The bandleader, composer, timbalero, vibist Tito Puente often thanked from the stage the Jewish people who habituated the Catskill Mountains for “saving our music.”  He was alluding to all those Latin lounge bands who perpetuated the mambo, cha-cha-cha, merengé, later the charanga and the rest of the dances which emigrated north circuitously from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and South America.

I was proudly one of those saviors; I taught Latin dancing even though a teen at the Granit Hotel and Country Club in Kerhonkson,  N.Y.   I also learned to play the bongos sitting in with those lounge bands notably Hal Darnell’s.  Eventually I got to meet Sr. Puente and some of the others at Grossinger’s, the Concord, the Laurels and the many Catskill resorts which dotted those mountain byways.  I would sneak by the guards and into the lounges just to hear the likes of Tito Rodriguez, the Palmieri’s –Eddie and Charlie– Machito, Ray Barretto, who gave me some pointers, and the small groups such as LaPlaya which were invading the mainstream Nordamericano record charts principally 45rpm “party” rerords.

The 1950′s & ’60s were a hotbed for Latin-oriented music.  The Palladium, the Latin dance emporium. was one block uptown from the original Birdland.  “We used to drop down there [Birdland] to hear what Dizzy [Gillespie] and them were saying so we could incorporate it into our music,” Puente said.

The reverse was also the case.  The jazz cats would take their breaks to visit the Palladium.  Dizzy loved to demonstrate to anyone who would listen to where Latin rhythm ‘one’ was.

Both clubs were owned and/or managed by Jews.  In fact I met the manager of Birdland, Oscar Goodstein, at the Granit.  (I went to James Madison High School with one of his daughters.)  It was from Goodstein’s wire recorder which emanated my first “Bird” sounds while I was doing laps in the pool.  “What is that,” I screamed as I went by taking in a mouth full of water.  Goodstein laughed and I never looked back.  I was not yet Bar Mitzvah!

The leading jazz –WJZ, WEVD– and Latin –WADO– disco jockey, Symphony Sid Torin, loved to refer to himself as the best dressed Jew in Italian suits.  “I would one day like to meet an Italian in a Jewish suit,” he once quipped.  His raspy naso baritone broadcast late nights live from stand-side at Birdland, the Royal Roost and other clubs.  I wasn’t allowed to listen on school nights, wink-wink.

So you can imagine my wigged lobes –excuse the little Prezian speak there– when my alma mater, Brooklyn College to which stages and lounges I had introduced jazz for the four years I was there (1956-60) presented Celebrating the Latin/Jewish Jazz Connection in May 2014.

The Brooklyn College Big Band was conducted by Prof. Arturo O’Farrill, and featured clarinetist Anat Cohen, a Sabra, and trombone and euphonium player Rafi Malkiel.  Prior to the concert New England Conservatory Klezmer Band conductor Hankus Netsky walked us through decades of Yiddish-inspired Latin-ed tunes from the Near East and the United States.  Seems the Jews had taken to their Sephardi musical roots seriously way longer than we realize.

The concert opened with the familiar “Hava Nagila” re-titled, deranged and disguised as “Holiday Mambo” by Chico O’Farrill, Arturo’s dad.  (There is a third generation O’Farrill; Arturo’s two sons are accomplished musicians.)

Of the Baker’s dozen selections there was his trademarked masterful piano solo by O’Farrill on Ernesto Lucuona’s “Siboney,” Moroccan-based rhythms by Malkiel, “Desert,” tunes with faraway titles such as “Mai Eden” and “Danza Magica,” a Freilich merengé rearranged by O’Farrill, an au courant tune by Steven Bernstein, “Cha,” Hermeto Pascoal’s “Bebê,” Pixinguinha’s “Um a Zero,” and onward.

There was even a Charles Mingus arrangement of “Alice In Wonderland” called “Diane.”

Throughout the evening I kept remonstrating on an lp I have called “Beautiful Jewish Music.”  No it was not from the Middle East or even from Willamsburg, Brooklyn.  Not even from the Granit.  The lp’s premise was to demonstrate how American jazz musicians such has Sonny Berman, Stan Getz, Shelly Manne, Herbie Mann, Buddy Rich, the Mosts –Abe and Sam– Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and so many more amalgamated their art and their heritage.  When I asked Getz what gave him that plaintive cry in his tone his reply was an incredulous, “Aren’t you Jewish?”

I could wax romantic for ‘graphs on that legacy joyfully being re-inspired and reignited by the Cohen family.

Beautiful Jewish Music, indeed.

© arnold jay smith June 2014





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