Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Latin Jazz: The Latin Tinge

Arturo O'Farrill
Bobby Sanabria
Jerry Gonzalez

The term Latin jazz was coined during the 1950s by the American media, but it’s always been an overly simplistic description of a complex musical melting pot. In truth, that pot has always been a cultural cauldron, and Latin-jazz bandleaders-of both big and small groups-carry on the tradition today by adding ingredients from numerous ancestral countries, as well as drawing influences from the Internet and the growing Latino population in the United States. Both veteran performers and younger musicians from Cuba and Brazil still define the directions Latin jazz takes, along with popular artists from Panama (pianist Danilo Perez), the Dominican Republic (pianist Michel Camilo), Puerto Rico (saxophonist Miguel Zenón), Mexico (drummer Antonio Sanchez), Spain (guitarist Paco de Lucía), Argentina (saxophonist Gato Barbieri), Uruguay (violinist Federico Britos), Venezuela (pianist Edward Simon), Peru (drummer/percussionist Alex Acuña) and beyond.

“Latin refers to Latin America, which includes 22 countries,” says Bobby Sanabria, an animated, intense Bronx-based bandleader, composer, drummer/percussionist and musical educator. “Each of these places has an extraordinary amount of rhythms, styles and genres that represent their cultures.” He cites examples such as Cuban mambo, Dominican merengue, Brazilian choro, Venezuelan joropo and Puerto Rican bomba. Sanabria is a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage, or “Nuyorican.”

“Jazz’s primary harmonic and melodic vocabulary is rooted first and foremost in the blues, which undeniably comes from the African-American experience,” he says. “But jazz developed in New Orleans from African-American and Caribbean influences, which means Latinos were present at its birth, and continue to be involved in its evolution.”

As a fledgling term, Latin jazz was lumped into blends of jazz with its two most influential mixers, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music. Cuban bandleader and arranger Mario Bauza (who’d already worked with Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway and Chick Webb) essentially created Latin jazz in early 1940s in New York City, fusing jazz arrangements with percussive Afro-Cuban rhythms as musical director for vocalist Machito and his Afro-Cubans big band.

“New York City is a port city, like New Orleans,” says Sanabria, who worked with Bauza for eight years. “But it’s a metropolitan, urban mega-center where the rhythms of Cuba thrived in Spanish Harlem. Cubans and Puerto Ricans adopted, adapted and spread the music to the South Bronx and beyond. It couldn’t have happened in any other place. So the root branch of the Latin-jazz continuum, Afro-Cuban jazz, wasn’t born in Cuba, but in New York City.”

The American media and mainstream listeners, however, warmed to the Afro-Cuban variation of Latin jazz after American trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie employed Cuban congueros Chano Pozo (in the late 1940s) and Candido (who arrived in New York City before Pozo, and is now 86) in the 1950s. American saxophonist Stan Getz turned a similar trick with Brazil’s stately bossa nova movement in the 1960s, recording with composer/pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim, guitarist/vocalist João Gilberto and vocalist Astrud Gilberto.

“I’m part Cuban, part Puerto Rican and part Brazilian,” says bandleader, percussionist and trumpeter Jerry González by phone from Madrid. “Latin jazz has the same concept of improvisation as in American jazz, but played in the language of Latino musicians. There’s a lot of things shared, and America has a lot of Latino influence, so it’s like Spanglish.”

González may embody the multi-everything nature of modern Latin jazz. Born in the Bronx, like Sanabria, he’s lived in Spain for seven years. González got early road experience playing congas with both Gillespie and Nuyorican pianist Eddie Palmieri in the 1970s, then picked up his first instrument, the trumpet, and formed his influential Fort Apache Band with bass-playing brother Andy González in the 1980s. On trumpet, congas or cajon, the colorful González is at home within big-band and small group contexts.

“Latin jazz has been my graffiti since I was a kid,” he says. “I grew up listening to Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian music, and it was all Latin jazz. I just did a gig here playing trumpet and cajon with three flamenco guitar players: a Spaniard, a Gypsy and an Israeli. I started playing cajon after I got here, but I’m playing it the Afro-Cuban way, not flamenco style. It freaked them out at first, ’cause they’ve never heard it played that way, but it fits. Now they’re all starting to get into the clave.”

The insistent III-II clave pattern, González says, is the rhythm that unites all variations of Latin jazz. “The clave is what makes it Latin,” he says, “but it can exist in any music. When we play with Fort Apache, the clave is constant. Even when we play swing, it’s there. The straight jazz players have it, but they don’t know they have it! I made a record with a big band here, but it hasn’t made it to the States yet. It’s [got a] part Spanish flamenco, part Latin vibe. I also just did a quartet record that we’re getting ready to mix. We call ourselves the Commandos of the Clave.”

Sanabria also sees the power of the III-II pattern. “It’s what connects us back to our rhythmic roots; to West Africa,” he says. “I would say it is a common unifier in terms of the rhythmic structures, cultures and music of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. To a lesser extent, it’s also at the root of second-line patterns in New Orleans. Because of this, the rhythmic principle of the clave is also at the root of funk, rock, R&B and the horn lines of the big-band tradition of swing back in the 1930s. The problem is that most musicians don’t know that. When you don’t know your history, it’s very easy to keep people, especially musicians, segregated from each other.”

Sanabria teaches what he preaches, instructing Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra courses at two New York institutions, New School University and the Manhattan School of Music. His latest CD, Big Band Urban Folktales (Jazzheads), features a bluesy Sanabria composition, standards by Alagoan multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal, and even an Afro-Cuban arrangement of Frank Zappa’s “The Grand Wazoo.”

“I’ve always said that I have one foot in the past, one in the present, and my head looking toward the future,” says Sanabria. “I’ve literally performed and recorded with the founders and shapers of this idiom: Chico O’Farrill, Mario Bauza, Candido, Ray Barretto. For my students, I’m a conduit to the past and present of the music. There are seven of my former students featured on the disc, playing alongside seasoned veterans.”

Sanabria’s open mind comes from playing in both big bands and small groups like Gillespie’s, Tito Puente’s and González’s Fort Apache Band. Sanabria also credits his father, whose wide musical tastes influenced his own, as an early influence.

For pianist Arturo O’farrill, the patriarchal influence is even more profound. Born in Mexico and raised in New York City, the bandleader is the son of the iconic Cuban trumpeter, arranger and composer Chico O’Farrill. The younger O’Farrill is also a veteran of Gillespie’s bands, as well as orchestras and smaller ensembles led by Wynton Marsalis, Carla Bley and Harry Belafonte.

In 2002, a year after his father’s death, he formed the Jazz at Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with the blessing of Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director Marsalis. The all-encompassing Afro-Latin portion of the name was purposeful for the orchestra designed to honor Cuban bandleaders like O’Farrill, Machito and Bauza, Brazilian composer Jobim, the Nuyorican Puente and others.

“When Latin jazz is pounding, pulsing and grooving, there’s nothing else like it,” says O’Farrill, who comes across as jovial, yet no less passionate, compared to the intense Sanabria and González. “It’s still as passionate, arrogant and powerful as ever. It’s not disappearing; it’s getting bolder, and it’s converting a lot of listeners.”

Earlier this year, O’Farrill decided to pull the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra out of Jazz at Lincoln Center. His orchestra’s new home base is still in Manhattan. “We left Jazz at Lincoln Center because we weren’t really being presented with the kind of opportunities that I believe we merited,” O’Farrill says. “Wynton and I parted on good terms, and I’m grateful to Wynton and Jazz at Lincoln Center for giving us a birthplace. But we’re doing things now that we weren’t able to do there, like getting over to Europe. We’re starting our own educational initiative-we just received a sizable grant to present Latin-jazz residencies in the New York City public school system. And we’re now doing three-night runs with our new performing partner, Symphony Space, which does one thing that Jazz at Lincoln Center does not-it keeps its ticket prices low as a policy. I have to respect people who try to make jazz and Latin jazz available to everyone.”

O’Farrill’s father was understated, letting his music speak for him. His son speaks for him with every chance he gets. “One of the reasons I was considered to do this was that I’d held the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra together for so many years,” he says. “We’re about to celebrate our 12th year of Sundays at Birdland. I think that gave me credentials as a bandleader for Wynton. My father was a quiet guy, and not so much an instrumentalist, dancer or singer. So he had trouble getting the name recognition of Tito Puente. But my father was a really profound composer and arranger, and his work spoke more than his words. He has not gotten his due. He’s a major voice in the field of American music.”

In listing his most influential Latin-jazz bandleaders, González agrees. “Machito, for me, was our Duke Ellington,” he says. “And Tito Puente was our Count Basie. Tito Rodriguez had great big bands, too. But I think Machito’s was the greatest, and Chico O’Farrill’s was really the extension of that among Latin-jazz big bands. Chico was ridiculous. His arrangements were incredible.”

O’Farrill and Sanabria also speak glowingly about Puente, and praise González’s former employer, the 70-year-old Palmieri, an icon among modern Latin-jazz bandleaders. “Tito was so important as a symbol of the power of Latin jazz,” O’Farrill says. “He was a monster timbalero and vibes player, and had the outgoing personality, so people gravitated toward him and loved him. And that’s really important, because music is, after all, for people. Eddie is an icon to me. His piano playing is nothing short of astonishing. And he’s never betrayed his roots. He’s always, first and foremost, a Latin player.”

“I’ll just quote Mario Bauza,” Sanabria says. “‘No one has done more for Afro-Cuban music worldwide than Tito Puente.’ Now, coming from Mario, who was a proud Cuban, that’s saying a lot. Like Tito, Eddie Palmieri is a living ambassador of the Afro-Cuban branch of the Latin-jazz continuum. His playing is based on the historical precedent set by players like Lili Martinez from Cuba, and his brother, the late, great Charlie Palmieri.”

Sanabria also mentions the importance of seminal Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat in the 1930s, and Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria and American vibraphonist Cal Tjader in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sanabria also has strong beliefs as to why so few of these Latin-jazz artists register as household names. “If you saw Ken Burns’ [2001 JAZZ] documentary, in terms of jazz history, we basically didn’t exist,” he says. “He could’ve done a whole segment on Nuyorican [drummer/percussionist] Willie Bobo. Unfortunately, the racism and ignorance of the contributions of Latinos to jazz history is so pervasive that we’ve been relegated to footnotes.”

Sanabria suggests two more recent award-winning television documentaries, The Palladium: Where Mambo Was King and From Mambo To Hip-Hop: A South Bronx Tale, as educational tools. He was an associate producer for both. “It’s embarrassing to realize that the teaching of basic fundamentals of Latin-American music are being introduced in elementary school in Japan’s music programs,” says Sanabria. “In Holland, at the Rotterdam Conservatoire, there’s an incredible four-year, university-level concentration on Latin-American music and its relationship to jazz.”

“Latin-jazz education is overlooked here,” O’Farrill says. “The music was created here, but it has the unfortunate stigma of being perceived as foreign. Latinos speak a different language, which makes it seem even more foreign to some people. It’s not. It’s as American as apple pie. Let’s stop pretending it’s a subset, a subgenre.”

“It strikes me as a new kind of racism,” Sanabria says. “The racism of, ‘You don’t exist.'”

González, who, as of this writing, is scheduled to play Fort Apache Band gigs in the Eastern United States throughout October, admits that he’s more comfortable living away from such complications. “The police don’t hassle me [overseas] like they do in America,” he says, “which got worse after the terrorist attacks. Plus, I’ve been workin’ my ass off since I got here. Within the first couple of weeks after I arrived [in Spain], we recorded that flamenco record [the heralded 2004 release Jerry González y Los Piratas del Flamenco on Sunnyside]. I got invited to the studio, met all these flamenco cats, and got to know them. I thought it was just going to be jamming, but they wanted to do a record. And the city government in Madrid ended up giving me a prize for it! They don’t do that kind of shit in New York.”

O’Farrill, who studied at the Manhattan School of Music, Brooklyn College Conservatory and Queens College, lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But most of the work with his orchestra, although an increasingly global musical and educational entity, is still within New York’s five boroughs.

“Symphony Space has been very gracious,” O’Farrill says. “This music is too rich and too profound to let it disappear. The clave alone is a microcosm of life, because it’s something you feel. It’s one measure of syncopation, and one of non-syncopation. A measure of tension, where the second beat in the first measure is on the upbeat of two, so there’s an unsettled feeling for a second. Then there’s a measure of release, where the beats are on the two and three, so it feels rewarding. It’s antagonist-protagonist; yin-yang, and a real example of what makes great literature, cinema and sound. Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean music is different enough from standard big-band repertory that it deserves to be understood as a separate specialty and discipline.”

Sanabria, who created a Latin-jazz ensemble in the mid-1970s as a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, continues to define the Latin-jazz tradition as a bandleader and sideman. Yet he seems most passionate about being a teacher.

“It’s my responsibility to make sure that those who have come before me get the credit they so richly deserve,” Sanabria says. “They should be part of the curriculum of every jazz history course taught in the world. I did just that in Armenia over the summer, when I performed with my quartet and taught a master class at the conservatory in Yerevan.”

González, ever the exile, always approaches things differently, beginning with his jazz education, which eventually took him to the streets, the learning environment for many Latin-jazz players.

“I went to the New York College of Music,” González says, “but the school got swallowed up by New York University, and they messed it up. I didn’t last six months after that. I needed money to pay the tuition, so I went on a 10-day tour in 1969 with the Beach Boys! Can you imagine that? I was playing in the horn section. But after I got back, I couldn’t catch up, and the school was more tied up in its own prestige than in helping me do that. So I left, and hung out with Jackie McLean, Rashied Ali and Dewey Redman. And if I hadn’t played on the streets of New York, I probably wouldn’t be a musician today.” Originally Published