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The Genres: Jesse “Chuy” Varela on Latin Jazz

Eddie Palmieri
Eddie Palmieri (photo: Joel Meyerowitz)

“How can you call my music Latin jazz!” the late Mario Bauzá barked at me in an interview in the 1980s. I was a neophyte radio deejay in the San Francisco Bay area and had finally tracked down the godfather of what I considered to be Latin jazz, and here he was scolding me for using the term.

“What I do is Afro-Cuban jazz. There’s 27 countries in Latin America and each has its own music. My music is not from there; it’s from Africa,” he said. As blunt as it was, his message shared an important perspective about the 20th-century graft of jazz and Latin rhythms. “Two branches of the same tree,” he said about the hemispheric fusion he helped pioneer.

The combined fires of Latin, African and jazz music burned brightly in the ’70s. In the United States, pianist Eddie Palmieri fused mambo dancehall beats with the inspiration of John Coltrane into an explosive sound that included dissonance and extended improvisation. Palmieri was greatly influenced by McCoy Tyner, as well as by his brother Charlie, and his vivid music was Latin New York in full effect. Palmieri led a lobbying effort that encouraged the Grammys to finally create the Best Latin Recording award (though he wanted to call the category Afro-Caribbean jazz). In 1975, Palmieri was rewarded with the genre’s first Grammy for his landmark album Sun of Latin Music (Coco).

In 1977, Dizzy Gillespie got back from Cuba exalting the Afro-Cuban jazz band Irakere. Led by pianist-composer-educator Jesus “Chucho” Valdés, with a cast that featured the superb talent of reedman Paquito D’Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, Irakere forged an amalgam of jazz, rock, classical and Cuban folk music. Irakere’s music steered jazz in a new direction and the band was honored with a Grammy in 1979.


The fusion-crazed ’70s took Latin jazz out of its big-band mold and opened it up to new aesthetics. The Brazilian branch spawned new, adventurous stars like Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Egberto Gismonti, Nana Vasconcelos, Moacir Santos, Dom Um Romao and Tania Maria. Wayne Shorter introduced Milton Nascimento to the American public on his acclaimed Native Dancer (Epic/Columbia) and opened the door for other important composers and performers to be noticed, like Ivan Lins, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso.

Public radio was important to propelling Latin jazz to greater appreciation, too. During the minority-empowerment movements of the ’70s, demands were made for diversity on publicly supported stations. It was a struggle, but the results brought jazz, world, Latin music and more to radio. Mickey Melendez (WBAI, New York), Alfredo Cruz (WBGO, Newark), Andres Alegria (KPFA, Berkeley), Chata Guiterrez (KPOO, San Francisco), Alma del Barrio (Loyola University, Los Angeles) and others brought minorty viewpoints and music to the airwaves.

In the ’70s, Latin jazz, such as Gato Barbieri’s soundtrack to Last Tango in Paris, crept onto proto-smooth-jazz stations and in the ’80s bands like Spyro Gyra grooved bossa beats on stations with slugs like “The Quiet Storm” and “The Wave.” West Coast straightahead stations like KJAZ in San Francisco and KKGO in L.A. drew from the vast catalogue of Latin-inspired jazz classics, while its listenership debated the merits of such a format break.


Latin jazz got a shot in the arm in 1980 when Cal Tjader recorded La Onda Va Bien for Concord Records. It won a Grammy and incited interest from jazz aficionados. Tjader’s label debut also launched a new division, Concord Picante. It was home to some of the greatest names in Latin jazz: Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, Pete Escovedo, Monty Alexander, Tania Maria, Poncho Sanchez and many others. Concord Picante gave Latin jazz a higher profile and appealed to many straightahead jazzers who, despite knowing very little about the music, dug the festive grooves. As outdoor festivals became popular, the Latin-jazz groups proved to be showstoppers, as exemplified by the late Puente.

In the 1980s, vibrant new voices emerged in Latin jazz that helped grow the audience and expand the genre, including David Sánchez, Danilo Pérez, Michel Camilo, Eliane Elias, Steve Turre, Hilton Ruiz, Dave Valentin, Libre, Angela Bofill, Sheila Escovedo and many others. Salsa impresario Ralph Mercado seized upon Latin jazz’s growing popularity and started TropiJazz Records, a subsidiary of his RMM record label. His brilliant marketing scheme included video production, and a roster that included current megastars La India and Marc Anthony.

Back in Cuba, Irakere continued to crank out extraordinary music, even despite the defection of D’Rivera and Sandoval, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba fixated the jazz world as a twentysomething virtuoso pianist who represented the first generation of conservatory-trained talent under Fidel Castro’s regime. But Rubalcaba was just the edge of the island’s immense talent pool, as young lions like Horacio “Negro” Hernandez, Orlando “Maraca” Valle and Hilario Durán soon proved.


Dizzy continued his love affair with Latin jazz, and nurtured an all-star cast in the United Nations Orchestra that featured stalwarts Sandoval, D’Rivera, Sanchez, D. Perez and others. But it was the young Puerto Rican conga player Giovanni Hidalgo and drummer Ignacio Berroa who rocked the house.

Also in the ’80s: Ray Barretto made his comeback with the group New World Spirit; the González brothers, Jerry (congas, trumpet) and Andy (bass), formed the Latin hard-bop ensemble the Fort Apache Band in NYC.; and Jane Bunnett, a young flute and soprano sax player from Canada, brought together Spirits of Havana, sort of her version of the Buena Vista Social Club.

In the late ’80s and ’90s, a flash flood of Latin-jazz reissues appeared on compact disc. Blue Note, Fantasy, Verve, Roulette, Muse and others revitalized long dormant Latin-flavored catalogs and stimulated appreciation for the works of unsung giants like Sabu Martinez, Arsenio Rodriguez, Machito and others. The reissue avalanche was instigated by the rise of the CD, but it kept rolling because deejays and kids in the U.K. who spun and performed groove-based jazz with Latin-music accents had created demand for long out-of-print albums.


Today, labels like CuBop records in San Francisco fuel a youthful fire for groove- and vibe-oriented tracks with a hip-hop marketing sensibility. CuBop’s “mambo à la rave” sound touches a younger audience getting into jazz through jazz-jam bands like Medeski, Martin & Wood and Galactic. A sister label to the more acid jazzy Ubiquity Records, CuBop features young lions like Johnny Blas, Snowboy, John Santos & the Machete Ensemble and veteran cats like Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers, Bobby Matos and Francisco Aguabella.

Latin jazz continues to grow and split into viable new hybrids. Check Gary Burton’s magnificent Libertango (Concord), an album of Argentinian Astor Piazzolla’s music; the angular Cuban fusion of Yosvany Terry and Columna B; and the Venezuelan jazz movement led by singer Maria Marquez, the Snake Trio and vibist Alfredo Naranjo. And there’s certainly more to come—be it called Latin jazz, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban or, simply, jazz.

Originally Published