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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

75 years ago, Latin jazz was born. Its offspring are going strong.

Clockwise from left: Chico O’Farrill, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. The three musicians

and their work pioneering Latin jazz were the focus of a concert in New York on Saturday.


In the fall of 1947, Dizzy Gillespie called on his friend, trumpeter-arranger Mario Bauzá, in search of a conga player for an upcoming Carnegie Hall concert where he planned to debut songs exploring the connection between Afro-Cuban music and jazz. Bauzá suggested Chano Pozo, a swaggering master of Yoruba rhythms, who had just arrived from Cuba.

It was a wildly fortuitous introduction: Dizzy and Chano’s team-up would mark a watershed moment in jazz history, what many refer to the birth of Latin jazz. Although neither musician could communicate in the other’s language, they shared a cultural connection, and suddenly bebop, Gillespie’s rebellious jazz experiment, became Cubop.

Arturo O’Farrill, leader of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, which he formed in 2001 for Jazz at Lincoln Center, has long contemplated that meeting. It was a collaboration that united African diasporas, north and south, reconstructing ties broken by the slave trade. “There’s a saying, I’m sure you’ve heard it,” he said in a recent video interview, “where Dizzy says, ‘I don’t speak Spanish and Chano doesn’t speak English, but we both speak African.’”

On Saturday at Town Hall, O’Farrill commemorated that moment, just over 75 years ago, when Dizzy and Chano bonded over their ancestral past and took the music into the future, as well as the role his father, Chico, played in that evolution. The concert, which paid tribute to “The Original Influencers,” celebrated a Town Hall show similar to the Carnegie performance that took place in December 1947, and featured O’Farrill’s 18-piece orchestra, as well as special guests Pedrito Martínez on percussion, Jon Faddis on trumpet, Donald Harrison on saxophone, singers Daymé Arocena and Melvis Santa, and O’Farrill’s two sons, Adam and Zack, on trumpet and drums.

The Cuban-born Chico O’Farrill was the son of Irish and German immigrants to the island and was so taken with the fusions previously explored by Bauzá as musical director of Machito and His Afro-Cubans, that he persuaded the impresario Norman Granz to commission and record his “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite,” featuring Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich and Flip Phillips, in 1950.

“My father was fully European, living in an African country — because, you know, Cuba’s basically an African country — and also falling in love with jazz,” O’Farrill said. “He was the perfect person to be in all three worlds.”

The elder O’Farrill joined up with Gillespie in the following years and became one of Latin jazz’s chief arrangers and orchestra leaders. Gillespie became Faddis’ mentor soon after he arrived in New York as an 18-year-old aspiring trumpeter. On Saturday, he will perform the “Manteca Suite,” Chico’s elaborate rearrangement of the Gillespie-Pozo classic written with Gil Fuller, “Manteca.” Faddis’ close association with Gillespie made him privy to Chico’s relationship with Pozo, who was tragically murdered in Harlem in 1948.

“Mario Bauzá would take Dizzy up to Spanish Harlem to hear bands like Alberto Socarrás’, and sit in,” Faddis said in an interview. “The collaboration with Chano was really important — I know there are many things that Chano taught him and the musicians in his band.”

Pozo clued in Gillespie’s band to the dense polyrhythmic patterns that permeate the Afro-Cuban music that he learned as a street drummer in the Black Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Havana. In his autobiography “To Be, or Not … to Bop,” Gillespie expressed a desire to recapture lost elements of African tradition, writing that he “always had that Latin feeling” but that his musical ancestors remained “monorhythmic,” because drums were not tolerated by U.S. slave masters, while the Afro-Cubans “remained polyrhythmic.”

Gillespie and Pozo shared other cultural bonds, too. “I think when you hear Dizzy and Chano play the Afro Cuban Suite, you hear the pattern of call and response,” Faddis added. “One of the main connectors between that Afro-Cuban lineage and American jazz is what you hear in the work songs, the prison songs and even the spirituals — the call and response in the church.”

Gillespie and Pozo’s reunion of different diasporic African traditions through jazz had many antecedents, particularly in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when King Oliver and Lorenzo Tio visited Havana with a military band and absorbed Cuban influences. Ragtime pianist Jellyroll Morton famously referenced “tinges of Spanish” in his playing, and in New York, Bauzá had been steadily absorbing jazz techniques and sharing Cuban rhythmic tradition as musical director of the Chick Webb orchestra in the 1930s.

Both Gillespie and Bauzá had yearned to escape the predictability of danceable Latin ballroom and big band music, and in 1947, just as Gillespie was perfecting his notion of bebop, Pozo’s intervention helped jazz became an international genre. It would put Gillespie on a path that defined the rest of his musical career. By 1988, Dizzy founded the United Nations Orchestra, which over the years featured Latin jazz stars including Paquito D’Rivera, Giovanni Hidalgo, Arturo Sandoval, David Sánchez and Miguel Zenón among many others.

Pedrito Martínez, who performed two songs from his 2013 self-titled debut at the Town Hall concert, is evidence of Cubop’s internationalist legacy. He was inspired by Pozo, and even grew up in the same neighborhood in Havana. “I learned to play rumba in the street, like Chano did,” Martínez said in an interview. “He was someone from the marginal world who didn’t speak English, but he opened up doors for all of us.”

Martínez had collaborated with Faddis in Steve Turre’s “Sanctified Shells” band, and had Faddis guest on his most recent album, “Acertijos.” He sees the connection between Afro-Cuban and jazz music as a kind of mystical fusion of spirit worlds. “I’ve seen a lot of Thelonious Monk videos, and he looked like a rumbero,” Martínez said, referring to the way Monk would sometimes perform a spinning dance that suggested Yoruban dance and spirit possession. “He stood up to dance and played the piano with one hand and then the other. Jazz has a very spiritual connection to Afro-Cuban music, because it’s a way of feeling, of giving reverence to the ancestors.”

The rediscovery of common spiritual roots between African Americans and the Afro-Latin American diaspora is what keeps the Afro-Cuban jazz concept grounded and coherent. While there have been many debates about whether American jazz’s melodic and harmonic traditions and Afro-Caribbean rhythmic techniques dominate, it’s always been a back-and-forth conversation, an inter-hemispheric musical negotiation. It’s no surprise that Pérez Prado and Tito Puente’s mambo rose quickly in the wake of Gillespie and Pozo’s Cubop, and that it’s possible to hear Prado mambo elements in the early work of Afro-futurist pioneer Sun Ra.

What’s clear is that there’s no going back. “There are a lot of purists who want to keep jazz, jazz as jazz, they don’t want to mess with it,” O’Farrill said. “But I’ve been fighting this battle for 30 years, and I’m like, no, no, no. Jazz and Latin are the same trunk of the same tree. But it looks like we can never resolve this discussion. It can only go on and be explored to the end of time.”

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