Percussionist Manny Oquendo (1931-2009) led and co-founded the influential Latin jazz ensemble called Conjunto Libre. Like the "hard-bop academy" of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, it was a finishing school for the musicians who passed through it on their way to becoming leaders and luminaries of Latin jazz.
Born in Brooklyn, Oquendo grew up in an apartment above one of the most popular Latin record stores in the neighborhood. In 1947, he played timbales for the famous Cuban conga drummer Chano Pozo's first appearance in New York City. Oquendo went on to work with Tito Puente in the 1950s, Eddie Palmieri in the 1960s and 1970s, and joined the groundbreaking Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino.
With bassist Andy Gonzalez, Oquendo formed Conjunto Libre in 1974, with a focus on expanding the Grupo Folklorico sound. Still true to the Puerto Rican and Afro Cuban rhythms that motivated salsa music, Conjunto Libre pushed the boundaries into jazz and and included the street energy of 1970s New York.
Graduates of the Conjunto Libre "school" include trombonists Papo Vasquez, Jimmy Bosch and Steve Turre; flute players Dave Valentin and Nestor Torres; and the piano genius who went on to lead the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and his own quintet Alma Libre, Oscar Hernandez.
Listen for Manny Oquendo and Conjunto Libre's version of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" this week on Jazz Caliente. Until then, enjoy their performance on David Sanborn's TV show Night Music.
Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. The show is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.