Bert Dalton says he’s just a guy from Chicago who likes to swing.
And over the past 30 years, that’s been more than enough for him to become a fixture in New Mexico’s music community, both as a performer and an educator.
The 67-year-old Santa Fe resident, who is also the longtime music director for the state’s National Dance Institute and co-founder of the New Mexico School for the Arts’ jazz program, is one of this year’s recipients of the lifetime achievement award from the New Mexico Music Commission. The 2019 Platinum Music Awards ceremony will be held Friday night at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
“It’s very humbling and unexpected,” Dalton said during a recent interview in the music offices at NDI’s Dance Barns in Santa Fe. “It’s also very validating, having been involved in musical activities on many different levels in New Mexico for all this time.”
Others receiving the 2019 awards are northern New Mexico traditional music icon Cipriano Vigil; Taos Pueblo musician Robert Mirabal; mariachi show producer Noberta Fresquez; educator, violist and promoter Jim Bonnell; and Santa Fe’s Candyman Strings and Things music store. Awardees are selected by a jury of music experts following an open-call nomination process.
“Each (recipient) is really a hero in their own genre,” said David Schwartz, president of the Music Commission’s foundation, which organizes the awards.
As for Dalton, Schwartz described him as “at the top of the heap,” both as a player who has led several different musical outfits over the decades – opening for major acts like Tito Puente and the Count Basie Orchestra – and in his role working with students.
“It’s really people like that, who have been operating under the radar for many years, that we have an opportunity to showcase and show people what they’ve done,” Schwartz said.
Dalton, a Villa Park, Illinois, native, grew up in a musical family and took up piano at the age of 8 because he liked the harmonies and different chords he could produce on the keys.
But it wasn’t until his junior year of high school that he fell in love with jazz. It started after he attended an intercollegiate jazz festival at nearby Elmhurst College.
“And I just loved the sound, those horns and the rhythm section,” he remembered. “All my friends were into Dave Clark Five and I was out buying Buddy Rich records. I thought there was something wrong with me.”
“There probably is,” he joked.
Dalton attended Northern Illinois University for its jazz program and studied for three years before deciding in 1973 to take a semester off to play professionally. He never went back.
“It’s been a long sabbatical,” he said.
After a few years on the Chicago music scene, he formed his first major group, the Chicago Jazz Exchange. The trio and vocalist combo recorded and toured across the country and internationally for nearly a decade, including in New Mexico. When the group disbanded in the late ’80s, Dalton decided that Santa Fe – where his group had noticed an eager audience for their sound – could be a good place to go and play some jazz.
“And it’s been 30 years; still trying to play some jazz in Santa Fe,” he said.
His first group in Santa Fe, Yoboso, was a “Latin/Afro-Cuban-based salsa” jazz quartet. The group was active from 1992 to 2000 and toured the country, as well as overseas in such countries as Australia and New Zealand. With both Yoboso and his subsequent Bert Dalton Trio, he’s been a regular at the La Fonda Bar.
The trio still plays gigs locally and backs up other ensembles occasionally, among them the Santa Fe Desert Chorale.
In recent years, Dalton also has explored his affinity for Brazilian-style jazz with The Brazil Project, an expanded version of the trio. Its most recent CD release was an homage to the work of German-Brazilian pianist Manfredo Fest.
Milo Jaramillo, a bassist from Isleta Pueblo who has played with Dalton for 20 years, starting with Yoboso, called his bandmate a “maestro,” well-versed in all kinds of genres. Though the central focus is jazz, Jaramillo has seen Dalton play different styles like Broadway tunes or pop charts with ease.
And as a group, the trio members say, they’ll do everything from blues – a nod to Dalton’s Windy City roots – to standards from Duke Ellington and Count Basie, to songs that fall within the Latin dance genres, such as samba, rumba, merengue or calypso. And Dalton arranges most of their repertoire, Jaramillo explained.
“There’s nothing he hasn’t touched or can’t touch; he’s not afraid of it,” he said.
That versatility comes in handy in Dalton’s other line of work; his day job as the music director as NDI-New Mexico. He stumbled across the organization in 1996 when he received a call from a friend asking him if he wanted to play for a dance class at an elementary school.
“I said, ‘Well, I guess. What do I play?’ ” Dalton recalled. “And he said ‘You’ll know what to do.’ And that was my training.”
He doesn’t remember which elementary school it was, but does distinctly recall its out-of-tune piano and the cafeteria’s school lunch smell. Still, he kept working with dance students and in 1998 became NDI’s music director. Today, he’s also the organization’s longest-serving staff member.
Dalton said his job during school hours has allowed him to sustain his performing career at night. But what has kept him with NDI for so long, he said, is its mission of using music and dance to help inspire kids.
“In some cases, it changes lives,” he said. “And to be able to do that through the arts is really interesting. I’ve learned to use music as a tool, not only to support the (dance) instructor, but also to engage and motivate the children through music.”
As the music director, he trains incoming musicians and other staffers, and collaborates within the dance institute’s artistic side, arranging compositions for dancing and organizing ensembles for themed shows.
But his main job, he said, is still accompanying classes. He plays for dancing kids five days a week, where he’s able to pull from his roots in jazz, particularly as an improviser. In the class setting, he has to be able to follow the instructor on the fly.
“I’ll take a jazz musician over a ballet pianist any day, because they can adapt,” he said. “They can go, ‘Oh I can make something up. What does this step sound like?’ To create something on the spot. That’s always appealed to my jazz creative side, having to be in the moment and create something in the moment.”
Over the past decade, Dalton also helped start the School for the Arts’ jazz program in partnership with Santa Fe drummer John Trentacosta.
The two approached the school with hopes of expanding its music program beyond a classical curriculum. They started teaching students on alternating mornings before school, Dalton said, bringing in charts and going over the basics of improv. Two years ago, the program evolved from an extracurricular activity into a class during the school day. Music students are also now able to select a “jazz track” for their studies in their junior and senior years, Dalton said.
Dalton is “thrilled” about the growth of the School for the Arts program and his role in getting local kids interested in jazz. He said he’s not only happy that the teens are picking up on the traditions and roots of jazz, but also that they use what they learn for self-expression.
“To become a jazz musician, you have to learn how to become yourself,” Dalton said. He explained that, to be successful, a musician has to be fully in touch with who they are, so their expression is authentic.
“In other words, you can’t just be a copycat,” he said. “You draw from the great musicians, you listen to the great musicians, you study them, but in the end you incorporate that into what you are as an individual.”
Does he feel he’s attained that in his own work?
“At times,” Dalton said. “There’s times where everything is clicking, the audience is with you and the band is hot, and there’s those moments where the music comes to you.
“It’s very elusive,” he added. “We’re always in pursuit of those moments of musical happiness.”