The jazz journey of Armando Nunez-Portillo

By Chase Myers

The mood was warm and comfortable Saturday night as the Armando Nùñez-Portillo group filled room 112 in Altgeld Hall with smooth jazz melodies to conclude SIU’s first guitar festival.

Born in Camargo, a small surrounding town near Chihuahua, Mexico, Nùñez-Portillo began playing guitar at an early age.

His interest in guitar began while he was in junior high school. He began listening to ’80s rock during high school and by the time he graduated, he decided to pursue it professionally.

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Nûñez-Portillo was self-taught for several years after high school because of the lack of musical schools in the area.

“Back then there were no schools, so the only way to learn was to learn from the recordings or if you could find somebody like an older person that can teach you something,” Nùñez-Portillo said. “I started by myself that way.”

Shortly after, he moved to Guanajuato where he studied classical composition, he said.

“Even now the jazz schools are just starting in Mexico,” he said. “If you want to study music, it is always centered around classical music.”

After finishing up a degree in classical composition, Nùñez-Portillo said he knew he leaned more toward jazz and improvisation, rather than the classical road.

After Mexico, he moved to the United States and studied at the University of North Texas, where he would go on to get his master’s degree in jazz studies and met current SIU guitar professor, Isaac Lausell.

He began to play on a Carnival cruise ship out of Florida right after school, in which he described as a perfect job for him right out of college.

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“I got a lot of time to practice, and since you don’t really spend money while you’re working there … it was a good way to save money,” he said. “I always felt that it was like a paid vacation.”

Nùñez-Portillo has since been teaching at the University of Chihuahua in Mexico for six years, which has just recently developed a jazz program and curriculum.

“Right now, we are already teaching a few of those classes as electives, but the plan is that they are not electives anymore, but just become a part of a core curriculum for people who want to get their degree in jazz specifically,” he said.

Nùñez-Portillo organizes a yearly jazz festival in Chihuahua that has been growing and gaining funding from the government for the past four years and featured some high caliber jazz acts from around the world.

“For the last two years, people in Chihuahua have been exposed to the real jazz, real American jazz,” he said.

The festival has increased in attendance over the last couple years, he said.

“The students are getting really excited to see this, so we are getting a lot of new students and the interest is very noticeable,” he said.

Nùñez-Portillo taught a master class and performed with a four-piece jazz band on the last day of SIU’s guitar festival. He played both original tunes and songs from some of his inspirations such as ‘The Red One” by Pat Metheny.

As the organizer of the recent guitar festival, Lausell brought him in as a featured performer and guest teacher after the two began regaining contact on and off over the Internet.

“We hadn’t seen each other since we left UNT, but we stayed in contact through Facebook and e-mail every now and then just to say ‘hi’,” Nùñez-Portillo said. “14 years later, we’re working together again.”

Nùñez-Portillo said at his performance on Saturday, it was great to reunite with Lausell after all these years in the same way that they met.

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