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Artist Stories

Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, and Afro-Cuban Jazz

Written by Dr. Kelsey Klotz, Musicologist and lecturer in UNC Charlotte’s Department of Music, and JazzArts Charlotte instructor for the favorite virtual “Jazz Appreciation” series.

National Hispanic Heritage Month begins September 15, and JazzArts is starting the celebration early with Pedrito Martinez and the sound of Cuba. We’re also looking forward to auditions for this year’s Nuestro Tiempo Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble on September 24 and October 1!

Pedrito Martinez’s performance gives us the opportunity to explore Afro-Cuban jazz. While the resonances of Cuban rhythms can be heard from the beginning of jazz history, most historians recognize the relationships among trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, percussionist Chano Pozo and trumpeter and bandleader Mario Bauzá as what introduced mainstream jazz players and audiences to Afro-Cuban jazz. In his autobiography, Gillespie recalls how important Bauzá was to Gillespie’s understanding of big band jazz and where it could go, explaining that, “with Mario Bauzá in the [Cab Calloway] band, I really became interested in bringing Latin and especially Afro-Cuban influences into my music…No one was playing that type of music where the bass player instead of saying, ‘boom, boom, boom, boom,’ broke up the rhythm, ‘boom-be, boom-be, boom-be, boom-be.’ No one was doing that. I became very fascinated with the possibilities for expanding and enriching jazz rhythmically and phonically through the use of Afro-Cuban rhythmic and melodic devices.”1

Mario Bauzá was from Cuba, had visited Harlem as a child, and upon returning to New York in the 1930s, became deeply embedded in jazz. He played with the Chick Webb Orchestra and Cab Calloway band, and convinced Calloway to hire Dizzy Gillespie. In 1939, Bauzá co-founded the band Machito and his Afro-Cubans, which he stayed with through 1976. In 1943, the band recorded Bauzá’s composition “Tanga,” which was the first piece to blend jazz harmony and arranging with improvised jazz soloists and Afro-Cuban rhythms. The song was a hit among jazz musicians. Listen and hear how Bauzá arranged the piece using the clave rhythm as an organizing principle, jazz harmonies in the brass backgrounds, and improvisational solos across the band. (Learn about the clave rhythm here.)

Bauzá is important to jazz history for his own performances and compositions, for initiating major interest in Afro-Cuban music, and for inspiring Gillespie to investigate Afro-Cuban jazz. But he is also important for facilitating a crucial musical relationship that would launch Afro-Cuban jazz music straight into the heart of jazz history, because he introduced Dizzy Gillespie to conga drummer Chano Pozo in 1947. Though Pozo tragically died the following year, his influence on Gillespie is unmistakable.

Let’s zoom in on one of the Gillespie band’s most well-known Afro-Cuban tunes: “Manteca.” Written by Gillespie, Pozo, and Gil Fuller in 1947, the tune became the first jazz standard to be in clave. Gillespie describes how the tune came together in his autobiography: “Chano Pozo came to me when he was with the band and said, ‘I got an idea for a tune’…When he came, he had already figured out what the bass was gonna do, how it was gonna start off, how the saxophones were gonna come in afterwards. He had that riff. He had the riffs of the trombones; he had the riffs of the trumpets.” Before we move on with Gillespie’s description, listen to the beginning of “Manteca,” and see if you can hear those riffs (short repeated phrases). You’ll need to try to listen past Gillespie’s extroverted, virtuosic improvisations at the beginning. Listen through the introduction and the main melody (through 1:00).

For Gillespie, those riffs alone weren’t enough to make it jazz. He continues in his autobiography, explaining, “But Chano wasn’t too hip about American music. If I’d let it go like he wanted it, it would’ve been strictly Afro-Cuban, all the way. There wouldn’t have been a bridge. I wrote the bridge…I was sitting down at the piano writing the bridge and thought I was writing an eight-bar bridge. But after eight bars, I hadn’t resolved back to B-flat, so I had to keep on going and ended up writing a sixteen-bar bridge.” A bridge is a part of the musical form that provides contrast, and is very common to both jazz and popular music. In “Manteca,” the bridge is more lyrical, with a lengthier melody than the riffs of the first section. As Gillespie implies, the bridge needs to transition the harmonies far enough away from the first section of the song to create musical interest, but has to be able to transition back. Return to the recording, and listen to the bridge, which starts at 1:00 and lasts until 1:22. To finish the song, arranger Gil Fuller expanded what Pozo and Gillespie wrote into a big band arrangement. Gillespie later added words that reflected his frustration with racial violence and discrimination in the United States at the start of the civil rights movement: hear the lyrics, “I’ll never go back to Georgia” on this recording from the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.

The Gillespie band’s Afro-Cuban repertoire is extensive, but check out some more of his band’s most famous pieces, including “A Night in Tunisia,” one of Gillespie’s most popular, “Tin Tin Deo,” one of my favorites, “Afro-Cuban Drum Suite,” which features Chano Pozo, and “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop,” which Gillespie commissioned from composer George Russell and also features Pozo. Gillespie’s reputation as one of the primary initiators of bebop helped to solidify interest in combining Caribbean and Latin American music with jazz for other jazz musicians.

Jazz history often revolves around great soloists, like Dizzy Gillespie, who thrill us with their virtuosity. However, focusing on the relationships between Gillespie, Bauzá, and Pozo reminds us that those individuals were often made greater through their collaborations with other musicians. Where would jazz be without its collaborations, without musicians sharing and responding to one another? It’s in that sharing among musicians that some of jazz’s most exciting moments happen.

Pedrito Martínez is a fantastic example of how collaboration continues to be a mainstay in Afro-Cuban jazz. Martinez’s many collaborations include Wynton Marsalis’s composition Ochas (2015) for big band and Afro-Cuban percussion, which incorporates not only Afro-Cuban rhythms, but also the Santería religious meanings and practices that were instrumental to the work. Check out their collaboration and the full concert here.

I’ll leave you with one more example: Canadian saxophonist, flautist, and composer Jane Bunnett, though not Cuban herself, is particularly known for performing Afro-Cuban jazz. After many years of primarily collaborating with male musicians in Cuba, she helped to establish Maqueque, an all-female band of young, primarily conservatory-trained Cuban musicians. Maqueque is partly a mentorship project (it helped launch singer Daymé Arocena’s career), but Bunnett resists what she calls the “star system” in jazz, explaining to Down Beat magazine, “It may sound bullshit-y humble saying it, but I really do believe that in all the great groups, you kind of give yourself up to something bigger than what your part is. What we’re [Maqueque] doing is just channeling, to try and make a beautiful statement that hopefully transforms people, makes them feel better.” Listen to their Tiny Desk concert and learn more from their Jazz Night in America feature.

 Dizzy Gillespie, with Al Fraser, To Be, Or Not…to Bop: Memoirs of Dizzy Gillespie (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 115.

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