Early Wednesday morning, April 7, 2010 at 8 a.m., as New York City awoke and commuters made their way to their destinations, Graciela Pérez Gutiérrez—the legendary Graciela—passed away, marking the end of an era. The “First Lady of Afro-Cuban Jazz” was six months shy of her 95th birthday when she died in Cornell-Presbyterian Hospital, where she had been admitted several weeks before, suffering from renal and pulmonary illness. Her career spanned over 70 years in her native Cuba and New York, her home since 1943. She was sassy before Sarah Vaughan emerged, sexy prior to Eartha Kitt, and daring two decades ahead of the 1960s sexual revolution. She could mesmerize you singing a bolero, get you dancing with her swinging interpretations of pre-salsa era guarachas, make you smile with her effervescent personality, and titillate you with her signature, sultry songs. Graciela was sui generis!
The 1940s was a time when women in jazz were frowned upon. In 1943 Graciela was summoned from Havana to join her brother Machito and brother-in-law Mario Bauzá’s Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra, paving the way for other ladies of music to follow—a feat even more astounding when you consider she was an Afro-Cuban female with little command of English performing with a revolutionary band without precedent.