Latin jazz was born of the communal harmonies between African Americans, Latin Americans, and Caribbean musicians.
In this 1950s photo in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) legendary Latin jazz figure, Paquito D’Rivera, appears as a child next to his father Tito D’Rivera, also a musician. The dedication, “We love you Dizzy,” is addressed to jazz master Dizzy Gillespie and captures the strong professional and personal ties between the Cuban saxophonist and the African American trumpeter. As with this photo, there are a number of materials in the NMAAHC collection that highlight important moments and outstanding figures in the musical collaborations that created Latin jazz.
So, he came, even without liking the music, he came with books, be-bop books by Dizzy and Charlie Parker and Monk all that. And more LPs and all that, and we ended up loving that music.Paquito D’Rivera talking about his father Tito D’Rivera, 2010
Drawn towards the promise of economic opportunity or the desire to escape social stigmas in their own countries, Cubans, Mexicans, Haitians, and Puerto Ricans (among other Latin American and Caribbean citizens) took part in a large-scale migration to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly to New Orleans. This exodus was responsible for the integration of sounds that gave birth to American jazz and introduced popular Latin rhythms to the US. Latin American and Caribbean musicians found themselves working in many of the jazz brass bands that flourished in New Orleans and in doing so, influenced jazz with a “Latin tinge” as composer and pianist Jelly Roll Morton called it.
During World War I, the regimental band of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters brought Jazz to Europe. In 1917, the same year that the Jones Act transformed all Puerto Ricans into US citizens, the band’s director, James Reese Europe, began recruiting musicians from the island. A 1918 black-and-white photograph in NMAAHC’s collection depicts the brass band performing at an American Red Cross Hospital in Paris, France. Noble Sissle, an African American jazz lyricist, vocalist, and composer was a prominent member of this ensemble. After the war, Sissle hired Puerto Ricans musicians for his band while others worked as sidemen on jazz orchestras. These interactions resulted in musicians sharing their particular regional rhythms with each other and set the stage for the future fusion of jazz and Latin musical styles.
Among the early Latin “influencers” on jazz was Juan Tizol. The Puerto Rican trombonist arrived in New York during the 1920s, seeking to escape the economic hardship he faced on the small island. He initially settled down in Washington D.C. to work in the Howard Theater Orchestra. Later he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1929 to 1944 and at various intervals during the 1950s and 1960s. From this Tizol/Ellington collaboration was born the composition “Caravan” in 1937, a piece with musical expressions of Cuban rumba and North African rhythms that became a jazz standard.
Another Latin forerunner in jazz was the Cuban flautist, Alberto Socarrás, who made the first jazz flute solo recording with the Clarence Williams Jazz Ensemble in 1929. He also played in the bands of Benny Carter and Sam Wooding and wrote musical arrangements for the popular bandleader Cab Calloway whose ensemble lifted the spirit of the audience at the famous Cotton Club as is shown in a 1938 program of the famous Harlem nightclub below.
By the 1930s, jazz stars and ensembles were showcasing the influence of Latin rhythms. Jazz giant, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, for instance, recorded in 1931 his version of “The Peanut Vendor” a popular Cuban song. Armstrong developed a close personal and professional relation with Luis Russell, a Panamanian pianist who had migrated to New Orleans in the 1920s. Russell directed the orchestra that accompanied Armstrong from 1935 to 1943 and became a key figure in the burgeoning jazz and swing music scene in New York during the 1930s.
Russell’s distinctive style, as a pianist, orchestra leader, songwriter, and arranger, was in creating a fun atmosphere and a loose, informal, rhythmic groove, designed to be inviting, to keep a dance floor packed, and to out swing the competition. He introduced subtle polyrhythms befitting his Panamanian roots, and was an initiator of the Caribbean tinge, that key element of early jazz described by Jelly Roll Morton as the Spanish tinge.Paul N. Kahn, 2018 Call of The Freaks Luis Russell & Louis Armstrong Musical Pals: An Illustrated History by Paul N. Kahn
Other African American orchestras had integrated Latin melodies into their repertoires by this time including Duke Ellington’s and Cab Calloway’s. Both Cuban multi-instrumentalist Mario Bauzá and Dizzy Gillespie, two future key talents in the creation of Latin jazz, joined Calloway’s band (a few months apart) in 1939. Calloway also recorded the 1940 "Going Conga," composition of Alberto Iznaga, another prominent and influential Cuban musician. Iznaga, who played the violin and later the clarinet and saxophone, had emigrated from Cuba in 1929. Significantly, both Iznaga and Socarrás left Cuba because of the racism they faced there, a stark reminder that discrimination due to skin color also occurred in Latin-American countries.
But since childhood, Iznaga had seen racist attitudes at work and heard the rationalizations used to deny black Cubans the inalienable rights of men.Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York 1926-1990 by Max Salazar, 2010
1940 brought with it the creation of the multiracial and multicultural Machito and the Afro Cubans Orchestra, the first to consistently mix Afro Cuban and Jazz rhythms; to introduce the conga, bongo, and timbales as standard percussion instruments; and to use the term Afro in their name. The talented founders of this orchestra were Bauzá and Francisco Grillo “Machito.” Bauza had lived in New York since 1930 and worked with the orchestras of African American jazz musicians Nobble Sissle, Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, and Don Redman. In 1943, the Machito and the Afro Cubans Orchestra recorded Bauzá’s composition, “Tanga.” It became their iconic song, and for many, represents the first example of Afro Cuban Jazz. A flier from 1972 (below) presents the creator of the genre, Machito, along with his singer sister Graciela and Eddie Palmieri, who is still an active performer in Latin music in 2019.
Among the notable recordings of Machito and the Afro Cubans Orchestra with an African American musician is Afro Cuban Suite (1950) arranged by Cuban Arturo “Chico” O’Farril and featuring famous saxophonist Charlie Parker. It is now considered a classic.
Afro Cuban jazz was a precursor of Latin jazz and Dizzy Gillespie played a fundamental role in its explosive popularity. Gillespie became familiar with Latin rhythms during his work with Bauzá in the Calloway orchestra (1939-1941), a brief appearance in the Socarrás orchestra (1943), and with the Machito and the Afro Cubans Orchestra (1942). By the early 1940s, Gillespie had become one of the originators of bebop, a style of jazz that featured fast tempos, complex chord progressions, and harmonic improvisation. During this period, he also produced his famous composition "A Night in Tunisia" with perceptible airs of Latin harmonies.
Gillespie’s bebop had transformed into cubop with the addition of newly arrived Cuban conguero or conga player Luciano “Chano Pozo” González to his group in 1947, whom he met through his friend Bauzá. Pozo debuted with Gillespie's band at Carnegie Hall, where they released their co-written composition “Manteca.” Based on the rhythm pattern of “la clave,” this tune became a standard of Latin jazz. Pozo was the first percussionist to be a regular member of a jazz big band. Though neither of them spoke the same language, communicating through music didn’t pose a problem. They toured the United States and Europe in 1948 before Pozo’s death that same year. Pozo’s dramatic percussion style and chants reflected his Afro-Cuban religious beliefs and inspired fellow African American bassist Al McKibbon, as well as later Latin jazz collaborations with vibraphonist Cal Tjader, an American of Swedish descent.
Gillespie switched to a quintet in the early 1950s that played mostly bebop and R&B, made soloist appearances with Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, and continued recording. He was nicknamed the “Ambassador of Jazz” when he toured South America and the Middle East in 1956 for the US State Department with a new bebop big band. During this period, Gillespie convinced Cuban percussionist Cándido Camero to move to the US from Cuba. Cándido played in Gillespie’s band in 1952 and recorded the album Afro (1954) with him along with Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría. Later, Cándido was recruited by the Billy Taylor Trio (1953-1954).
In 1959, Gillespie’s association with Argentinian pianist Lalo Shiffrin produced “Gillespiana” a suite with South American and African sounds. That same year, bassist Al McKibbon collaborated in the recording of “Afro Blue” (1959) a composition by Santamaría that became a jazz standard and to which African American activist Oscar Brown Jr. contributed the lyrics (1960).
Musical exchanges proliferated. In 1963, John Coltrane recorded the most famous version of “Afro Blue,” while Santamaria’s interpretation of African American pianist Herbie Hancock’s 1962 composition “Watermelon Man” also became a great hit reaching the Billboard top ten list.
Among the many other important Latin percussionists influencing jazz from the mid-20th century on were William Correa (Willie Bobo), Tito Puente, Francisco Aguabella, Carlos “Patato” Valdés, and the outstanding Nuyorican percussionist Ray Barreto whose drumming technique was inspired by Pozo’s.
Barreto is featured on the 1976 flyer below, where he is referred to as “Latin Soul Brother No. 1.” The jazz concert “Accent on Percussion” featured diaspora and African American musicians as a united musical collective. Barreto often played and recorded in diverse musical styles including Latin jazz, both as a sideman with important African American artists and as a leader of groups including the Fania All Stars.
Latin jazz was born of the communal harmonies between African Americans, Latin Americans, and Caribbean musicians. Its particular mix of rhythms continued growing and developing in the late 20th century and into the 21st. Veterans and new musician’s experimentation and integration of musical styles such as Brazilian bossa nova among other Latin American and Caribbean sounds, have continued to help the genre obtain immortality in the global musical universe.
Written by Vilma L. Reyes Vázquez - 12F Fellow, NMAAHC
Published on September 30, 2019
Many important music tracks from this genre are featured in the CD Latin jazz: La Combinación Perfecta.
This musical compilation has a companion book. Both were published as part of a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition (2002) covering the history of Latin jazz.
Several of the musicians mentioned here shared their own stories with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program. You can listen to or read those stories here.