By Linda Sickler, Savannah Morning News
The strong friendship between Eddie Venegas and Ricardo Ochoa has survived time and distance.
“We are both from Venezuela,” Ochoa says. “We had the same violin teacher and became friends because we were in the same studio.
“We had very similar lives down there. We both got jobs in the Venezuela Philharmonic, so at a young age, we were both professionals.
“He introduced me to surfing,” Ochoa says. “We really bonded as young kids.”
“We’re basically like brothers,” Venegas says. “We went to the same schools and played a lot of music together in all kinds of styles.”
Ochoa moved to the United States, and a few years later, so did Venegas. They’ve managed to stay in touch and on June 2, will reunite for a concert of Latin jazz at the Tybee Post Theater.
Venegas discovered music as a child when his parents took him to a symphony concert.
“I fell in love,” he says. “I don’t remember it, but my parents told me when I got home, I started mimicking the violin section, so my father bought me a violin.”
Later in life, Venegas learned to play the trombone.
“In college, someone loaned me a trombone and I was using it as a hobby, a way to kill time,” he says. “But I became more serious and am now a trombonist/violinist.”
That ability has given Venegas some unique opportunities, including a job with singer Marc Anthony.
“They needed some trombone and string parts for his music,” Venegas says. “Their music director knew I played both.
“I came in and was part of it after that,” he says. “There’s a big violin solo that is sort of a feature in those concerts.”
Venegas really enjoys working with Anthony.
“It’s nice to be part of a performance and hear the feedback of the audience,” Venegas says. “It works like clockwork.
“We all have a big role. I play the violin and sing at the same time, then put it down and play the trombone. That sensation of playing with an ensemble together is really nice.”
For a time, Ochoa and Venegas were roommates in New York City.
“We lived at our teacher’s house,” Ochoa says. “We always helped each other and went to school together.”
Ochoa helped Venegas even before his arrival in New York.
“Right before he got on a plane to go to New York, he got robbed at gunpoint and they stole his violin,” Ochoa says. “He was coming from an orchestra rehearsal.
“He called me and said, ‘I don’t know what to do now. I don’t have a violin.’
“I was lucky enough that I was playing an instrument that was loaned to me by my teacher,” Ochoa says. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about that, I’ll give you my old violin.’”
While Venegas stayed in New York, Ochoa moved to Pittsburgh to earn his master’s degree and then moved to Savannah.
It was while the two were studying at Queen’s College that Venegas took up the trombone.
“I started playing trumpet, but it only lasted two weeks,” Ochoa says. “I didn’t have the patience for it, but he kept going with the trombone until he became so proficient, it led to some really good opportunities.
“There are several YouTube videos of Marc Anthony in concert where it’s pretty exciting to see Eddie,” Ochoa says. “For years and years, I’ve been wanting him to come to Savannah so we can perform together again. We always played together when we were younger and there were a lot of sparks when it came down to creativity and performance.”
In addition to music, Venegas has worked with his wife, Karin, to create the film “Unafraid: Voices from the Crime Victims Treatment Center,” which is about sexual assault victims. It has been presented at film festivals throughout the United States.
“I wrote some music and did the cinematography and my wife directed,” he says. “We got some distribution, which was very exciting.
“The film is also about the center my wife’s mother founded with friends in New York City. It was one of the first centers founded to help sexual assault victims and domestic violence victims.
“They also revolutionized the way authorities collect evidence and came up with their own rape kit,” Venegas says. “Before that, they needed two eyewitnesses, otherwise they couldn’t prosecute.”
Ochoa is the program director at Tybee Post Theater and a member of the popular local band Velvet Caravan. He also has founded a new band, the Lowcountry Jazz Collective.
Venegas is looking forward to the opportunity to play with Ochoa again.
“He came to visit last summer and we had a chance to catch up,” he says. “But it’s never enough. We go back a long time.
“He’s put together a pretty nice band. We’ve got a pianist, a bassist, two violins and a Latin percussionist.
“There’s always some experimentation that comes with this,” Venegas says. “Some of the pieces we’ll play are ones I’ve done with my string quartet, the Sweet Plantain Quartet. I’m going to modify them for this band. There’s always a lot of learning and growing from this kind of experience.”
Ochoa’s job at the theater gave him the opportunity to bring Venegas here. They also will perform at the Jazz Corner in Hilton Head at 8 p.m. June 3 and 4.
The Lowcountry Jazz Collective is a group Ochoa formed recently. It features him on violin, Eric Jones on piano, Dave Masteller on bass and Gino Castillo on percussion.
“I had intended to develop a Latin jazz band about 10 years ago with Eric Jones on piano,” Ochoa says. “Gino Castillo, who lives in Charleston, is probably the best and only Latin percussionist in the region. “He originally is from Ecuador but lived in Cuba. This is the first time Gino and Eric and I have played together.
“This is a unique situation we hope grows and serves both Savannah and Charleston,” Ochoa says. “There really is no Latin jazz in Savannah and I would love to see more.”
The concert will be an original show covering the history of Latin violin, from Charanga style to modern Latin Jazz. Charanga originated in Cuba and uses strings with Latin music.
“Back in the days that Cuba was open, they had elaborate shows where they would have big orchestras combined with Afro-Cuban music,” Venegas says. “Out of this came Charanga music, which is a smaller version of that. I paid for college in New York City playing Charanga gigs.
“I had the privilege to play with these bands during college and learn the Latin styles with violin,” he says. “Combined with the classical music I was studying at the time and jazz classes I was taking at the time, those are the sources of what I play today — a mix of Latin Charanga style from the ’70s jazz, and classical music, which is always a part of it.”
At the Tybee Post Theater, Charanga music will be included in the mix.
“It’s a style that precedes salsa,” Ochoa says. “It was popular in the 1950s and early ’60s and it had a lot of violins and guitars, not so much brass instruments.
“Brass took over and made everything louder. We’re going to dig into some of that music and go into the history of Latin jazz with some really fun songs that are very accessible and dance-able. We might even play some American songs that we turn into Latin jazz.
“We hope we have a good group of people to enjoy the show,” Ochoa says. “It’s going to be very fun and very different than anything we’ve had, not only in the Tybee Post Theater, but in the area.”
IF YOU GO
What: Violinist Eddie Venegas with the Lowcountry Jazz Collective
When: 8 p.m. June 2
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave., Tybee Island
Info: 912-472-4790, www.tybeeposttheater.com