Growing up in a working class family in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Miguel Zenón was studying classical saxophone at a performing arts high school when his world suddenly opened up.
"My friends were passing around tapes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, and I became really interested in improvisation," Zenón says. "Up to that point I hadn't been really passionate about music. That was the first point where I really found a part of music I wanted for myself."
But Zenón was also a strong student academically, and when it came time for college he was accepted at a top engineering school.
"When I decided that I didn't want to do that, it was a shock for my family," he says. "They were worried about my future and how I was going to make a living. There are no musicians in my family. There are no artists. It's unheard of in the circle of people that are close to me.
"It was a hard decision and I did it not really thinking about how it would work out. I was going step by step. Every step I took another door opened, and after a while it just became obvious that music was the road for me."
First he had to learn two languages.
"I realized early on that jazz is a language, just like the music I grew up with," Zenón says. "When I got interested in jazz, I realized that it wasn't my language. It felt similar to when I was learning to speak English. I had to learn little by little, word by word, and put sentences together.
"So, for me, it was about getting immersed in the language enough and being comfortable with the instrument enough that I could actually portray my personality when I play and improvise. I think of it in the same way as having a conversation. You improvise something that makes sense and react to what's happening around you."
Zenón attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and never looked back. Not only has he become one of the top saxophonists in jazz, but his compositions and performances have won him the top awards in the arts: a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship.
The title of Zenón's latest record, "Típico," means "something folkloric or traditional, or representing a specific group from an area of the country."
Zenón believes his band of 15 years — with Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo, Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig, and Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole — has come up with a sound that can only be created by the four of them. "Típico" represents that sound and Zenón's roots.
"I made up my mind a long time ago that I want to be connected to Puerto Rico and Latin America as much as possible," Zenón says. "I've been able to do that through music. After I moved to the United States, I was able to stay in touch with my roots, my culture, and folkloric elements of my country and Latin America in general, and bring it into a jazz context.
"This recording was an example of that. I looked into the music of my parents and grandparents and the music I grew up with. I thought about what the Great American Songbook has represented for jazz. I started thinking about my own Puerto Rican Songbook and the songs I really connected with. When I play them, I actually hear the lyrics and I'm sentimentally very connected to them."
Aside from his own music, Zenón has another passion: to bring jazz and jazz education to Puerto Rico. In 2011, he founded Caravana Cultural.
"We organize, free of charge, jazz concerts in rural areas of Puerto Rico that are less developed and have less exposure to things like jazz," Zenón says. "Concerts are preceded by a talk about a figure like Miles Davis. Then we play. I bring some of the best musicians in jazz, and at the end of the concerts we play with local students. We've started giving a little grant so they can take lessons."
Caravana Cultural is self-funded, one of the many benefits of Zenón's $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship.
"The whole idea is they give you this money with no strings attached," says Zenón. "The life of an artist can be unstable; you don't really know what's coming around the corner. It's nice to have something you can rely on when things are not going as good as they were. This can be life-changing because it can give you time to focus on things that matter in terms of creativity."
But Zenón was not just thinking of himself.
"Caravana Cultural was a dream of mine for years," he says. "If I ever had the money, I would do this kind of thing. It's definitely been the most rewarding thing music has ever given me, so I will try to do it as long as possible."
Miguel Zenón will perform on Monday, June 26, at Kilbourn Hall at Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs Street. 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tickets are $35, or you can use your Club Pass. miguelzenon.com.