the 2012 Grammy Awards is the first one to eliminate many categories, the most prominent being Latin Jazz. there are those who argue that Latin Jazz is not a separate genre but a substratum of other music. why not then, they suggest, a category for bebop, or swing, or Dixieland. the answer is simple: trad-jazz, i.e. Dixieland, or New Orleans jazz, Swing, Chicago-style, Kansas City and bebop are cogs in the evolution of contemporary, or modern jazz.


Latin Jazz evolved uniquely and independently from Spanish influences in that great multi-cultural gumbo that is New Orleans combining with the African Negro diaspora. Scott Joplin used the habañera in his “Solace” in the 19th century; Jelly Roll Morton called his fusion “the Spanish Tinge” in the early 20th; the original rhythm of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” was, you guessed it, the habañera. it all seems to have emanated from Georges Bizet who called a selection from his opera Carmen “The Habañera.” the rhythm eventually became the basis for the tango.

let’s get back to that diaspora thing. all African slave ships did not land en masse in one place. some were sent to Argentina, where the music fused and became the tango. others went to Colombia where it became cumbia. in Brasil, the samba, then bossa nova. the Dominican Republic gave us the merenge. yes, i know i’m over simplifying.

the most important landings were in the Caribbean where it eventually became reggae and, most importantly in Cuba where African-Latin percussion fusion was born. but why and when did this jazz combine with Afro-Latin music? to my mind the West-supported Batiste dictatorship in Cuba and the entertainment Mecca that it became encouraged jazz bands to play there. remember, jazz was the popular music of this country right through the Swing era. Al Capone was a big trad jazz fan and his successors –there is no such thing as the Mafia, right?– loved to use Cuba as their playground, if you believe what you read and see in the movies and on television.

flash ahead to 52nd St. in the late ’40s & ’50s. the original Birdland was on Broadway near the corner of W. 52nd with its sign reading “Through these portals pass the most.” one block north was the legendary Palladium Ballroom featuring Latin dance bands with names like Tito Puente, Machito, Jose Curbello, both Tito & Arsenio Rodriguez (not related), Eddie & Charlie Palmieri (brothers), Chico O’Farrill, Perez Prado. during set breaks the jazzers from Birdland would walk the block to hear what this rhythm was all about. (according to Dizzy Gillespie most jazz players couldn’t figure out where “one” was.) the dancers were inventing “breaks” and wanted something more so the bandleaders went down the stairs to Birdland to hear what the improvisers were saying. love at first phrase!


marriages are hastiy arranged (pun intended). Machito records with jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker. O’Farrill writes for Gillepie who also records with Machito as his brother-in-law Mario Bauzá arranges things. Woody Herman partners with Puente. on the westcoast Stan Kenton hires latin percussionists and Johnny Richards (related to his then wife Ann?) to write Cuban-tinged music for his band after he has a hit with a Cuban street song called “Peanut Vendor.” (“El Manisero”)

meanwhile back in the Apple Dizzy discovers congero Chano Pozo in Havana, brings him to New York and, voila! Latin Jazz spreads like a brush fire in a drought. soon every jazz group “needs” Latin percussion. (not-yet-Dr.) Billy Taylor steals Candido Camero from under Dizzy’s nose and expands his Birdland house band; cool and tight George Shearing adds Armando Perazza; percussive pianist Erroll Garner hires Jose Manguel; the Nat’King’ Cole Trio becomes a quartet with the addition of Jack Costanza; and congero Ray Barretto becomes a ubiquitous presence on many contemporary jazz recordings, having already become a star in the Latin community. (Ray’s love for jazz was so deep that he was also a walking jazz encyclopedia.) in fact, if you took away the latter from those recordings they would sound hollow, something missing. and i have only just scratched the conga skin: Herbie Mann’s groups, Willie Bobo, Cal Tjader (on red vinyl no less), the surprise praising and acceptance of the Brazilian flick “Black Orpheus,” which catapulted bossa nova never to look back.


i’ve omitted more than i’ve included so in my next posting, say in a fortnight, i’ll include commentary by drummer, educator, bandleader Bobby Sanabria who is spearheading a grass roots movement –and a law suit– to bring the NARAS Latin Jazz category back to the Grammys. also, why has the Jazz Journalists Association removed the category from their awards? i’ll also show how young artists proudly continue to use the phrase “Latin Jazz” in their bands’ names and their songs’ titles. it must carry some caché. your assignment for next time remonstrate on this: isn’t the Recoding Academy supposed to expand the understanding and exposition of all music? why do they spend money on full page ads denigrating someone’s art simply because of the lack of crass financial gains? (i refer to the New York Times ad on last year’s Best New Artist Esperanza Spalding –boo hoo Justin– which also included insulting remarks about Herbie Hancock.) btw, that ad just spurred more interest in Spalding proving once again that there is no such thing as bad pr; just spell the name correctly.


- © arnold jay smith
January 2012

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