Interview: Chaz Salazar, flutist and activist.
To get started, tell us a bit about yourself.
Thank you for this question, I think knowing the vantage point from which a person speaks helps the listener better understand where the other person is coming from and how intersectionality plays a part in their life. I am Chicano and was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. I grew up financially poor, or socio-economically disadvantaged as some people like to call it; but my family has always been wealthy in love and support. I am a proud first-generation college graduate. And I am gay. These are some of the main parts of my identity that come together to form me.
What has been your musical journey so far?
My musical journey began in the fifth grade at Valley View Elementary School. Mr. Gaona was our band director and he gave all of us in beginning band the option to choose the instrument we wanted to learn. Having never really heard it before then, I chose the flute. Little by little, I grew to love the flute and at the end of seventh grade, Mr. Gaona pulled me aside. He noticed my enthusiasm and fast progress so he suggested that I take private lessons. He recommended Rosie’s House: A Music Academy for Children which provides free music lessons to under-resourced youth. The first thing I told my then new teacher, Judy Conrad, was: “I want to be the Principal Flutist of the New York Philharmonic.” She believed in me and replied, “Let’s get to work.” I finished the program at Rosie’s House upon high school graduation and went on to earn both my BM and MM from Arizona State University. After about two years of working a day job, teaching, and taking auditions, I decided to go back to school for a bit longer and I was accepted to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) where I am in the final year of my Artist Diploma. My dreams, which I now call plans, have expanded which we’ll get into next.
What caused your plans to expand?
Well, up until recently, I still held that dream of playing the flute in a major orchestra and that was the thing that motivated me to practice: to win a job. But during this time of both the covid pandemic and the country’s racial reckoning I started to experience cognitive dissonance. I’ve trained all my life, like an Olympian, and made countless sacrifices along the way to win an audition so that I could just play in an orchestra—the one thing that brought me so much joy to do… But, the orchestra as an institution has historically been limiting, problematic, and racist, among other things. So I asked myself: “Do I really want to be a part of an institution that perpetuates the status quo of systemic racism and white supremacy?” My answer is a big NO.
So what will you do instead?
I’ve decided to dedicate myself to catalyzing the changes we need to see in our orchestras, and in the industry as a whole. I think one of the main flaws in the orchestra mindset is how we think about the purpose of this music and the role of the organizations that present it. It should be art for social justice and community building rather than art for mere entertainment. Art institutions, especially the legacy ones, should not have a separate community engagement department; instead, the entire organization itself should operate as a community organization that puts the community at its core! Understanding who they are and who they stand for is the first step institutions can take that will lead them to create solutions and resolutions for the inherent racial and exclusionary issues that pervade the field. Currently, the orchestra is a microcosm of the society it lives in (US), reflecting the imbalance of power between BIPOC and white people. But, I think the orchestra can use the tools it has to fix the lack of diversity within itself as well as to then serve as an example for the country to follow.
And how are you doing this social justice work and musical activism?
I do it through partnerships. As a board member of Quinteto Latino, I help the San Francisco Bay Area wind quintet deliver on its mission of performing of music by Latinx composers and advocacy for Latinx musicians (quintetolatino.org) I contribute to planning the programming for the Sphinx Organization’s National Alliance for Audition Support as a member of The Artist Council (sphinxmusic.org) I am a consultant for Voices Unheard, a growing concert series and initiative to empower underrepresented artists and transform classical music standards and curriculums (voicesunheardproject.org) as well as an ambassador for the Samuel Vargas International Music Foundation which provides life-changing opportunities through music education internationally (samuelvargasfoundation.org) And I work with the National Orchestral Institute + Festival as the Sphinx Orchestral Futurist Fellow to help build their DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and access) efforts. I take these issues to the stage every time I perform with my programming as well as into my practice as a teaching artist. I do hope to plant my own arts organization soon…
What are your hopes for the future?
Remember, how I always wanted to play in an orchestra? I don’t want to be in an orchestra made up of artists, I want to be part of an orchestra made up of civic artist leaders who refer to their community work as a responsibility. And I hope, very soon, that this will be the case for the entire industry.
About the Author
Chicano flutist Chaz Salazar employs “classical” music as a catalyst for social justice as an orchestral musician, teaching artist and musical activist. He works to ensure that students who are part of marginalized communities, specifically BIPOC and those of socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, have equitable exposure and access to music and music education.
In his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, he has served as the flute instructor for Harmony Project Phoenix, an El Sistema-inspired program. Salazar received his early formal musical training from a similar program called Rosie’s House: A Music Academy for Children which provides free music lessons to under-resourced youth.
As a performer, Salazar was a founding member of the in-home chamber music series, An Evening of Music, where he made appearances on over 30 concerts. Along with performances at churches, community centers and retirement homes, Salazar has also performed with the Phoenix Symphony as a substitute musician.
Currently, he is attending CCM in the Artist Diploma program under the mentorship of Demarre McGill (Principal Flutist, Seattle Symphony). There, Salazar is part of the CCM@Mercy partnership which affords him the opportunity to perform in area hospitals for patients, families, physicians and staff. He is also the flute instructor for CCM Preparatory and Community Engagement. More recently, Salazar was awarded the National Orchestral Institute Sphinx Futurist Fellowship; it is a unique artistic and performance fellowship available for Black and Latinx musicians that combines administration, orchestral performance, festival curation and community engagement. As the fellow, Salazar will work with the Director of the NOI+F on the planning, recruitment and execution of the festival over a 13-month period to advance his career as an orchestral musician and provide a creative platform for shaping the orchestra of the future.
In his advocacy and social justice efforts, Salazar serves on the board for Quinteto Latino and he is a consultant for concert:nova and Voices Unheard. He is also an ambassador for the Samuel Vargas International Music Foundation.
A first-generation college graduate, he earned both his BM and MM degrees in Flute Performance from Arizona State University, the latter degree as a Reach for the Stars Fellow. In addition to Demarre McGill, Salazar’s other influential teachers include Judy Conrad, Brian Gordon, Elizabeth Buck and Marco Granados.