A&E Goes Abroad: Jazz Bassist Ze Eduardo discusses his musical coming of age

Sam Lewin

Bassist Ze Eduardo is one of the better-known jazz musicians in Portugal, having played with Steve Lacy, Kenny Wheeler and Jack Walrath, as well as a number of his own accomplished jazz groups. Eduardo also played on the first jazz record released in Portugal – saxophonist Rão Kyao’s “Malpertuis.” He now lives in Faro, the capital of the Algarve in the south of Portugal, preferring its slower paced vibe and low cost of living.

I met Eduardo in Faro last August and interviewed him about his experiences playing jazz and coming of age under Portugal’s dictatorship, which was in power from 1932-1974. So it was telling that when he met me – a clueless American curious about his political beliefs – he immediately joked that a few decades ago, he probably would have thought I worked for the CIA. This was likely a reference to the 1970s, when Portugal’s dictatorship was crumbling and the communist opposition was becoming more powerful, but the joke suggests the ubiquity of politics in 1970s Portugal.

Indeed, much of Eduardo’s early life was shaped, in some way, by the dictatorship – despite his aversion to the Portuguese government and the broader political system. Eduardo wasn’t a professional jazz musician until after the revolution, and he is the first to admit that he could only indirectly feel “the pressure of the fascist government,” at least as far as music was concerned.

But despite Eduardo’s few musical confrontations with the authorities, he still occasionally encountered facets of authoritarianism, especially while studying architecture at a university in Lisbon. “I remember being in university and going to a jazz concert. Then we’d get there and it’d be cancelled,” Eduardo recalled.

It was obvious to the students that the political police regularly cancelled these concerts, but even when jazz musicians actually did perform, the vibe was never quite “comfortable.” The political police frequently infiltrated shows, and while they tried to blend in, they were hardly subtle. “They didn’t understand anything about jazz; they were not integrated,” and they frequently asked people suspicious questions, Eduardo remembered.

Politics also pervaded his actual education at university; he studied architecture, but most of his teachers refused to mention any of the architectural styles that conflicted with the regime’s established script.

Despite these hardships, Eduardo was actually lucky to stay in Portugal during the 1970s. Many of his friends and fellow students were sent to various African colonies to fight in Portugal’s numerous colonial wars, and Eduardo believes that these wars resulted in a significant decrease in support for the regime’s policies and played a large role in its demise.

Unsurprisingly, Eduardo actively opposed the wars, and cheered when American bassist Charlie Haden famously protested them at the 1971 Cascais Jazz Festival – one of the largest public gatherings in Portugal to date. Eduardo remembers the concert fondly, describing it as “one of the most incredible nights of my life.”

But unlike many Portuguese, who solely remember the concert’s political importance, Eduardo remembers the music as well. He was particularly floored by performances by Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, having had never heard anything come close to what Davis’ band was playing.

Oh, and his political affiliation? Eduardo eventually got over his joking aversion to my CIA credentials and exclaimed, “I’m against the system, the politicians, and so I don’t belong to any party. I just want to waste my time with music, not with that bullshit.”