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LATIN JAZZ LIVES! AT JALC : A VENT

For those of you who eschew the existence of the genre of Latin Jazz –more on that short list later– your blogster visited a tribute to Tito Puente and Machito by the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra arranged and conducted by their bassist Carlos Henriquez.  Conspicuous by his absence even in the back of the trumpet section was JALC music director Wynton Marsalis.

The sobriquet LATIN JAZZ has been a contentious one even during those halcyon days when I was sitting-in on hand percussion with some Catskill Mountains lounge acts of the 1950s.  El Rey, Puente himself, denigrated the title.  “There is no such thing as Latin Jazz,” he would say thanking “the Jews” (in the Catskills) “who saved our music.”  “If you’re playing it correctly it’s got clavé mixed with 4/4 swing,” as he analyzed it.  (TP didn’t like the word,”salsa” either.  “It’s what you put on rice or pasta,” he quipped.)

Machito utilized jazz artists in his bands constantly.  And Eddie Parlmieri has been considered the “Latin-ed McCoy Tyner” due to his persuasiveness and his use of juxtaposed latin-cum-jazz rhythms and harmonies.  There were others.

From Dizzy Gillespie to Herbie Mann to Hubert Laws to Chick Corea: “Playing in those Latin bands was great training and among the hardest.”  All exemplified Mongo Santamaria as a mentor.

Speaking of hand percussionists think of all those great jazz piano-led trios in the ’50s and ’60s which added them to their personnel: Billy Taylor, George Shearing, Erroll Garner, Nat ‘King’ Cole among them.  [In no particular order: Candido, Josė Mangual, Ray Barretto, Jack Costanza, Montego Joe and Santamaria.  Before you say it, said addition didn't re-categorize them as latin jazz although when those same percussionists went out on their own as leaders they were considered "latin jazz bands."]

However, there are those who continue to denigrate such a category.  NARAS, the Grammy people, tried eliminating all of its Latin categories to an outcry so loud, thanks to leader of the pack Bobby Sanabria and those of us who cared, that said categories were quickly reinstated.

Not so the Jazz Journalists Association and its leadership, Pres. Howard Mandel who stubbornly and staunchly believes there is no such category, that Latin musicians may record Latin music and may enter their own regular standard categories –big bands, small groups, vocals, et al.  Leaving more room for others?  That’s anathema to me.  [If I haven't gotten that correctly, please enlighten me, in these pages and not aurally.  Ok.  Aurally as well.]

As if to prove the above Henriquez and the JALCO shouted a glorious concert at their home at Lincoln Center this past June 2015.  In the last concert of the JALC season this gem celebrated Puente and Machito with blazing horns and an expanded rhythm section sending the message loud and clear.  There were jazz musical challenges –Ted Nash and Walter Blanding, saxes– chases, call and response –Kenny Rampton and Marcus Printup, trumpets– the blues, and western rhythm instruments sauteed nicely paella-like never losing its clavé heartbeat.

As if testing the authenticity of the presentment bopping along were Puente biographer and archivist Joe Conzo, Sr. and TP scion Tito Puente , Jr.

The choro chores were handled nicely by vocalists Marco Bermudez and Cita Rodriguez along with expanded percussionists and backup by Josė Madera, Johnny Rodriguez, Jr. and George Delgado.

The program was divided equally into music by its three principal composers: Puente, Machito –née Frank Grillo– and guest conductor/composer Henriquez.  The audience, coutured to the nines, the ladies in their Palladium-best, form-fitting dresses, the gents some in Hawaiian/Caribbean Island –read that the Bronx– shirts.  [Consider this: The Bronx is the only part of New York City that is contiguous to the rest of North America.]

At one point during the program I turned to a fellow veteran journalist asking, “If this isn’t Latin Jazz what better example might there be?”  He just nodded.

Don’t you think it’s time for another listen, Howard, this time to us?  Instead of a unilateral edict, how about this: a straight up-and-down vote by the JJA membership.  Question on the floor:  “SHOULD LATIN JAZZ BE REINSTATED AS A VOTING CATEGORY IN OUR AWARDS?”  No electioneering, please.  Is that racist?

To sweeten the pot, I’ll re-up my lapsed membership.

© July 2015 by arnold jay smith


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