Machito (center) with the Afro-Cubans' bongo and conga rhythm team of the mid-’40s — José Mangual Sr. and Carlos Vidal.
In 1933, Bauzá became lead trumpeter (after amazingly switching from clarinet and alto sax) and the MD (musical director) for drummer Chick Webb’s titanic ensemble. He would later help bring Ella Fitzgerald to the band. As well as recording/performing with Webb, Bauzá would also record with Fletcher Henderson, Noble Sissle, and others. It culminated with him joining the Cab Calloway Orchestra in 1939 where he recommended a young trumpeter to the band who became his travel roommate on the road and whom he would mentor. His name was John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie.
Impressed with Bauzá’s tales of life in the Big Apple and inspired with the growing Puerto Rican and Cuban community in Harlem’s East Side, Macho moved to “El Barrio” in 1937. He quickly landed a gig with Las Estrellas Habanera and recorded in 1938 with El Conjunto Moderno as well as with famed Waldorf Astoria bandleader Xavier Cugat and Puerto Rican piano virtuoso Noro Morales. These are some of the most sought out sides, in their original form, by collectors today — just ask Matt Dillon.
But although Bauzá had achieved success in the world of jazz, he still was perturbed by some chiding commentary his bandmates in the Calloway band had made about his own country’s music. “I played some 78s for the guys in Cab’s band, but they just laughed at the music. They said things like, ’Hey Mario, that sounds like hillbilly, country music.’ I said, ’Sure, it’s country music. It’s the music of my country, Cuba!’” This encounter is fascinating because of two things. First, it exemplified the lack of cultural understanding on the part of the Calloway musicians. The second was more important. “From that moment, I vowed that I would form an orchestra that was on the same level as the great jazz big bands of the day.” The difference, as Bauzá would state “… is that it would have the rhythms of my country, Cuba. It would be a marriage. I knew it would work because I lived both lives, one jazz, one Cuban.”
In 1939, on 110th Street and 5th Avenue at a Jewish catering hall called The Park Palace Ballroom, the Machito Afro-Cubans were born. Bauzá wisely made his brother-in-law Machito the front man. He was charismatic, funny, and had a way with people. Machito was a tremendous sonero, and — as was the case until the day he died — his community loved him. Bauzá’s ties to the jazz community brought in players who were strong soloists and section players as well as arrangers like Edgar Sampson, who under Bauzá’s supervision added lush, rich harmonies associated with jazz to tunes penned by Machito and other contemporaries like Chano Pozo. From within the ranks of the band, tenor saxophonist José “Pin” Madera and pianist René Hernandez would revolutionize arranging techniques with their unique use of rhythmic counterpoint within the context of clave. The band also featured on occasion, in its early incarnation, a young 17-year-old Nuyorican phenom on drums and timbales who was straight from the ’nabe, Ernest Anthony Puente Jr., aka Tito. The band was the first truly multiracial band in the jazz world since it was made up of Latinos, Jews, African-Americans, and Italians. Little did they know they were striking a blow for racial tolerance. To all of these elements, Bauzá decided upon a moniker for the band that would, in its own way, be a triumph for civil rights and exude the love he had for his brother-in-law. The band became known as Machito & The Afro-Cubans.
By 1943, the orchestra that started as an idea by Mario Bauzá, in collaboration with his brother-in-law, was becoming the premiere Latin American musical organization of its day. They finally achieved that status by bringing into the fold Macho’s sister, Graciela. Her powerhouse work on up-tempo guarachas and mambos was well noted, but her sultry interpretations of romantic boleros gave the orchestra an even wider appeal and more varied repertoire. Her friendly rivalry and comparison to Sarah Vaughn was cemented at an Apollo Theater concert when Gracie upstaged “The Divine One.” The orchestra’s ability to also interpret swing-based music with authenticity gave it a versatility that was unheard of at the time and became a model later for Tito Puente’s and Tito Rodriguez’s orchestras.
Also in 1943, the Bauzá composition “Tanga” became the first true legitimate Afro-Cuban jazz piece and would later inspire Dizzy Gillespie in his own forays into Afro-Cuban jazz. Its layered “wall of sound” approach with its modal harmonic basis was, at the time, unheard of and years ahead of the eventual exploration Gil Evans, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane would eventually take. It also directly influenced Stan Kenton. The orchestra’s triumvirate of bongo, conga, and drums/timbales became the status quo that all other Afro-Cuban-style bands had to meet and set the standard that every salsa orchestra utilizes today.
It was a feather in the cap of the hottest jazz players of yesterday and today to play and/or record with Machito & The Afro-Cubans — from Flip Phillips, Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Jon Faddis, Brew Moore, Dizzy Gillespie, Lew Soloff, Joe Lovano, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Aaron Sachs, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Mann, Eddie Bert, Curtis Fuller, Chico Freeman, Mario Rivera, Johnny Griffin, and the list goes on and on. And the percussionists! Antonino “El Cojito” Escollies, Tito Puente, Carlos “Patato” Valdés, Louis Bauzó, José Madera, Lil’ Ray Romero, José “Buyú” Mangual, Carlos Vidal, Francisco “Kako” Bastar, Johnny Rodriguez, Eddie Montalvo, Armando Peraza, Ubaldo Nieto, Francisco “Chino” Pozo, Luciano “Chano” Pozo, Bilingue Ayala, Luis Miranda, and a slew of others including Machito’s son, Mario Grillo and Candido, who’s groundbreaking experiments with coordinated independence on multiple congas would become legendary.