¡Explosion De Clave!

When Afro-Cuban Sounds Invaded New York City, Jazz Never Looked Back

Today it’s not uncommon to see percussion instruments like congas, bongos, timbales, maracas, and cowbells in the percussion departments of any major music store or drum shop across the country. It wasn’t always that way. In fact, back in the 1940s, the only place one could find a conga drum in the United States was at a small Cuban-owned bakery called Simon’s (pronounced see-moans) in New York City’s Spanish Harlem on 116th and Lexington Avenue.

Back then, Simon would either import drums from Cuba or make them to the customer’s specifications. Since he had to attend to the bakery, he didn’t want to waste time making a drum for a neophyte wannabe. He would ask you to play a basic tumbao (repetitive rhythm) on one of his own drums. If you couldn’t, he’d tell you to get lost. If you could, he would allow you to purchase one of the drums on display in the window. If you wanted a custom-made drum, he would ask you to place your hands on a piece of paper so he could trace the outline of your hands and make the drumhead to accommodate them. We’ve certainly come a long way.

When did this all change? Certainly artists like Don Azpiazú & His Havana Casino Orchestra, who first exposed American audiences in 1930 to authentic Cuban music; Xavier Cugat, who was of Spanish descent but raised in Cuba; or the great Puerto Rican pianist Noro Morales, among others in the 1930s, were making major inroads in mainstreaming Latin music in the United States. But when did the visibility of authentic Afro-Cuban percussion instruments with their dynamic polyrhythmic nature, and for that matter, the music, begin to make a major impact on U.S. culture, particularly in jazz? The question leads to two men who forged a friendship as boys in Cuba and continued it in New York City. Their collaboration in forming a new type of big band would create a new style of music, revolutionize jazz and popular music in America, and pave the way for a succession of drummers and percussionists whose influence is still being felt today. That orchestra is Machito & The Afro-Cubans.

Mario Bauzá & Machito

Born in the city of Havana in the barrio of Pogolotti, Prudencio Mario Bauzá (1911—1993) was reared by Arturo Andrades, an amateur musician who offered to raise the boy when Mario’s mother became bedridden with asthma and his father was away often as a traveling baseball scout and cigar maker. Although Bauzá was born to a black Cuban family, Andrades, who was a white Spaniard, instilled in him an undeniable sense of self worth and pride. He calmly told him, “You will be educated, know your craft, and know who you are. No one will be able to deny you success.” Young Bauzá astounded his stepfather when at the age of five he could repeat on the piano the solfege (sight singing) exercises Andrades was teaching local children in the neighborhood. He quickly began to teach solfege to Bauzá and subsequently had him study clarinet, oboe, and bass clarinet. So prodigious was the young Bauzá that he began to be featured as a soloist with the Havana Philharmonic at the age of nine and subsequently became a regular member at the age of 12! He turned down a scholarship he won to study classical music in Milan, Italy, by stating with precocious maturity at such a young age, “There’s no future [at that time] for a black man in classical music.”

Bauzá’s boyhood friend was Francisco Raúl Gutierrez Grillo de Ayala Peréz (1908/1912—1984), who was known by friends and family by his sobriquet, Macho or Machito. The culture of Havana was (and remains) drenched in the street music known as rumba, a fusion of West African—rooted vocals, drumming, and dancing with southern Spanish-rooted flamenco vocalese that has at its root a constant dialogue between the lead drum soloist (quinto) and a male and female dancer. But Machito and Bauzá also grew up with the rage of the day in Havana, the son, a troubadour folk style born in eastern Cuba’s Oriente region, which is the root of modern salsa. At the core of the son is the ability of the vocal soloist (sonero) to improvise lyrics that rhyme and tell a cohesive story based on a given theme in the montuno (vamp). The montuno is a series of repeated chords done in a very rhythmic fashion (guajeo) that sets up a trance-like state against a background chorus (coro) for the sonero to improvise over in call-and-response fashion. Governing all of this is the underpinning of the clave, the rhythmic five-attack pulse that can be divided 2 + 3 or 3 + 2 (depending on the rhythm of the melody) that is the cornerstone of Afro-Cuban culture and energizes the music.

Although when asked to describe his singing style Machito would humbly say, “Yo tengo la voz de un boracho (I have the voice of a drunk),” he had several factors in abundance: sabor, taste, swing, and a keen sense of clave. His mastery of maracas became known in the neighborhood where he was tapped to sing coro and play maracas with Miguel Zavall’s Sextet and Los Jovenes Rendención in the ’20s. His apprenticeship as a vocalist began hitting its stride with Ignacio Piñiero’s famed Sexteto Naciónal at Havana’s Montmatre Club and Casino in the ’30s where he began to gain fame locally. But his boyhood friend Mario had come to New York City in 1926 as a clarinetist with the charanga (flute and violins) orchestra of pianist Antonio Maria Romeu to record. Bauzá was astounded when he witnessed Frankie Trumbauer playing C melody saxophone in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra during the Gershwin opus “Rhapsody In Blue” at the Paramount Theater. On his return to Cuba, he told astounding stories of New York’s famed jazz life and his epiphany. He would also marry his childhood sweetheart, Macho’s sister, Estella, whom Bauzá affectionately gave the sobriquet “Leona” (Lioness) for her fiery temper. Bauzá would return to permanently live in the Big Apple in 1930 and pursue a career as a jazz musician absorbing African-American culture. He in fact became part of a long history of Latino musicians who have contributed to the jazz continuum from 19th-century New Orleans to the present. In fact, Harlem at the time was filled with Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Panamanians, and Dominicans who were jazz musicians. Ram Ramirez, who was the composer of “Lover Man” and of Puerto Rican heritage, is just one example, as well as Bauzá’s trumpet playing cousin, René Endreira.


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.


Candido Camero was the first to develop the techniques for one person to play two and later three congas simultaneously.

Candido Camero

Born on April 22 in 1921 in the Havana, Cuba barrio called El Cerro, Candido was originally a multi-instrumentalist, showing facility on the bongo, tres (a Cuban mandolin-sounding instrument), guitar, and bass — key instruments in the popular son music of his boyhood. A permanent switch to bongos and congas led to work with some of the most famous son groups in Cuba, including Chano Pozo’s famed Conjunto Azul, a six-year spell with CMQ Radio Orchestra, and a residency at the famed Cabaret Tropicana. A move to New York City on July 4, 1946 with the dance team of Carmen and Rolando made him the first in a wave of master conga drummers that would subsequently come to the Big Apple such as Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaria, Patato, and others. This put Camero in high demand, and he soon began working with the premier jazz and Latin artists of the day, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Machito & The Afro-Cubans, Tito Puente, Billy Taylor, and others.

Heralded as the father of modern conga drumming, Candido was the first to develop the techniques for one person to play two and later three congas simultaneously. Players in the past played on a single drum, and it took multiple players to create more complex patterns. He also developed a keen sense for melodic playing, tuning each drum to specific pitches. An example of this can be heard on the recording of “Tea For Two” with Puerto Rican pianist Joe Loco (Juan Esteves), where on three tuned congas and a set of bongos, Candido plays the entire melody. Candido also developed unique ways of being able to keep a steady rhythm with one hand while soloing with the other, thus becoming the father of coordinated independence as applied to Afro-Cuban percussion. His utilization of multiple percussion — playing a guiro with one hand and a cowbell played with the foot while the other hand simultaneously continued to play the congas — gave the effect of one person simulating an entire percussion section. It inspired drummer/percussionist Walfredo de Los Reyes to further explore the concept with his own experiments playing drum set and congas simultaneously. Today, at the young age of 85, Candido, with a recent Grammy nomination under his belt, still continues to perform and wow audiences with no signs of slowing down.

Chano Pozo’s career in New York City burned red hot for only two years before it was snuffed out when he was murdered at the age of 33.

Chano Pozo

In December of 1946, Luciano “Chano” Pozo (1915—1948) hit New York City like a tidal wave from Havana. His fame as a rumbero (street drummer, dancer, vocalist) was legendary and his compositions became hits in Cuba. In fact, Machito & The Afro-Cubans had already recorded in 1939 one of his tunes, “Nague,” which featured a young Tito Puente on timbales. His knowledge of the ritualistic music of the Abacua (Efik), Santeria (Yoruba), and Palo (Bantú) belief systems; his charisma, dancing, and showmanship; coupled with his drumming and songwriting skills served him well, and he longed for stardom in New York. Inspired by the Afro-Cuban jazz experiments of the Bauzá-led Machito Afro-Cubans, Dizzy Gillespie approached Mario Bauzá to first recommend a bongócero. Bauzá told Gillespie about Lorenzo “Chiquitico” Gallan, but after one appearance, Gallan told Bauzá that the music was not for him. Gillespie then asked Bauzá to recommend someone who played “one of those Cuban tom-toms.” Upon a recommendation from stellar Cuban vocalist Miguelito Valdés (Pozo’s boyhood friend) and Bauzá, the call was given to the newly arrived Chano Pozo. The meeting of Gillespie and Pozo was exactly what the trumpeter had been looking for. Gillespie loved showmanship, and Pozo exuded it along with his deep knowledge of West African—rooted drumming. By design, Gillespie wanted to reconnect, like two long lost brothers, the common West African roots of Afro-Cuban rhythm and African-Americans’ contribution to the world — jazz.

It yielded exciting results, like the recordings of classics such as “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop,” “Guachi Guaro” (open your eyes and look to the sky in the Efik language), “Tin Tin Deo,” and the legendary “Manteca.” Pozo’s original melodic idea was just based on a one-chord vamp. Not strange for the Cuban concept of the montuno (vamp). But Gillespie wisely stated, “No one at that time would go for a tune that had only one chord in it.” Along with arranger Walter Gil Fuller, Gillespie crafted a beautiful bridge section with flowing harmony that adapted the original one-chord based melody to the classic AABA form common to the popular music of the day. The result has become the anthem of Afro-Cuban jazz.


Pozo became the toast of the town, but his “guaperia” (street bravado) would eventually get the best of him. After getting his congas stolen down South while the Gillespie big band was on tour, he returned to New York to supposedly purchase some new ones at Simon’s. He told Bauzá about the racism the Gillespie big band had faced in the Jim Crow South. He vowed that he would never go back and spent his days living up to his reputation — dining, dancing, and being the ladies man. On Dec 2, 1948, 18 months after he had arrived from Cuba, it was over. Eusebio “Cabito” Muñoz, a fellow Cuban who was a decorated Army veteran of WWII, sold Pozo some marijuana. After lighting up with a few friends, they chided Pozo about the inferior quality and how he had been ripped off. At the Rio Bar and Café’ in Harlem, Pozo slapped Muñoz in the face with the force of a man who had learned auto body and fender work while in a reformatory in his youth in Cuba and with the strength of the rumbero that he was. Being slapped by Chano was like being hit in the face with a brick.

Muñoz returned and shot him dead as Pozo danced in front of the jukebox as it played “Manteca.” Because Pozo died at the age of 33, fell on the floor in the position of someone who looked crucified, and was declared dead on December 3, the Santeria celebratory date for his patron deity Changó, the rumors in New York City’s Cuban and Puerto Rican community flew like wildfire. Many would say that Chano had been severely punished by the gods for revealing secrets and recording chants of the Santeria religion and Abacua fraternity/religion with Gillespie. Today, Pozo’s great musical abilities and the mythology surrounding him have made him a mythic figure in our community and his association with Dizzy Gillespie has made him one of the most revered Latino figures in jazz.

Tito Puente was part of an elite triumvirate of bandleaders known as “The Big Three,” which included Machito and vocalist Tito Rodriguez.

Tito Puente

Called by Mario Bauzá as the man who “…has done more for Afro-Cuban music than any other musician in its history,” Ernest Anthony Puente Jr., aka Tito (1923—2000), was a native Nuyorican from Spanish Harlem and a fascinating case study in the American experience. “Lil’ Ernie” (as he was called by his Navy buddies) studied dance, piano, and drums as a youngster. He became a swing-era drummer and a titan of the timbales while also playing vibes, marimba, alto sax, and clarinet. After receiving Presidential commendations for participating in the Battle Of Midway and Guadalcanal in WWII while serving on the Escort Carrier Santee CV 29, he continued his musical studies after the war on the GI Bill at the famed Juilliard School and in modern arranging by studying the Schillinger System with Richard Bender.

By 1948, the Machito Afro-Cubans were so busy that they occasionally needed other bands to sub for them at New York’s “Home of The Mambo” — The Palladium Ballroom on West 53rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Urged by Mario Bauzá to form a small pick-up group to sub for the Afro-Cubans, Tito Puente’s first small combo was a three-, then four-trumpet conjunto. The conjunto is a small group developed by tres player Arsenio Rodriguez (1911—1970) in Cuba back in the mid-1930s that originally featured two trumpets with a rhythm section utilizing only conga and bongos with piano, tres, and bass. Rodriguez is credited with being the first bandleader to adapt the conga drum to the dance-band context, thus strengthening the rhythm section with a low tonal center of gravity from which to work off of. He also replaced the customary guitar with the piano and began utilizing the brass with repetitive layered figures, which became a major characteristic in mambo style arranging and is standard practice in salsa ensembles today. Puente used this as a model for his first group, altering the instrumentation slightly.

By the early 1950s, inspired by Machito & The Afro-Cubans, Puente’s conjunto blew up into a full big band. His progressive arranging and compositional ideas were inspired by his roots in the big band jazz he had heard on the radio growing up in Manhattan. But he also revolutionized timbale playing as he combined the technical skills of a trained jazz drummer with his deep roots in Afro-Cuban music. Taught by Antonino “El Cojito” Escollies, the first drummer/timbalero in the Machito Afro-Cubans, Carlos Montesino, a long forgotten hero of New York’s legacy of timbale playing, and an African-American show drummer he knew only as Mr. Williams, Puente, like his boyhood hero Gene Krupa, became the first percussion star of his generation and part of an elite triumvirate of bandleaders known as “The Big Three,” which included Machito and vocalist Tito Rodriguez.

A block away from The Palladium, the home of progressive jazz, Birdland on West 52nd Street and Broadway was in full swing. On their breaks, the musicians from both clubs would visit each other and sit in. It was not uncommon for Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, or any other well-known jazz player of the day to come over from their gig at Birdland and sit in with Machito’s Afro-Cubans or any other group that was appearing at The Palladium. The same occurred as the Latino musicians would visit Birdland and sit in. Of these musicians, one stood out above all others as a visible bridge to both worlds. He knew the vocabulary of both styles of music so well that, as Herbie Hancock would later say, “You couldn’t tell any difference in accent when he played in either style. He was completely authentic in both worlds.” ‹


Willie Bobo got his start working as a “band boy” for Machito & The Afro-Cubans.

Willie Bobo

Like Tito Puente, William Correa, aka Willie Bobo (1934—1983), was a Nuyorican product of New York City’s vibrant Spanish Harlem community. His versatility on congas, bongos, timbales, and particularly on jazz drum set has long been overlooked by most historians. Self taught, but like Buddy Rich, he was a keen student of his surroundings. Where Tito Puente was at the crossroads of the swing era and was influenced by players like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, Bobo was at the nexus of the bebop revolution of the ’40s. He became good friends with players like Max Roach, Jimmy Cobb, and Roy Haynes, who influenced him greatly and whom he in turn influenced.

The East Harlem (El Barrio) of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s was a thriving epicenter of culture. The original Jewish and Italian neighborhood was now a predominantly Puerto Rican enclave with many Cubans living there as well. The Park Place Ballroom at 110th Street and 5th Avenue became the unofficial rehearsal hall of the Machito Afro-Cubans and where the band played its first gigs. Like his older counterpart Puente, Bobo absorbed, learned, and eventually began playing with the master percussionists who lived in the neighborhood. Working as a “band boy” for Machito & The Afro-Cubans, he gained valuable experience hearing and watching the percussion section of Ubaldo Nieto on drums and timbales, Luis Miranda on conga, and José “Buyú” Manguál. It is interesting to note that the Machito Afro-Cubans are acknowledged as the first ensemble to utilize this full battery (congas, bongos, and timbales) of percussion.

He became friends with Ramón “Mongo” Santamaria (1917—2003) upon his arrival to New York City in the early ’50s. Their friendship led to Mongo recommending him to Tito Puente for the bongo chair and the creation of perhaps the greatest percussion section in the history of Afro-Cuban music with Puente on timbales, Santamaria on congas, and Bobo on bongos. After spending eight years performing, recording, and learning with Puente’s orchestra, Bobo (and Santamaria) accepted an offer to move to the West Coast and join vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s (1925—1982) small combo.

Tjader had witnessed the Puente orchestra while he was playing with George Shearing at Birdland. As stated before, on their break one night, bassist Al Mckibbon (who had played on the original version of “Manteca”) invited Cal to the Palladium to witness the midnight set with the Puente Orchestra. Puente at that time would always play vibes for the entire midnight set, mostly featuring himself on boleros. Tjader immediately became a mambonik.

With Mckibbon on acoustic bass and Lonnie Hewitt on piano, Tjader formed the basis of what he called his Modern Mambo Quintet. His recordings as a bandleader on the Fantasy label established Tjader’s reputation, and when he found out that Bobo and Santamaria were finally leaving Puente, he immediately sought them out. Bobo flourished in this setting as he would handle the timbale chair on Afro-Cuban rhythmic adaptations of jazz standards, Tjader’s own compositions, and play jazz drum set on straight-ahead numbers. With Tjader’s extensive knowledge of the bebop canon, his virtuosic solo skills, and the propulsion provided by Santamaria and Bobo, the group achieved legendary status among the cognoscenti. The recordings done by this quintet until this day remain the archetype for small group Afro-Cuban jazz and feature some of the most incredible timbale and conga solos ever documented.

Bobo was also finally getting to be featured as a jazz drummer, something that he had wanted to do for a long time. “Willie was never given the credit that he deserved as a jazz drummer,” states jazz trumpeter, composer, and arranger Charles Tolliver. “People looked at him as just a timbale player or a percussionist. He could really swing in the jazz context as a drummer … just as hard as Philly Joe or Art Blakey.” Evidence of this is clearly found on Herbie Hancock’s 1963 date Inventions And Dimensions, where Bobo is featured on drum set and timbales along with the additional conga, bongo, and shekere work of Cuban born Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez. The album reveals Bobo as the drummer of the future, and stories abound about how people thought it was Philly Joe Jones on the date. Equally conversant in the rhythmic vocabulary of jazz and Latin rhythms, it’s a testimony to, like Tito, his Nuyorican roots — having absorbed Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, and African-American cultural influences into one cohesive whole.

Originally recommended by Miles Davis to Hancock, it has been stated by various reliable sources that Miles originally offered the drumming chair for his quintet to Bobo before Tony Williams. Bobo supposedly turned down the offer due to his desire to be a bandleader himself and his subsequent solo recording career. If this is true, it’s fascinating to conjure up visions of what the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-’60s would have sounded like with Willie Bobo in the drum chair.

Why It’s Important

All these great percussionists share one common bond: They are multidimensional in their approach. It is a direct result of the environment created by the Machito Afro-Cubans, in which a standard of excellence and vision was established by their musical director, Mario Bauzá and fronted by his brother-in-law, Machito. The orchestra was the first to premiere serious extended concert works for big band utilizing Afro-Cuban rhythms with their recording of Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill’s “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite” and later works such as the “Manteca Suite” and “Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods.” Memorable performances at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, and Lincoln Center extended the critical acclaim for the ensemble and Machito would be featured in Downbeat magazine. But unfortunately the partnership of Bauzá and Machito that revolutionized music in the 20th century would come to an abrupt end in 1976 over a disagreement. Machito would carry the banner for the innovative, ahead-of-its-time Afro-Cuban jazz sound by conquering Europe with the orchestra under the musical direction of Mario “Mayito” Grillo, Macho’s son, as well as sharing the vocal chores with his daughter, Paula C.


The importance of Machito’s European tours cannot be overstated. As an ambassador for the music, he opened new doors for other Latin-oriented groups based in New York City to tour, and his performances caused a fervor of serious study by Euro-based musicians, spawning groups like Holland’s Nueva Manteca in much the same way the orchestra’s tour of Japan did in the early 1960s. Just as Machito’s orchestra was a spawning ground for young writing talent when it first started in 1939, it continued to do so by giving player/arrangers like Eddie Martinez, Jorge Dalto, José Madera, Jorge Millet, and the ubiquitous Ray Santos platforms for their progressive and innovative arranging and playing talents. In 1983 Machito won a Grammy for the recording, Machito And His Salsa Big Band on the Timeless label.

Although Machito’s roots were in “El Barrio,” he later moved his family to the Bronx where he became a fixture in the borough’s club scene and mentored many young players. Machito’s life came to an abrupt end at Ronnie Scott’s in London in 1984 when he suffered a stroke. In 1987, Bronx-based Puerto Rican filmmaker and award-winning photographer Carlos Ortiz premiered his film Machito: A Latin Jazz Legacy to worldwide critical acclaim. Many of you may remember seeing it on PBS.

Mario Bauzá would continue his innovative Afro-Cuban jazz big band experiments by coming out of retirement and fronting a big band in the late ’80s. The group would record four albums — three of which yours truly played drums and timbales on — and receive Grammy nominations. Through the efforts of legendary Cuban arranger and composer Arturo “Chico” O’Farill, Mario revisited “Tanga” with a five-movement suite that left audiences amazed and was fortunately recorded for the album Tanga on the German Messidor label, now reissued by the Miami-based Pimienta label. Combined with Dizzy Gillespie revealing in his biography the importance that Bauzá had in his career, the reissue started an examination by the jazz press of Bauzá’s legacy. It culminated with Bauzá finally getting on the cover of Downbeat magazine, tours of Europe, and kudos in the worldwide jazz press. The recognition that so sadly had eluded him throughout his life finally came at the age of 83.


Macho’s swinging vocals and the power of his saxophone section leading the charge were something to behold. I remember when I was a kid standing in front of those mighty reeds listening as they played “Dale jamón a la jeva” during a summer concert in the south Bronx in front of the projects where I grew up, and Macho with the smile of Changó and Elegua all rolled into one with his tongue in his cheek. It was mind blowing. The power of human beings with real musical instruments taking no prisoners and swingin’ as hard on the mambo as possible for only one thing, maximum overdrive for the dancers who were possessed in ecstasy. Honor the past, don’t just remember it — or as it was once said, “Give to Caesar what is due Caesar.” Mario and Macho, we honor your legacy.