Dates : April-May 1977

Place : Havana, Cuba

Persona : your reporter and NYT Guy, the New York Times Correspondent, my running partner.

The Players : members of the Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Hines and Stan Getz groups, David Amram w/Ray Mantilla, featuring Joanne Brackeen, Ben Brown, Joe Ham, Billy Hart, Rodney Jones, Ron McClure, Mickey Roker, Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval from Irakere (Chapter 4) and congeros Los Papines (see below).

Los Papines Cuban LP jacket

it’s our last day of shore leave, as we got used to calling it   me and NYT Guy are now completely comfortable in our skin of ignoring the CubaTour busses as we scampered about the streets of Havana, unaccompanied and i’m sure illegally, but with equal certainty, carefully monitored.  after all we just flew in the face of protocol by spurning a Castro gumment invitation (Chapter 3).


at the exhilarating performance by the Cuban jazz-rockers Irakere at the Havana Libre Hotel there were murmurs of a specal concert presentation the next evening at the Teatro Mella, the city’s Beacon Theatre-like showcase venue.  not that the concert was a surprise, just that David Amram had been feverishly preparing a premiere which was to be his magnum opus and would last a lifetime through many incarnations.

although Amram and i were close, and remain so –more in later Chapters– he wouldn’t divulge much info about the piece save its dedication to the legendary Cuban congero Chano Pozo.

[briefly, Pozo –not his birth name– was a loosely strung, high energy African-Latin percussionist discovered by Dizzy Gillespie and brought to the U.S. in 1949 to play in Gillespie’s big band.  it was to be the North American introduction to Afro-Latin Jazz, Desi Arnaz notwithstanding,  neither Gillespie nor Pozo could speak each other’s language so they communicated as in Kunta Kinte slave days, via the conga drum.  think the Pozo-penned Manteca, bridge by Diz.  

inside of a year the volatile Pozo was dead in a barroom brawl.  his legacy may be heard today in music from Eddie Palmieri to Poncho Sanchez, their antecedents, successors, and anyone who plays Latin-Jazz.]

as it turned out Amram was shooting for the stars.  not only his dedicatee, but the cast of players on the Teatro Mella stage.  Ray Mantilla, the conga player Amram brought with him, would be the Pozo surrogate, an honorific spotlight though fraught with trepidation, Mantilla confided to me later.  also bassist John Ore, aboard with Earl “Fatha” Hines, Billy Hart from Stan Getz’s group plus members of Irakere, and the Cuban family of congeros Los Papines.  the last had not the exposure on the Mainland but their names were near-mythical to conga players.

the lead sheets were being written as Amram rehearsed his ensemble and conducted from the piano, french horn, penny whistles, flutes and ocarinas, pointing when he needed emphasis or soli.  he requested and received permission to gather the band, which was not on the schedule as laid out by Cuban officialdom.

i knew then that we were in for some rare melody, harmony and rhythm, emphasis the latter.


the audience was invitation only.  seems rank has its privileges even in Communist environments.  however, the reserved seats were in the orchestra section only where all the pretty peeps were ensconced for the paparazzi from both countries.  the vast balconies were papered –you couldn’t buy tickets– by workers from the fields, no doubt “rewards” for their production.  it was immediately apparent they were clueless as to who and what they were about to experience.

Part of the audience @ Teatro Mella, Havana, Cuba


inside the Teatro Mella there was a buzz of excitement, at least from the visiting jazz folk.  the audience didn’t seem all that anticipatory.  i would guess they weren’t even told we were there let alone what to expect.  that was borne out when the announcer began by introducing Fatha as “Heens” using the short Spanish pronunciation of the letter “i.”  Fatha corrected that before he played a single note of his perfunctory set.

Earl “Fatha” Hines

 by this time Fatha had done all his single-line, pre-bop piano pioneering so his sets  often bordered on rehearsed repetitiveness.  he had long ago settled into a routine that was redundant and predictable.  but, hey, it WAS Fatha Hines, the Louis Armstrong keyboard acolyte who liberated the piano as his hero had done the trumpet, and all of jazz.  in effect Hines was the first to “blow” piano.

it was always comforting to hear Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues and You Can Depend on Me among the others by their originator played in medley fashion of “my hits.”  his stellar sidemen rose to the occasion: swingmaster Rudy Rutherford, clarinet, Monkian bassist Ore, and crisp drummer Eddie Graham straight out of Vegas lounges.

vocalist Marvelous Marva Josie (above with Fatha) added some sexy glamor as she dramatically entered halfway through the set walking down the aisle.

Rudy Rutherford with Fatha & John Ore @ Teatro Mella, Havana, Cuba

Stan Getz 

the remainder of the evening was no less than festive in every sense, and all Latin Jazz. save for his sinuous interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life Getz’s offerings were from Brazil –the opening O Grande Amor and the closing medley of Desefinado/Chago de Saudade all from A.C. Jobim’s book– with Chick Corea’s La Fiesta in the middle.  he brought the audience with him; they were stirring, at last.

it took an offbeat concert like this to make me remember how eclectic Getz was.  the bebop-cum-cool Prezian tenor saxist had a background steeped in Latin music.  from his mega hit album “Jazz Samba” through his association with Corea in a later quartet introducing, in effect, the jazz-rock group Return To Forever, he was more adventuresome than most give him credit for.

the rhythm section he brought to Havana featured Brackeen, piano, Hart, drums,   McClure on bass with Mantilla, congas, sitting in (all pictured below).  the attendees showed their appreciation towards the familiarity of the tunes.  still no whistles, stomping, or wild enthusiasm one might expect after being jazz-starved all those years.

David Amram

En Memoria de Chano Pozo (In Memory of Chano Pozo, as if i had to translate that) had its gestation on board the cruise ship Daphne as we steamed toward Havana Harbor.  Amram never wavered for his goal was its completion for this concert.  the moment of truth had arrived.  it was to be the only new music played by U.S. musicians during the trip.

Amram separately rehearsed first with the horns; then the Irakere rhythm machine, and lastly with the legendary Los Papines.  when he was almost there –he never quite achieved completion– he called them all together for the ensemble passages.  the solo spacing were to be by aural, visual and musical cues and punctuation.  the piece remains in that virtual ad hoc presentation to this day.  it is all held together by the Amram magical glue of  whistles, flutes and enthusiasm.  a typical Amram outing you opine?  not this time.

Ray Mantilla sits in w/Los Papines @ Teatro Mella, Havana, Cuba

the admixture of rhythmic and melodic spices from Pan-Africa, Spain, European Classical, Cuba, Peru, Colombia and other Latin-American influences combined with 4/4 swing from the U.S. makes En Memoria unique.



Papine returns the favor @ Teatro Mella, Havana, Cuba


the Stateside rhythm section were Ore, Hart, Mantilla, with Amram frequenting the piano bench when he wasn’t percussing, fluting, or french horning.  but the featured players were the Cubans, and the audience.  you just knew that from d’Rivera’s energy-laden alto sax and Sandoval’s Gillespie-like high-note trumpet styles they were destined for off-Island greatness.  they both have since defected.

Amram led the audience participation part of his piece  without a word of instruction  turning to the various sections, orchestra, divided into four, balconies ditto, he had them clapping counter-rhythmically.  clavé, accented 4/4, back beats, syncopated football stadium-type claps.  i must have heard this piece done dozens of times since Havana, but the premiere remains the clearest, cleanest rhythmic hand sounds.  it can get muddled, but not here.  i have the recording to prove it.

however, the cream of the creative essence of Irakere, leader keyboardist, composer Chucho Valdes, did not rise to the top during our visit.  that might have been due to the Castro regime’s hold on him, i.e., they were supporting him with stipends and the good life, Cuba-style.  i am interpolating here; that is not to be taken as gospel.

En Memoria is a long convoluted piece and it usually comes at the end of an Amram performance, mostly as a postlude after a dissertation on our sojourn in Havana and Pozo’s influence.  (if he needs, we sometimes sit-in on rhythm conga.)  finally, the crowd got it.  they whooped and hollered a la a Jazz At The Philharmonic tenor sax battle.

there are two hard to find recordings of the piece, one live in Times Square (more in Chapter 6) and the other in studio.

Dizzy Gillespie et cie

when the cheering for the Amram subsided the Teatro Mella concert concluded with an all-join-in jam on Manteca and Straight No Chaser with Gillespie in charge.  other solos were by Getz, Amram, Sandoval, d’Rivera, Jones and the percussion sections.

Jammin’ for Chano: David Amram(r), Arturo Sandoval, Papine, Dizzy Gillespie(c), Stan Getz, Paquito d’Rivera(l),  @ Teatro Mella, Havana, Cuba

but it doesn’t end there.  despite the quarter note rhythmic clapping, and with strict orders not to go into overtime, and with officials already onstage to effect that order, Diz stepped up to the mic, thanked everyone from Chano Pozo to Charlie Parker to Fidel to Mao, pausing after each for applause.  then we split back to the ship which was already blowing its own horn.

a backstage peek of Dizzy Gillespie @ Teatro Mella, Havana, Cuba

text & photos © arnold jay smith

August 2012




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