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Larry Harlow 1939-2021

The multi-instrumentalist and producer was an unlikely but essential contributor to salsa music’s growth

Larry Harlow 2010
Larry Harlow at Lincoln Center, New York, August 2010 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Larry Harlow, a pianist, composer, and producer who played a key role in the development of salsa music in the United States, died in the early hours of August 20 at a care center in the Bronx, N.Y. He was 82.

His death was announced on his Facebook page by his wife of seven years, Maria del Carmen Harlow Kahn. Cause of death was heart failure, related to a long hospitalization for a renal condition.

A rarity among top-tier salsa musicians for his Jewish, rather than Latino, heritage, Harlow was known within the music’s community as “El Judío Maravilloso”: “The Marvelous Jew,” or “The Wonderful Jew.” However, while studying Afro-Cuban music in Cuba during the 1950s, he also became a practitioner of the Santería faith. In the ensuing decades, he was a pioneer in enmeshing American jazz, rock, and funk with a panoply of Latin-American styles. And he was one of the salsa movement’s most prolific record producers, ultimately helming some 260 releases for its flagship label, Fania Records. Among his other productions was Leon Gast’s 1972 documentary film Our Latin Thing, capturing a Manhattan performance by the label’s Fania All-Stars.

Harlow notably expanded salsa’s sonic palette. A multi-instrumentalist in his own right—playing flute, oboe, English horn, vibraphone, bass, violin, and percussion as well as piano—he experimented with several of them within the salsa framework and is credited with introducing the bata drum, a Yoruban instrument traditionally used in Santería rites, to the music. He also incorporated electric instruments. When his colleague Eddie Palmieri introduced the revolutionary two-trombones-and-flute front line, Harlow compounded the innovation by adding trumpets.

In later years, Harlow was instrumental in the creation of the Latin Grammy Awards, and in 2005 brought his aesthetic to the indie-rock world, collaborating with the band the Mars Volta on their album Frances the Mute.

Despite his relentless innovation, however, Harlow adhered to some core populist principles in his musicianship. “The whole purpose of dancing Latin music is to have this interplay between the musicians and the dancers,” he explained in a 2009 interview with the Americas Society’s Peter Manuel. “I know when I’m up playing, and I see people dancing great, I play better. And when I play better, the dancers dance better.”

Lawrence Ira Kahn was born March 20, 1939 in Brooklyn to Nathan “Buddy” Kahn, a musician, and Rose Sherman Kahn, an opera singer. His father was a bassist who led the mambo band at the Manhattan nightclub the Latin Quarter, using the stage name of Buddy Harlowe (from which his son would drop the “e” when he similarly adopted it). Both Lawrence and his younger brother Andre (born in 1945) studied classical piano as children—though Andre would switch to woodwinds as a teenager—and were admitted to the New York High School of Music and Arts.

A lover of Art Tatum, Harlow was also naturally enchanted by the Latin sounds he grew up with. Following his high-school graduation in 1957, Harlow traveled to Cuba for more immersive study of both traditional Yoruban music and of popular styles, remaining there for two years. Forced out by the 1959 revolution, he returned to New York and began building reputations both in jazz and Latin music circles, frequently combining the two in the burgeoning Latin jazz movement.

By 1964, Harlow was the leader of his own big band (variously styled Harlow Orchestra and Orquesta Harlow), which had gained a substantial following. Fania Records signed him later that year, and in 1965 released his debut album, Heavy Smokin’. Three years later, firmly entrenched within Fania, Harlow organized the Fania All-Stars, an assemblage of the label’s most popular and innovative artists, which became a crucial artistic and commercial draw; their summer 1971 concert at the Cheetah nightclub in Manhattan was filmed for the Our Latin Thing documentary (both produced by and featuring Harlow), which opened the following year.

After the radical step of introducing the clavinet and Fender Rhodes to salsa on the 1971 album Electric Harlow, Harlow’s music became increasingly ambitious. In 1972 he premiered the world’s first Latin opera, Hommy (a takeoff on the Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy); it became a major hit, with its single “Gracia Divina” reviving the stalling career of singing star Celia Cruz. In 1974 and 1976 followed two albums—Salsa and La Raza Latina: A Salsa Suite, respectively—that documented the sprawling history of Afro-Latin music.

Harlow continued developing and exhibiting the salsa sound through the 1980s, ’90s, and ’00s. He also intensified his work as a producer, which had begun in the early ’70s with recordings by his brother Andy. In 1994 he co-founded the Latin Legends Band, an outgrowth of the Fania All-Stars. He also lobbied hard for the creation of Latin Grammy Awards, leading in part to their establishment in 2000. In recognition for his advocacy, Harlow received the Latin Grammy Trustees Award in 2008.

He continued working into the 2010s, especially in collaboration with fellow keyboardist and protégé Marlow Rosado. Together they made Harlow’s final recording, Harlow Marlow, Volume One: Passing the Torch, in 2016.

In addition to his wife, Marlow is survived by his brother Andy; a son, Myles; a daughter, Haiby; and three grandchildren.

Larry Harlow: Salsa’s Second Coming

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.