Masters of rhythm: Honoring the greats of Latin Jazz | KNKX

Masters of rhythm: Honoring the greats of Latin Jazz

Apr 30, 2020

For Jazz Appreciation Month, Robin Lloyd focuses on three influential Latin Jazz musicians and composers who shaped their creative talents to lead others in new directions as bandleaders.

Cuban-born saxophonist, trumpeter, composer and arranger Mario Bauzá was in Cab Calloway's orchestra when he decided that he would put together his own sophisticated big band to play original jazz over Afro-Cuban rhythms.  

Fronting that band was Bauzá's brother-in-law, the charismatic singer and maraca player Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo, who was known Machito.  Machito and His Afro Cubans were wildly popular in the dance and jazz venues of New York's Spanish Harlem neighborhood.

The band’s theme song, "Tanga," composed in 1943, was the first original American jazz piece written "en clave;" that is, in a specifically Afro-Cuban rhythm.  The band's name, the Afro-Cubans, was the first acknowledgement in the U.S. that the so-called "Latin" rhythms that were making their way into American music actually originated in Africa.

Mario Bauza went on to collaborate with Dizzy Gillespie and Chano  Pozo in the development of "Cu-bop," a blend of Afro-Cuban music and be-bop. 

Tito Puente's career spanned six decades, and he earned the nickname "El Rey" (The King), three times:  King of the Timbales, Mambo King and King of Latin Jazz. 

He claimed that he was "born in rhythm" and as a child his neighbors in Spanish Harlem begged his parents to get him music lessons, because he was banging on everything in sight:  tabletops, pots and pans, windows and fire escapes. 

He studied piano, drums and percussion.  Somewhere along the way he learned vibraphone, and became a great dancer.  Eventually he settled on the timbales, the essential drums for Latin dance music.

When he joined Machito's Afro Cubans, he moved the timbales from the back of the bandstand to the front.  From there, he could be the great flamboyant showman, The King of Timbales.

Puente became the King of the Mambo in the 1950s at New York's Palladium Theater.  Legendary musical battles were held there, primarily between Tito Puente's Orchestra and singer Tito Rodriguez's big band.  Puente usually won.

Always a jazz fan, Tito Puente had learned well from Machito's Afro Cubans.  Later on he would collaborate with jazz musicians and arrange standards, swing tunes and be-bop for his own band. 

Tito Puente recorded 118 albums, won five Grammy Awards and was called "the most important Latin musician in the last half-century" when he died in 2000.

Because he was so visible, often working between 200 and 300 concert and club dates each year, the general public saw him as the representative of the music.  He really earned the name El Rey, King of Latin Jazz.

Ramón "Mongo" Santamaría first came to New York from Havana in 1950, and spent the years of the Mambo craze working with Mambo Kings Pérez Prado and Tito Puente.

After moving to San Francisco, he played with Cal Tjader's band, and also recorded two solo albums that incorporated authentic Cuban religious drumming and chanting, showing its West African roots.  One of those albums introduced the composition "Afro Blue,” later made famous by jazz icon John Coltrane.

Mongo headed back to New York in 1962, forming his own band to play his special style of Latin jazz.

When Herbie Hancock substituted for Mongo's pianist one night, the band experimented with adding an Afro-Cuban rhythm to Hancock's freshly-written tune "Watermelon Man."  Recorded in 1962, it became Mongo's theme song, and heralded the era of Latin Soul music.