Author T.J. English on his Love of Latin-Jazz

Bestselling author on the music that changed his life and continues to inspire his work

TJ English

Author T.J. English (photo by Ilya Yamasaki)

Back when I drove a taxi in New York City, in the mid-1980s, the cabs had not yet been outfitted with air conditioning. In the spring and summer, I left the windows open to create cross-ventilation. That meant that the noise from the street was a constant presence, an orchestral cacophony dominated by honking horns, sirens, jackhammers and music. The music that pierced through all the other sounds and soothed my urban soul was Latin-jazz.

I had come from the West Coast and grown up on a mushy amalgam of mostly soft rock and whatever else was being played on local radio stations—music concocted by one corporate entity (the record companies) and peddled to another (radio stations that were often owned in part by those same corporations). American teenagers listened to what they were fed, and I was no different. Eventually, as I began developing my own tastes, I gravitated toward soul music, blues and R&B. By the time I was in my late teens, I had discovered jazz.

When I was 22, I arrived in New York with a burning desire for the cutting edge—new cuisines, new languages, new sounds. By then I had cultivated a deep appreciation of jazz in all its many forms, though jazz was not exactly flourishing commercially. If you were a lover of this music, you had to seek it out. At a used record store, I came across a double album from Verve Records entitled Afro-Cuban Jazz. It included the seminal live recordings of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, along with Chico O’Farrill and Machito, playing the Afro-Cuban Suite, the Manteca Suite and other early masterpieces of what would eventually be called Latin-jazz. The music was recorded in the late 1940s and early 1950s; the double album was released in 1977, with insightful liner notes by Bob Blumenthal and a gorgeous cover design complete with watercolor illustrations by José Reyes.

The packaging was seductive, and the music was a revelation. Gillespie, O’Farrill and many others took the tonal complexity of bebop and mixed it with lush orchestral arrangements and elements of Cuban folk and roots music. The results were a revolution as sonically profound as rock and roll or hip-hop. By the time I was driving a taxi, what I was hearing emanating from the streets was a new variation. Forms and styles from Puerto Rico and other Caribbean locales had taken the music on an evolutionary ride from bebop to a place of greater emphasis on the Latin side of things, utilizing not only Afro-Cuban rhythms such as son and guaguancó but also bomba and plena from Puerto Rico, cumbia and tango from South America and a host of other influences from el barrio.

I was fortunate that my emerging love of the music happened to coincide with Salsa Meets Jazz, the legendary concert series at the Village Gate. Initiated by the club’s owner, Art D’Lugoff, the series took place every Monday night and continued from the ’70s until the club abruptly closed its doors in 1994. It was at the Village Gate that I saw many of the great practitioners of Latin-jazz, including Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente and Ray Barretto. I vividly remember hearing Dizzy Gillespie play a searing version of “Manteca” on trumpet; I remember hearing pianist Eddie Palmieri play his compositions “Chocolate Ice Cream” and “Café.” I remember seeing and hearing the inimitable saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, not long after he first defected from Cuba and settled in the U.S. I also saw the Fort Apache Band, led by two brothers from the Bronx, conguero and trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez and bassist Andy Gonzalez, as they brought the music to a new generation of players and listeners.

Thanks to Salsa Meets Jazz, my love of the music deepened, and through the viewing of live performances at the Gate and elsewhere, it became a living, breathing thing. This love affair continued as I left cab driving behind and became immersed in my career as a journalist and writer of books. My writings about organized crime and the criminal underworld were informed by my love of Latin-jazz. The music was sultry, insinuating and sometimes dangerous; for me, it had come up from dark alleyways, and it reflected the romance and sensuality of urban landscapes from Havana and Miami to New York.

Imagine, then, the sheer pleasure of my being contracted to write a book on the legendary era of the Mob in Cuba during the 1950s (Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba … And Then Lost It to the Revolution, released in 2008). On research trips to Havana, I soaked up the sights and sounds of a city that has contributed invaluably to the evolution of Latin-jazz. It was there that Pérez Prado turned the mambo into an international craze, while composer-conductors Mario Bauzá and Machito, along with the singer Graciela, adapted Afro-Cuban rhythms to the syncopation of jazz from the States. In 1950s Havana the seeds were planted for all that would come, and to explore this musical history was part of an ongoing seduction that was as sweet as any late-night assignation I had known.

It continues to be an enduring passion, one that found fertile soil during the research and writing of my new book, The Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban American Underworld. In subject and tone, it is a sequel to Havana Nocturne. Set in the nightclubs, restaurants and back alleys of barrios in Union City, N.J., New York and Miami, the soundtrack for this story, in my mind and over my home-office streaming devices, is a greatest hits of Latin-jazz.

Recently, Charles Carlini, who books groups at Zinc Bar, a club in the Village, asked if I would be willing to curate and host a Latin-jazz series at the club. He knew of my love for the music and thought that it might make an interesting tie-in with the release of my new book.

Zinc is located a block away from the old Village Gate. I get to choose the musicians from among some of the best practitioners of contemporary Latin-jazz, to be showcased at the club every other Thursday. It began in April and, if the series proves successful, will continue indefinitely. Calling on a lifetime of appreciation for the music, this assignment is a dream come true.

Latin-jazz and the musicians who play it have added incalculable joy to my existence. The music has provided solace and cultural enlightenment. I have explored its roots and felt the excitement and inventiveness of those who breathe new life into this tradition.

Music can be as essential to the writing process as breathing or thinking. Long stretches of isolation can weaken the soul, and music may be the writer’s sole companion. Listening to and feeling the music can provide peace of mind, or inspiration, but sometimes the writer’s connection to the music can be even more expansive. Music is an expression of the soul, both for those playing it and those listening. If the musicianship is highly skilled and soulful, and the appreciation on the part of the listener is informed and profound, it is a cosmic relationship.

T.J. English is the author of eight nonfiction books, including Havana Nocturne, The Westies and The Savage City. His latest book, The Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban American Underworld, was published this year by William Morrow. The music series “Dangerous Rhythms: T.J. English and His Latin Jazz Explosion” takes place every other Thursday night at Zinc Bar (82 W. 3rd Street in Manhattan). See zincbar.com for more information.