By Angelica Acevedo
If you are not familiar with Terraza 7, the quaint dive bar that exudes Latin American culture blended into live performances of jazz and immigrant folklore located on the border of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, then you are undoubtedly missing out.
The one-of-a-kind venue offers patrons much more than just the opportunity to listen to a variety of music performed by musicians from across Latin America. It is also a community center where they provide music workshops, literary events, film screenings, and political and community activism.
On Sunday nights, visitors can take in the fervent Latin jazz played during the weekly Jazz Jam Session by the house band, John Benitez Trio, which is led by Grammy-award-winning bassist John Benitez.
“I’m Latino, and a lot of the people that come here are Latino, Latino descendants or related somehow with Latino communities, so it’s important to share what is coming from our countries and how we put it together in New York,” said Benitez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico before moving to New York City. “New York is the melting pot where all these things come together.”
When the show began, Benitez welcomed Terraza 7’s guests — with a Spanglish flare, no less — who watched in a screen on the first level of the bar, as well as those in the dimly-lit mezzanine, where patrons pay $7 to watch the band up-close.
He then introduced his bandmates, which consisted of Jay Peña playing the congas, Angel Vasquez on the timbal, Carlos Chong on guitar, Joshua Benitez on piano, and Francis Benitez on drums.
They initially played up-tempo songs with the Latin signatures of pronounced drums, smooth bass and vibrant piano, prompting visitors to dance to the rhythm. They also played “bomba,” a traditional Puerto Rican music and dance style. The group performed from 9:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., along with guest performances by Puerto Rican saxophonist Marcos Cuevas and Ecuadorian singer Tamara, who sang a “bolero,” a distinct type of slow-tempo Latin music.
Afterwards, the band took a break and welcomed other performers to take their spots, as part of their usual unrehearsed jam session. All the while, the crowd grew to the point where the mezzanine had no more seats available. There was a family-like atmosphere, almost as if everyone knew each other as they greeted one another with friendly smiles and familiar hugs. Benitez even went around shaking hands with all those in the mezzanine.
“It’s about having a good time with your friends, musicians and artists; where young people and people from older generations gather to just express themselves in a latin-jazz environment,” Benitez said.
Guests began to take turns on the drums, bass, timbal, conga and piano — even coming prepared with their own instruments, as one man played the trumpet while another played the bongos.
Benitez said he has performed in Terraza 7 for almost five years now, and it continues to be a way to give people a “platform to express themselves.”
“Every Sunday, it’s full because people come and there are no rehearsals; everything comes from the heart of the people,” Benitez said. “It’s like right now, you’re having a conversation with me, I’m listening to you and I react to your questions — same way happens in music, same way we unify and try to come with something that makes sense.”
Benitez’s son, Francis, thinks that one of the best parts about performing there is that “it’s a challenge.”
“You play one way based on what you hear here, but you probably wouldn’t play the same way in a different spot — the location might be different, might be smaller, the sounds are different — the small details actually impact the way you play,” Francis said. “It’s really useful to have like an active ear and be quick.”
He added that he enjoys the other events Terraza hosts.
“They had a presentation talking about farmers being exploited in Colombia and stuff like that, so I got some exposure to stuff that happens that’s not just on the Daily News or the New York Post, so it’s nice.”