Chavez then enrolled in the prestigious Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, a Dallas magnet school that boasts gifted singer-songwriters Erykah Badu and Norah Jones as alumni. Despite entering as first chair, Chavez was again asked to leave the orchestra. Still a freshman and faced with dismissal from the school, Chavez joined its upstart salsa band.
Now in a musical environment that encouraged him to improvise, Chavez found his first gig as bandleader.
“The instructor was very young, and not completely learned in Afro Cuban music,” he said. “So I asked him [if] I could arrange some chord charts for the band … soon I was doing all the charts and rehearsing the band after school.”
According to Chavez, Afro Cuban music blends the song styles of Spanish and French Cuban settlers and their African slaves, resulting in what is commonly referred to as salsa music. And he loved it.
“I started studying the music intensely, reading everything I could, finding authentic Afro Cuban musicians to take lessons from,” he said. “I became a small expert in the music.”
But as his knowledge advanced, his rebellious streak returned.
“My attitude and ego started creeping in — that wasn’t flying with the instructor,” he recalled. Chavez was soon kicked out of the band. Again.
At just 16 years old and out of school, Chavez set out on his own.
“There was a Japanese foreign exchange student at the school I was attending — he abandoned his apartment to go back home, so I lived in his apartment rent-free for a year and a half,” he said.
Forced to discipline himself during that time, Chavez says he played his violin a lot and, he said, “did a lot of growing up.” By age 18, he was fully emancipated from his parents, living with his grandmother and setting his sights on the East Coast.
“When I left the Latin band [at Booker T. Washington], my teacher asked me, ‘Where else on earth are you going to get to play music like this?’” said Chavez. “I said to him, ‘I have no clue, but I’ll find it.’ Fortunately, I did- I came to Berklee. There were more people playing this music than I could ever have imagined.”
Now entering his fourth year at Berklee, Chavez is as busy as they come, giving violin and salsa dancing lessons — “I’m a dance instructor too, so expect to see me bust out some moves on stage tonight,” he said — as well as performing with his band, recording an album, and writing a book on salsa music. After graduating, Chavez says he plans to attend graduate school for violin performance next year in New York.
And he’s doing it all on his terms.
“Since I was very young, I’ve known exactly what I wanted to do — be a performer,” he said. “I feel that as long as I’m working hard to accomplish that goal, if I don’t do it my way, I’ll regret it.”
Chavez performs today at Kendall Square in Cambridge from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. He also performs tonight at the ICA from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.