling of uncertainty,” he said. “This was because when I created it, I had just arrived at WSU and started my master’s degree, which made me feel a little bit worried about whether I could adapt to my new life.” (Click the video below to listen to the composition.)

As Raul prepares to graduate in May, the emotion he seeks to express through his music changes.

“On one hand, as I will leave WSU very soon, I believe I will miss my time here. On the other hand, I plan to go back to Houston for some music education work, so I look forward to my new journey there,” said Raul. “Therefore, my current music expresses the two feelings, showing my love for WSU and expectations for the future.”

Listen to Raul playing “Finding Destiny”