Born in San Francisco, California, November 1, 1955, he was raised in the Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean traditions of his family, surrounded by music. The fertile musical environment of the San Francisco Bay Area shaped his career in a unique way. His studies of Afro-Latin music have included several trips to New York, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil and Colombia. He is known for his innovative use of traditional forms and instruments in combination with contemporary music, and has earned much respect and recognition as a prolific performer, composer, teacher, writer, radio programmer, and record/event producer whose career has spanned four decades.
John is widely respected as one of the top writers, teachers and historians in the field and was a member of the Latin Jazz Advisory Committee of the Smithsonian Institution. He is currently part of the faculty at the Jazz School Institute (Berkeley, CA) and the College of San Mateo (CA). He has conducted countless workshops, lectures and clinics in the US, Latin America and Europe since 1972 at institutions of all types including the Adventures in Music program of the San Francisco Symphony, the Berklee School of Music in Boston, UCLA, Yale, Stanford, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Michigan, Temple University, Brigham Young University, Cal Cal State Monterey Bay, Cal State Hayward, the University of Colorado, Yakima Valley Community College, Ohio Music Education Association, the Afro-Cuban Drumming and Dance Program at Humboldt State University (CA), Cal State Sonoma, Cal State Sacramento, Cal State San Jose, Tulane and Dillard Universities of Louisiana, Jazz Camp West, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Los Angeles Music Academy, the Museum of the African Diaspora (San Francisco), the Lafayette Summer Music Program (CA), the Oakland Public Conservatory, and La Universidad Inter-Americana in San Germán Puerto Rico. He has contributed to the international magazines Percussive Notes, Modern Drummer, Modern Percussionist, and Latin Percussionist.
John was the director of the Orquesta Tipica Cienfuegos (1976-1980) and the award-winning Orquesta Batachanga (1981-1985). He was founder and director of the internationally renowned, Grammy-nominated Machete Ensemble (1985-2006), who released nine CDs with special guests from Puerto Rico, Cuba, NY, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, mostly on John’s Machete Records label that was founded in 1984 and continues today. He currently directs the highly acclaimed John Santos Sextet, Latin jazz ensemble. Their second CD, Perspectiva Fragmentada, released in 2008, was nominated by the Jazz Journalists Association (NY), and by Cubadisco (Cuban Grammys) as one of the top Latin Jazz releases of the year, and selected as one of the five top Latin Jazz CDs of 2008 by New York’s All About Jazz magazine, among many honors. Their most ambitious and recent recording, Filosofía Caribeña Vol.2, is being released in 2013. Filosofía Caribeña Vol.1 (released May 1, 2011) received a four-and-a-half star review from Downbeat Magazine! John has also produced four full length CDs with his Afro-Caribbean Folklóric Ensemble, El Coro Folklórico Kindembo since 1994, two of which were Grammy-nominated, and the most recent, La Esperanza (released March 1, 2011), garnered a four star review in Downbeat Magazine!
The San Francisco Bay Area community in which he still lives and works has presented him with numerous awards and honors for artistic excellence and social dedication. John received the Community Leadership Award from the San Francisco Foundation in 2011. He was presented with the San Francisco Latino Heritage Award in 2012 that included a Certificate of Honor signed by Mayor Edwin Lee, and Certificates of Recognition from the State Assembly, a Certificate of Recognition from the State Senate, and a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from the US House of Representatives. He was also selected for the Man of the Year Award by Brothers on the Rise (Oakland, CA) in 2013.
John’s work has also been recognized and supported by the California Arts Council, United States Artists, the Zellerbach Family Fund, the Fund for Folk Culture, the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation, the East Bay Community Foundation, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, the Creative Work Fund, and the City of Oakland. The City of San Francisco issued a mayoral proclamation declaring November 12, 2006 John Santos Day. He was featured prominently in the PBS American Masters documentary, Cachao: Uno Mas (2008), and is the subject of another PBS documentary by Searchlight Films (Oakland, CA), currently in progress.