Name: Isaac Gateno
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Major: Political Science with a concentration in American Politics
Minors: Survey Research & Data Analytics and Computer Science
For most Penn students, Fisher–Bennett 413 is just a room, but for the past three years of his Penn career, Isaac Gateno (C ‘24) has called it home. Sitting in 413, with musical instruments taking up every square inch of the room, Isaac tells his story while radiating enthusiasm and deep–felt passion for his music. He casually turns to the piano to play beautiful jazz segments mid–sentence that make you just want to jump out of your seat and dance along. He plays in a state of pure freedom and excitement that makes his art look effortless, and his upbeat melodies are tantamount to his lively personality. When Isaac joined Penn during his first year on Zoom, he had never played jazz piano with a group. But over time, jazz has given this talented musician a sense of community and has become his most invaluable asset here at Penn. His band, Combo 4 (which actually has seven talented members, despite the name), is making its way across different realms of campus, from performing at frat parties to administration retirements. With his constant exploration for self–fulfillment both academically and musically, Isaac’s story demonstrates the importance of not confining ourselves to any sort of box, and of extending our capabilities way beyond our comfort level.
What is the backstory of Combo 4?
Combo 4 began during my sophomore year when a girl named Inci Gurun—now she’s a huge pop star—decided she wanted to play at some friend in Zete’s birthday party. She picked some people from her combo to play, and I happened to be in it. We were making music together. Freshman year I was also in her combo on Zoom, which was very weird. She turns to us and goes, “Hey, listen, I want to play at a birthday party. Can everyone in the combo just like come and we'll just play like random heads?” We came to 413 to practice some songs. Some of them are still on our basic setlist. Like “Crazy”, [by] Gnarls Barkley, is a big one. “Valerie”, Amy Winehouse, and “I Will Survive” are classics.
It’s kind of a funny story because we ended up getting kicked out of the frat house. We brought all of our stuff and we were ready to go, but we never actually got to play. It was very discouraging. We were still a band at this point, but we never actually performed live, and I wasn't really in love with this idea. I had some friends in Sammy, and a few weeks later, I concocted this idea of a cocktail hour at one of their parties. The brothers were really into it. They hired us to come, so we finally got our chance to perform. That was just the highlight of the semester, and it just clicked for me that that's what I wanted my main activity to be at Penn.
Since then, Inci went on with our drummer, Alex Graf, to produce music together. That’s how she got her startup rise, and while she moved on to bigger, better things after she graduated, we still wanted to keep the band going. We were able to get a group together for every gig opportunity, and I'm very proud of the fact that I'm the least talented musician in my group.
How does performing in front of an audience compare to practicing with your band?
It was just an amazing outlet for me personally. Within jazz combos, you play your genre, but we got to tailor to a given audience no matter where we were. Because I'm surrounded by all these really talented musicians, we could just adapt to any genre we were given. If we had to play an opener at KSig for some indie rock band, we knew we could play more indie songs or more pop songs in general. We played a Y2K party for Penn Records at Pike my junior fall, and we didn't have Y2K songs, but we threw in “A Pocketful of Sunshine.” I got the right patches on my keyboard to play “Toxic” by Britney Spears. That was a really cool experience.
One of my favorite tropes of all of our performances is the way our sax player and our trumpet player will get up and just start playing "Mr. Saxobeat" on any solo on any song because like I said, they're incredibly talented. Something we also do at a lot of our gigs is our sax player, Steven Tahbaz, will get up at the end of the gig, just as we're about to get kicked out, and say, “Look, we had these three songs left in the setlist. I'm gonna poll the room and ask who wants to hear these certain songs” and we'll get a cheer and applause. Definitely, the people have been a big component of it.
When did you first develop your passion for jazz music?
My mom put me in guitar lessons when I was in third grade. I remember I hated them. My teacher wasn't super into it, and I ended up quitting after a year. My mom is really my musical inspiration. She minored in music in college and can sight read any piece of music. We have a piano in our house that she'll just sit down at and blow me away. When I was 11 or 12, which is kind of late for people that start to learn, I took interest in piano and sat down with my mom. She set me up with a great teacher who got me started with a lot of classical music, the basic route like "Claire de Lune," Debussy and Chopin. Once I hit about ninth grade, I was starting to get really jaded with the whole practice cycle.
I got a new teacher, Jerred, who was a really eclectic character. It was strange for me at first when he first showed up and started talking about all these jazz related things because I had never done jazz, nor did I have an interest in it. I really fell in love with the style of teaching because I realized that jazz—more so than anything else I was playing—went above and beyond reading and memorization. The music flows together from a simple chord and you can improvise, which I thought was super cool, because I didn't know you could do things like that with music. That’s what made me fall in love with jazz. I went to a really small school in Houston, so we didn't have the greatest music department or band, and I wasn't familiar with how entrenched a lot of students really were in jazz when I began Penn online. For example, there's a very basic term in jazz called “comping” which is short for “accompanying.” Being able to accompany the soloist or whoever else is playing is the backbone of all jazz, and I did not know what that was. I had to learn a lot and excel fast if I wanted to actually be a part of it, and I've been doing combos every single semester that I can, including now. I’ve also met my best friends through jazz, which is just amazing. They're very cool people, and they're a lot of fun to be with on and off stage. I'm also the vice president of the Penn Jazz Ensemble now, which is a crazy turn of events because I still can't really read music to be honest with you.
Do you guys have any exciting gigs coming up?
One of my goals is to play a homecoming darty. I think that’d be super fun, just being able to play outside during the day. I’m also a Paideia Fellow, and in December, we are performing at a farewell event for one of the admins of the Paideia Center, which is cool because it’s an event that’s established. We're not just doing frat parties! It's a pretty cool process that we've been able to just explore through different routes and avenues. I’d say now we’re just trying to secure as many gigs as possible to maximize our time left at Penn.
What is the most valuable thing you have learned from being part of your band?
I think the one thing that you really don't appreciate as a listener of music is that moving gear is underratedly really hard. As the band leader, I organize the gigs, I get things for us, and I make sure we get paid. All of these logistics have to be in order, but transport—let me tell you. I'm talking like two to three hours beforehand. I gotta convince some members to come to Fisher–Bennett to help me—which is difficult considering we all have different schedules. Deconstruct all of the drums, get all these really heavy amps, and then take it back down four flights. The most insane thing is when it’s raining. You gotta get a tarp over the moving cart and get there early enough to play soundcheck before people show up. It’s a lot of physical labor, and there is a lot I’ve had to learn to really plan for, but it's very rewarding. I'm glad to have bandmates that are able to make time to help me because I know it's tedious, and we all have different schedules.
On a different note, tell me about your academic rollercoaster here at Penn.
I'm studying Political Science. I was super into humanities when I was in high school. I knew I could write and did not see myself as a STEM kid. I came in studying PPE, but didn't really want to do the E, and thought the philosophy classes were a little too circular for me. I liked poli–sci, but there was just something missing. My sophomore year, I started taking classes in the Survey Research [&] Data Analytics (SRDA) department. That was really satisfying to me, because I could prove things with data for the first time. I could sink my teeth into those problems. I found that when I was writing, it was tedious because there's this tendency to try to perfect every sentence. You feel that way when you're coding too, but for me, something about coding felt very gratifying in a way that I could get into the flow state and find gratification in the little debugging processes until I have a finished product that can actually run something.
I was obviously very conflicted because I knew I wanted to be pre–law, so I spent a lot of time soul–searching. Post–sophomore year, I got a PURM grant to work at the Computational Social Science (CSS) Lab doing political deliberation research. Actually, as a Paideia Fellow, my capstone project is going to be on political depolarization and mitigating polarization. It's still a very important issue to me, but I just couldn't see myself doing research or even law really as like a full–time career, because I was finding issues with my ability to stay focused on one thing; whereas with coding, I found this newfound interest that I could work on for eight to ten hours. Junior fall, I was like one of the oldest people in my CIS 110 class, which ended up being one of my favorite classes at Penn. Fast–forward, and now I'm a CS minor! Yet, junior spring, I was still very much in the poli–sci mindset and ended up going to Penn in Washington because I had to finish my major.
Overall, I think it's been a very cool exploration process for me and I feel very satisfied knowing that I, for the first time in my Penn career, feel very confident in where I'm going. I'm late to the game but I’m trying my best!
I think it’s kind of ironic that in the music realm, you were attracted to a genre in which you could express yourself more freely, but academically, you were more engaged in a field with more structure.
Musically, I was very attracted to a free–form art that allowed for greater expression. Coding doesn’t allow for a lot of creativity, but I think I could get more into the flow academically when I had a targeted goal.
What are your plans for after you graduate? Jazz and otherwise?
The strangest part is I can't even really commit to recruiting for tech jobs right now because my current goal is to teach English abroad in Spain for after I graduate. Spanish is my other passion. My dad is from Colombia and did not speak much English until he was 20. His entire family went to Panama when he was eight years old, and my family still lives there. I am Hispanic, although I don't look like it, and I had this weird cognitive dissonance because my cousins in Panama would only speak to me in English. I did not know a word of Spanish before coming to Penn, but I became obsessed. It got to the point where I was writing Spanish labels for things in my room and counting out loud in Spanish while walking my dog. Spain also happens to have a really cool jazz scene. I plan on continuing it [jazz] in whatever capacity is most convenient or makes the most sense, whether it be teaching jazz at my school, hosting recitals, or just me personally going out to jazz clubs.
Favorite color? Sage green
No–skip album? “Drunk On A Flight” by Eloise
Favorite place to work on campus? United By Blue before it got shut down. Now, I'm a big Stommons fan. I like having lively energy and people around.
Favorite movie? La La Land
There are two types of people at Penn? Lyn’s people and Hemo’s people.
And you are? Hemo’s all the way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.