Ty Peterson

Ty Peterson playing trombone in the Rathskeller in the Memorial Union.

He was in Havana in December when the news came.

Ty Peterson, a recent UW-Madison graduate in trombone performance and Latin American studies, was nearing the end of a three-month stay in which he had immersed himself in Cuban salsa music. He even won a competition at a youth jazz festival in Havana, almost certainly the first American to do so. It was a great adventure, the kind that maybe only makes sense when you’re 23. Pack a suitcase, your horn, and see what happens.

On that day in December, Peterson was in the Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA), a conservatory that had been the Havana Country Club until Fidel Castro converted it into an arts complex in 1961. Peterson took classes there.

On Dec. 17, he was at the ISA, watching a visiting quintet from the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic rehearse, when big news began to circulate. President Barack Obama had just announced that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba.

“Everybody went nuts, it was amazing,” Peterson, now back in Madison, recalled last week.

“I’ve been lucky,” he added, and yet it was an adventurous spirit that put him in the position to be lucky.

Part of that luck, Peterson said, when we sat down to chat about his music, was having good teachers all along the way.

He grew up in Appleton, in a house that always had music playing — classical and jazz. Peterson played piano as a boy, some guitar with his dad, and then in sixth grade began trombone, taking lessons from Anne Witherell at the Academy of Music at Lawrence University.

“She saw something in me, some potential,” Peterson said. Witherell encouraged him to attend camps and institutes. “She made it meaningful,” Peterson added, “something more than just playing the notes.”

Once he came to Madison, having graduated from Appleton North in 2010, his teacher was Mark Hetzler, associate professor of trombone at UW-Madison.

“It was the way he looked at music, all the possibilities of what you can do with trombone,” Peterson said.

Hetzler is part of a quartet in Madison called Sinister Resonance, and he invited Peterson to assist the band, in the manner of a roadie.

It was while traveling to a festival at Penn State University that a radio station changed Peterson’s life. It was just Peterson and Nick Moran in the car, Peterson driving, Moran — Sinister Resonance’s bass player, one of Madison’s best — fiddling with the radio.

They were somewhere around Cleveland, and somehow Moran found a station playing salsa music. Moran, who has a degree in Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian studies, loves salsa. Peterson, well, that day in the car, it grabbed him and never let go.

“When we drove out of the station’s reach,” Moran recalled recently, “we pulled over somewhere, bought an adapter, and played some more.”

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“It kind of blew my mind,” Peterson said. “Nick showed me other Latin stuff, and I just really got into it.”

Before long, he’d added Latin American studies to his degree program, and made up his mind to try to visit Cuba, home of a unique form of salsa called timba.

Peterson’s first visit, in the company of two music student friends, was in summer 2012. It was coordinated through acquaintances in academia, and included an introduction in Havana to Lourdes Tamayo, a well-known dance educator and choreographer, very well-connected throughout the Havana music community.

Tamayo booked lessons for them with Cuban musicians. For Peterson, the two-week visit ended much too quickly. His feet were hardly on the ground in Wisconsin before he was putting aside funds to try to return.

It took two years. Peterson got his UW-Madison degree in May, and in October, he went back to Havana, again with the help of Tamayo, who, once he was there, assisted him in getting a student visa. Peterson enrolled at ISA, where one of the instructors is a trombone player in the legendary Havana timba band Los Van Van.

Speaking of Tamayo, Peterson said, “She knew everyone I had admired and looked up to the past two years.”

He got to play with Los Van Van, calling it “one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

More often, he played with the trombone players in his classes at ISA. Peterson took his horn everywhere.

“People there love playing music,” he said. “And they love playing music together.”

A Cuban friend told Peterson about a youth music competition, the JoJazz Festival, held a month prior to the Havana Jazz Festival.

“You should enter,” his friend said.

He did, and on Nov. 14, Peterson played one American jazz standard, one Latin jazz piece, and was astonished to be called to the stage two days later and handed a certificate by Juan Carlos Marin, a famed Cuban jazz trombonist. He had been judged best, or tied for best anyway, in the over 18 age category. An article in the Havana Times said, “the jury bestowed mentions on Antonio Guzman Sanz and Tyler John Peterson.”

These days, Peterson is thinking about grad school, while working on campus, and playing in Nick Moran’s Madison-based Latin music band, Son Contrabando.

“Seeing him develop, getting to go to Cuba, it’s great,” Moran said.

Peterson is already thinking about a return to Havana: “I’ll be going back there the rest of my life.”

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Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.