Cuba, part of New York’s musical diet

The Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, declared whilst visiting Havana last April that the city of New York is not going to establish a new relationship with Cuba, but rather rekindle cultural relations that have always existed. In the nineteenth century, Cuban musicians visited New York and, as Cristóbal Díaz Ayala wrote, Cuban music was for years part of the musical diet of listeners in New York.

Manuel Pérez, a musician born on the island in 1863, became a true legend of jazz. Between 1890 and 1898 he played in various bands until forming his own, Imperial Band. Later he visited Chicago and New York and returned to New Orleans in the early twentieth century.

Cubans who settled in New Orleans included Paul Domínguez, Florencio Ramos, Peolops Núñez, Willie Marrero, Alcides Núñez and Jimmy Palau, who played in Buddy Bolden’s band.

Other Cubans who formed orchestras in New York were Nilo Menéndez; violinist Alberto Iznaga; Luis del Campo; José Curbelo; René Touzet and Anselmo Sacasas.

In the 1920s, at the height of the Son boom, many Cuban groups and sextets began to visit New York in order to play in theaters and halls and record Cuban Son. A wave of Cuban musicians came to this city in the interwar period. One such was flutist Alberto Socarras, know as the Cuban Duke Ellington, who arrived in 1927.

In May 1930, in Camden, the Don Azpiazu Orchestra, with singer Antonio Machín, recorded “El manisero,” sparking the first Latin music boom and paving the way in the music industry of the entire continent.

Alberto Iznaga arrived in 1939 and played in several bands until he founded the Orquesta Siboney. During that decade Xavier Cugat, Miguelito Valdés, Desi Arnaz, Vicentico Valdés and Panchito Riset, who together with Eliseo Grenet made the conga fashionable, became stars.

Professor Raúl Fernández, writes in his book Jazz Latino, that (Cuban) Latin jazz is a combination of two musical traditions: American jazz and Cuban timbres (with their Caribbean touch). “Cuba provides its rhythmic blend: habanera, son, rumba, guaracha, mambo, cha cha cha and descarga. In the roots of jazz and Caribbean music we find African vitality,” he states.

Based on data collected by specialist Luc Delannoy, in July 1940 Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo “Machito” trained the orchestra, Los Afrocubanos, which after many rehearsals, made its debut on December 3, 1940, at the Park Palace Ballroom, on the corner of 110th Street and 5th Avenue in Spanish Harlem.

Their repertoire included guarachas, sons and rumbas, reaffirming their commitment to Cuban traditions.

The Palladium, a Mecca of Latin music, used the rhythms of the Caribbean, especially Cuba, coming from Mario Bauzá and Machito’s band.

The public response was immediate before the explosion of Latin music in New York, promoted by us Cubans, Mario Bauzá told journalist Umberto Valverde de Cali.

At the same time, Miguelito Valdés became one of the great attractions of Hollywood and New York, offering concerts in halls with an audience of over four thousand people every night.

On their opening night, Mario Bauzá invited the colossal Miguelito Valdés to perform popular songs, with such success that the club owner, Jack Harris, offered Machito a contract for an indefinite period.

The Cuban project in the United States became so significant that Frank Sinatra himself befriended Machito, he would listen to him play at Club Brazil, California, and they even sang together in the orchestra.

Marlon Brando discovered Cuban drums and music at the Palladium. “Every Wednesday night there was a mambo contest at the Palladium. I was mesmerized by it all, although every time I had a choice between playing drums or dancing, I preferred to play. The discovery of Cuban music almost made me lose my mind,” the star of American film claimed.

To complete the history, the myth of the congas and the colossal musician Chano Pozo, arrived in New York in 1947. The Cuban percussionist joined Dizzy Gillespie to create an invincible alliance.

They recorded songs such as “Manteca,” a classic of Latin jazz. They performed in the Town Hall and Carnegie Hall.

According to reports by Max Salazar, during 1958, the bestselling records in New York were, among others: Benny Moré, Fajardo y sus Estrellas, Rolando Laserie, and of course Tito Puente (with music borrowed from Cuba).

Benny visited New York five times and triumphed.

In 1959, Cuban pianist and composer José Curbelo became the czar of the Cuban and Latin music scene and its most powerful businessman, as head of the Alpha Artists music agency.

Curbelo contracted the most important groups. No band could perform at the best venues without his approval: Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Ray Barreto, Noro Morales, Vicentico Valdés, La Lupe, Charlie Palmieri, Orquesta Broadway, Machito, etc.

After 1959, Cuban music continued livening up the Big Apple with salsa, resulting from the efforts of Arsenio Rodríguez, but that’s another story.

By Rafael Lam, Granma

May 8, 2015

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