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Jazz Caliente: Cal Tjader, Master of Latin Vibes

Eddie Palmieri and Cal Tjader's first album together, El Sonido Nuevo 1966
Verve Records
Eddie Palmieri and Cal Tjader's first album together, El Sonido Nuevo 1966

One of the most appealing Latin Jazz/Pop crossover artists was drummer/vibraphonist Callen Radcliffe  "Cal" Tjader.  Cal had a deep appreciation and respect for Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music.

Tjader's parents were vaudeville performers, and young Cal became an accomplished tap dancer, drummer and pianist as a child.

Cal met pianist Dave Brubeck at San Francisco State College in the 1940s, and played drums and vibes in several groups with Brubeck before moving on to work with pianist George Shearing.  He taught himself vibraphone and developed an active interest in Latin percussion.   In 1954, just in time for the mambo craze, he formed the Cal Tjader Modern Mambo Quintet.  

Cal Tjader's Soul Sauce 1965
Credit Verve Records
Cal Tjader's Soul Sauce 1965

Tjader's recordings in the late 1950s with percussionists Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria took his fans beyond mambo.  Their remake of a Dizzy Gillespie/ChanoPozo tune "Guarachi Guara," later called "Soul Sauce," was a pop music hit.  His 1960s collaborations with pianist Eddie Palmieri are a showcase of multi-layered, innovative Latin Jazz compositions.

 Award-winning conguero and bandleader Poncho Sanchez worked with Tjader in the 1970s, and he refers to Cal as his “musical father,” both for his musicianship and his professionalism.

San Francisco-based author S. Duncan Reid published his detailed biography of Cal Tjader in 2013, and it's worth adding to your collection.

We'll hear the title track from Cal Tjader's 1966 album Soul Burst this week on Saturday Jazz Caliente.

Until then, here's "Aleluya" from Cal's 1980 appearance on Merv Griffin's TV show.  


Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5:00 p.m.  The show is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.