The Smithsonian launched Jazz Appreciation Month back in 2001. They did not fail to include Latin jazz in that ”harmonious mix.”
Drawn towards the promise of economic opportunity or the desire to escape social stigmas in their own countries, Cubans, Mexicans, Haitians, and Puerto Ricans (among other Latin American and Caribbean citizens) took part in a large-scale migration to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly to New Orleans. This exodus was responsible for the integration of sounds that gave birth to American jazz and introduced popular Latin rhythms to the US. Latin American and Caribbean musicians found themselves working in many of the jazz brass bands that flourished in New Orleans and in doing so, influenced jazz with a “Latin tinge” as composer and pianist Jelly Roll Morton called it.
The Smithsonian selected April to celebrate jazz because many of its luminaries were born during the month, which I explored last week in ”Put some swing into your April quarantine—it’s Jazz Appreciation Month.”
One of the most important figures in Latin jazz history, Mario Bauzá, was also born in April. He may not be a household name for everyone, but he was one of the central figures in establishing the genre as we know it today.
Born on April 28, 1911, in Havana, Cuba, Bauzá, a Black Cuban, was a musical prodigy and studied classical music at a conservatory. Christina D. Abreu, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Latino/Latin American Studies at Northern Illinois University, explored Bauzá’s background in Rhythms of Race: Cuban Musicians and the Making of Latino New York City and Miami, 1940-1960.
She addresses the influences of race and anti-Black racism on Bauzá’s choice to leave Cuba and settle in Harlem.
Mario Bauzá grew up during “the cosmopolitan 1920s in Havana,” raised by a godmother he described as white and godfather he described as criollo. These wealthy Spanish godparents provided him with an excellent musical education after his mother and his father, a cigar manufacturer, died when he was five years old…Bauzá studied at the Municipal Academy of Cuba and was playing clarinet for the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra by the time he was nine years old. His godparents hoped he would remain a classical musician, but life in Havana offered him the opportunity to perform and experiment with popular dance bands and exposed him to American jazz music via shortwave radio and recordings that made their way onto the island. On his first visit to the United States in 1927, a fifteen-day trip to record with Antonio María Romeu’s orchestra, he stayed in Harlem. That short trip radically altered Bauzá’s perspective: “I fell in love with [Harlem], I say, ‘I gotta comeback to live in this country, because I can live here, don’t worry about what color my skin [is]. I’m a black, I gon’ be right along with these other black, we all black.’ ” During that trip, he heard Frankie Trumbauer of the Paul Whiteman orchestra perform at the Paramount Theater, and that inspiration prompted him to drop the clarinet and classical music and pick up the saxophone and popular music.
Bauzá’s account is fascinating as much for its depiction of Cuba as for its vision of Harlem. Just before he made the move from Havana to Harlem in 1930, he explained to his godfather, who thought he was crazy for making the move during such poor economic times, the reasons for his decision: “I want to be where the people is like me. I want to know what it is to be a black man in a black country. There is my roots. It has to be there. Let me find them. Because here I have no identity.”
In 1933, Bauza joined the Chick Webb Orchestra, for which he was musical director over the next five years. During that time, he met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who would become a lifelong friend and co-conspirator in the melding of jazz with Cuban rhythms known as Afro-Cuban jazz. By 1940, the two trumpeters–Gillespie, the virtuoso whose solos reached stratospheric heights; and Bauza, a great lead trumpeter who rarely soloed–had joined Cab Calloway’s orchestra. (Bauza came first and suggested Calloway hire Gillespie.) Soon, they encouraged the leader to incorporate some of their new ideas. At the same time, 1940, a singer named Frank Grillo who went by the nickname “Machito,” had created the first true Latin jazz orchestra, Machito’s Afro-Cubans. Bauza left Calloway to become the musical director for the Afro-Cubans (a position he held for 35 years) and encouraged Machito to include more jazz improvisations. The Afro-Cubans were phenomenally popular, spearheading the Latin dance craze of the early 1950s. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bauza formed his own Latin jazz orchestra and made three well-received albums featuring his arrangements.
Take a listen to “Tanga,” composed by Bauzá, which some jazz historians consider to be the first Latin jazz piece. Regardless of who was “first,” the electrifying rhythm will get you up out of your seat!
A year before Bauzá’s death in 1993, he and the big band were recorded in Germany for Levrkusener Jazztage 1992. It is a tribute to the music’s popularity and global audience that Bauzá was able to maintain and travel with an orchestra of this size—no easy task. One of the highlights of the performance, for me, was the rousing call to Afro-Cuban prayer issued in “Palo en Ganga,” written by the band’s vocalist, Rudy Calzado.
Be sure to enjoy the entire performance!
The 2009 PBS documentary series Latin Music USA explored the meeting between Cuban “conguero” (conga player) Chano Pozo and the great Dizzy Gillespie. Guess who introduced them?
What I found interesting is the fact that some of Dizzy’s band members were resistant to adding “jungle music” into what they felt was the more cerebral “be-bop.” But as this PBS documentary relates, with interviews with Bobby Sanabria, Arturo Sandoval, and Dizzy, a bridge between cultures—African-American, and Afro-Cuban—was built with music.
Latin Music USA also took a deeper dive into Chano Pozo’s story, his collaboration with Gillespie, and his lasting impact on Latin jazz.
A legendary and tragic figure, Luciano “Chano” Pozo rose out of the toughest tenements in Havana, where he was born in 1915. By the time he arrived in New York in 1947, he was already a celebrated Conga player, musician and songwriter with a reputation as a “street dude,” prone to drinking, drugs and fights. Chano was also a knowledgeable practitioner of the Afro-Caribbean religion Santería and was said to have secret knowledge of the African rhythms at the heart of the religion.
Chano firmly planted the Conga in the rhythmic section of jazz through a masterful collaboration with the great Dizzy Gillespie, with a fusion of bebop—a modern form of jazz created by Gillespie—and Cuban rhythms. It began when Gillespie, feeling a need to enliven the rhythmic section of his orchestra before a concert at Carnegie Hall, asked Mario Bauzá, musical director of Machito and his Afro-Cubans, to find someone to play the Congas— “one of those tom toms,” as Dizzy put it. When the beat of Chano’s Conga drum joined the Dizzy Gillespie band in “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” at Carnegie Hall, the audience is said to have “gone nuts.”
It was then that Chano suggested a song to Gillespie, laying out the lines of the instruments one at a time in a simple conversation that could only take place among geniuses. It was called “Manteca,” and it featured a bridge of two eight-bar trumpet statements by Gillespie, percussion patterns played by Pozo, and horn lines from Gillespie’s big band arranger Walter “Gil” Fuller.First performed in 1947, “Manteca” was very well received. Downbeat Magazine explained it as “a tribal rite, making a primitive statement;” Gary Giddins of The Village Voice called it, “one of the most important records ever made in the United States.” One year later Chano Pozo was shot and killed in a Harlem bar, apparently over a drug deal gone sour.
Though Pozo died young, “Manteca” went on to become a Latin jazz standard. That first performance at Carnegie Hall has gone down in music history. Listen for the percussion, and listen to the trumpets!
Keith Murphy chronicled ”the night Latin jazz was born” at Carnegie Hall for Ozy back in 2018.
The perplexed looks on concertgoers’ faces said it all at New York’s Carnegie Hall on the evening of Sept. 29, 1947. When music critic and patron Leonard Feather invited trumpeter and modern jazz emissary John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie to bring his big band to the revered stage — a high-water mark for any musician — the audience was expecting a bebop showcase from the genre’s co-creator. But Gillespie had something more innovative in mind.
Savvy jazz fans had only to check out the new recruit in the percussion section to see that Gillespie might be lighting out for yet another new musical territory. It was Chano Pozo, a handsome, athletic-looking conga drummer with callused and exceptionally large hands. Just a few days earlier, Gillespie had asked the Afro-Cuban percussionist to join his orchestra after coming up with the inspired idea to combine Latin rhythms with the bebop style he had developed alongside friend and tortured genius saxophonist Charlie Parker.
That night, the band premiered a song by Gillespie, Pozo and arranger Gil Fuller — “Manteca” — that went on to become a Latin jazz classic. Carnegie Hall had never heard or seen anything like it. “It was similar to a nuclear weapon,” Gillespie once said of the impact created by the bombastic composition. In the Latin-inflected setting of “Manteca,” Pozo’s driving conga playing opened the song and never let go. And the horns didn’t just swing — they bobbed, weaved and punched at an aggressive, polyrhythmic pace. A shirtless and barefoot Pozo strutted around the stage, chanting in the Yoruba that drew from West African rituals of his Cuban lucumi, or Santería, faith. Audience members may not have lost their bewildered looks — but they did go wild.
This modern-day version of “Manteca”—from 2017’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra—features a rousing solo from guest conguero Bobby Allende. What a journey “Manteca” has taken since it was a surprise at Carnegie Hall!
For a deeper dive into the Cuban roots of Latin jazz, I suggest you get your hands on ethnomusicologist Leonardo Acosta’s remarkable ”Cubano Be, Cubano Bop: One Hundred Years of Jazz in Cuba.”
The work begins with the first encounters between Cuban music and jazz around the turn of the last century. Acosta writes about the presence of Cuban musicians in New Orleans and the “Spanish tinge” in early jazz from the city, the formation and spread of the first jazz ensembles in Cuba, the big bands of the thirties, and the inception of “Latin jazz.” He explores the evolution of Bebop, Feeling, and Mambo in the forties, leading to the explosion of Cubop or Afro-Cuban jazz and the innovations of the legendary musicians and composers Machito, Mario Bauzá, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chano Pozo. The work concludes with a new generation of Cuban jazz artists, including the Grammy award-winning musicians and composers Chucho Valdés and Paquito D’Rivera
Acosta is outstandingly qualified to write what he truthfully describes as “barely an outline” to further investigations into the history of jazz in Cuba. He is a well-rounded and experienced musician, journalist, critic, researcher and producer of musical events as well as organizer of associations and groups during the most important periods covered in the book. Consequently, much of the history competently introduced in Cubano Be, Cubano Bop is Acosta’s too. Further help for his case comes from his lifelong association with Armando Romeu, whom Acosta considers Cuba’s most important jazz character. Since Romeu was already jazzing Cuba in the ’30s, and still doing so with Dizzy Gillespie in 1990, the importance of such a close association between the two cannot be overestimated.
An essential aspect of Afro-Latin or Afro-Cuban jazz is its deep connection to the religions of the African diaspora. Brought to the New World during the time of the transatlantic slave trade, many New World religious practices developed from various regions and ethnic groups on the African continent. Among them were Palo (Las Reglas de Congo) from the Congo; Arará from the Ewe-Fon of Dahomey; Lucumí (called Santería in Cuba and Puerto Rico) from the Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria; Vodou in Haiti (and later in Louisiana), which has multiple West African roots; Shango or Shango Baptist in Trinidad; and the largest branch, which is itself an umbrella term for multiple practices, Candomblé in Brazil.
The heartbeat of these faiths involved sacred drums and trance dancing to bring the deities to Earth. It is no coincidence that these percussive faith rhythms also melded with secular music like jazz. Some jazz drummers, other instrumentalists, and singers were also initiates and priests of these religions.
As an initiate and priestess in the Afro-Cuban branch that was brought to New York in 1950s and as a kid who grew up in New York, surrounded by both jazz and African dance, I was introduced to Latin jazz at an early age. As a teenager and young adult “salsera” (salsa dancer), some of the same musicians I danced to on a Friday night in the clubs would be present at religious “tambors” on the following Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
In a tribute to Afro-Cuban percussionist and priest Francisco Aguabella, the documentary Sworn to the Drum covers this crossover of music and faith. Watch the short clip below to hear Aguabella’s take on the importance of rhythm, and see Sheila E., the Queen of Percussion herself, deliver a joyful conga performance alongside her father, Pete Escovedo.
SF Weekly told Aguabella’s story in 1999, and the significance of Santeria within his music.
The story of Aguabella’s arrival in the United States is a long one: A three-month stay with choreographer Katherine Dunham’s Caribbean dance troupe stretched out when Dunham couldn’t find anyone else who played like Aguabella could. Finally landing on the West Coast after a tour of Australia with Dunham in 1957, Aguabella went on to perform with everyone from Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra to Tito Puente and Cachao, all the while living in Oakland, California, and Los Angeles, where he still resides. Over the years he’s also recorded a handful of records of his own, the latest of which, Agua de Cuba (Cubop/Ubiquity), is a glorious mix of Afro-Cuban grooves and Latin jazz that proves Aguabella isn’t merely boasting when he describes the uniqueness of his particular Matanzas-bred rhythmic sense.
This style, while shaped by the particular culture of Matanzas, is also inextricably linked to his devotion to Santeria. The Yoruba who landed in Matanzas kept their religion alive by secretly linking their gods to Catholic saints; in Aguabella’s case his patron saint, Santa Barbara, represents Changó, the Santeria god of thunder and lightning. Santeria has a rich mixture of rhythms and ceremonies, and Aguabella soaked them all up. “My grandmother belonged to the religion of the Arara,” he says, “and she belonged also to Yeza. And my mother belonged to Bata. So then my mother and my grandmother, when I was small, they saw that I liked to play drums, and then they teach me, and then I learned to play those kinds of rhythms. And so now I know all of them.”
The most direct way Santeria has influenced Aguabella’s music is in his use of the bata drum (a double-sided conga also called a “talking drum”) in nonceremonial settings. “I think the Afro-Cuban music was kind of unknown,” he says. “So I tried to introduce the Afro-Cuban beat. I decided to use the bata drum from the Santeria religion, the Afro-Cuban religion. So I played the bata for people different from the people who normally heard it.”
I’ve written about Santeria here in the past, specifically about Shango/Changó. I was elated when I heard in 2014 that Wynton Marsalis was collaborating with priest and percussionist Pedrito Martinez to create a new work for Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Marsalis’ website offers more insights about the composition of “Ochas,” and the challenges of performing it.
The seeds for “Ochas” were planted in 2010 when Marsalis took his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Cuba for a weeklong residency of concerts and educational programs. The trip reinforced his understanding of the links between Cuban music and American jazz, both rooted in African traditions carried over by slaves. Marsalis collaborated with the influential Cuban pianist and composer Chucho Valdez and rising Cuban percussion star Pedrito Martinez on a JALC commission to create “Ochas,” which had its premiere at the Rose Theater on Thursday night.
“Ochas” was perhaps one of the most challenging pieces ever undertaken by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, centered on a dialogue between the jazz big band and traditional Afro-Cuban bata drums. Martinez’s trio of bata drummers, including his mentor Roman Diaz, used their hands to play intricate rhythmic patterns on the three hourglass-shaped drums of different sizes. He also led the ritual chants sung in the ancestral Yoruban language of Nigeria dedicated to each of the deities in the Santeria pantheon.The chants became more complex when two female vocalists joined in on the suite’s second movement, dedicated to the female deities in Santeria, also known as Regla de Ocha.The Cuban ensemble was later augmented by a male and a female dancer in brightly colored traditional garb. They performed traditional dances of the Santeria ritual that fuses Yoruban beliefs with some influences from Catholicism.
Foundational to Latin jazz, both sacred and secular, are the rhythm patterns created by ”claves”—hand-clapping and feet on the dance floor. Put on your dancing shoes on and get ready to spin around the room. Kudos to Boston’s PBS station for having produced En Clave in 1992. As noted by host Ruben Blades, la musica Latina is “as diverse as the people who created it.”
Calle 54 is another notable documentary. Directed by Spanish director Fernando Trueba, the 2000 film explores the birth and popularization of Latin jazz. Unlike En Clave above, Calle 54 features nominal voiceover and interviews; instead, the film is packed with “studio performances by a wide array of Latin jazz musicians. Artists featured include Chucho Valdés, Bebo Valdés, Cachao, Eliane Elias, Gato Barbieri, Tito Puente, Paquito D’Rivera, Chano Domínguez, Jerry Gonzalez, Dave Valentin, Aquíles Báez, and Michel Camilo.
It is well worth your time, even if it’s not embeddable here. The film opens with Tito Puente, the Mambo King himself, standing in front of a Latin Jazz mural at his restaurant on New York’s City Island.
Ernesto Antonio “Tito” Puente was another April child, born April 20, 1923. When he passed in 2000, his New York Times obituary stated that he “was as much a symbol of New York City as the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty.”
He was born at Harlem Hospital, and his family moved frequently, but as a boy in the 1930’s he lived at 53 East 110th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues in Spanish Harlem. He took some of his first piano lessons in the back room of the Latin music store Almacenes Hernandez, at Madison Avenue and East 115th Street, from Victoria Hernandez, the store’s owner and the sister of Puerto Rico’s most important popular composer, Rafael Hernandez, who wrote the island’s unofficial anthem, ”Lamento Borincano.”
When Mr. Puente was a teenager in the 1940’s, 110th Street and Fifth Avenue was the center of Latin music in New York, a home to performers like Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Jose Curbelo and Mario Bauza. ”It was nothing to see these famous musicians walking down the street,” said Joe Conzo, a music historian. ”They stopped and had a beer with you, they sat and just had a conversation, they hung out with everyone.”…
Later in his life, Mr. Puente poured energy into the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, the division of Boys Harbor in East Harlem, where he helped establish the Latin music department in the 1970’s, rehearsing there six or seven times a year and bringing in other performers like Celia Cruz, said Ramon Rodriguez, the conservatory’s director. Mr. Puente donated his vast store of Latin jazz memorabilia to the conservatory to help create the Raices Latin Music Collection, one of the most important archives of Afro-Caribbean music in America.
Finally, I’d like to dedicate this story to bassist Andy Gonzalez, a beloved and influential member of the Afro-Latin jazz community who just passed away on April 9, joining the orchestra in the sky. We know he’s now jammin’ with those who went before him.
This 2016 video documents the first studio performance with Gonzalez as band leader. Enjoy!
When I started writing this story, early on I realized that I couldn’t possibly do Latin jazz justice if I tried to cram everything into one piece, so consider this part one—or just a part of part one. I do know that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, Charlie (Yardbird) Parker, Chico O’Farrill, and Cal Tjader are all missing. Did I forget Charlie Palmieri and his brother Eddie?
The list of musicians and classic and contemporary Latin jazz tunes that I’ve left out today is far longer than the list of those who made it into this story. However, this condensed history should be enough to get you started if you are just beginning to explore Latin jazz. If you are an aficionado, feel free to join the fun and share your favorites in the comments section.
Next week, join me as I head to Brazil and explore another stream of Latin jazz, which melded Afro-Brazilian samba into what became bossa nova, and led to jazz fusion.