Back in February I blogged about Kenya, a 1957 album that in my opinion is one of the most exciting Latin-jazz albums ever recorded. So imagine my surprise w hen I received an email two days ago from drummer Bobby Sanabria telling me he was recreating the entire album in an upcoming concert. Bobby played in Mario Bauza's big band in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Bobby's albums have been nominated for Grammy awards. And like me, Bobby is a passionate Kenya fan.
The free "Kenya Revisited" concert will be held on April 1st at 7:30 pm at the Manhattan School of Music's John C. Borden Auditorium. The concert will be recorded, and there are plans for Jazzheads Records to release it on CD. Bobby says the concert will feature newly transcribed and enhanced arrangements of the album's 12 songs, and that four of the musicians from the original session—Candido Camero, Ray Santos, Pedro "Puchie" Boulong and Eddie Bert—will be attending. Candido will even be a guest soloist.
I spoke with Bobby yesterday about Mario Bauza and Kenya—as well as the origins of Afro-Cuban jazz and its influence on jazz musicians over the years:
JazzWax: Why is Kenya so significant?
Bobby Sanabria: Because it re-affirmed Machito's importance in the history of Afro-Cuban music and jazz itself. In the late 1950s, Kenya helped re-establish Machito and Mario Bauza as the genre's founders and its most profound practioners. With the inclusion of Cannonball Adderley [pictured] and Joe Newman, the album demonstrated Machito and Bauza's clear ties to the serious jazz community. Unfortunately jazz writers of the day missed the boat and didn't make the connection.
JW: You played in Mario Bauza’s [pictured] big band in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What was that like?
BS: It was amazing. Most people aren’t aware that Mario is the father of Afro-Cuban jazz. He was the genius who first combined jazz arranging techniques and jazz soloists with authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms. He did this in the early 1940s with his brother-in-law, the vocalist Frank “Machito” Grillo. Dizzy Gillespie often gets credit for the invention of Afro-Cuban jazz, but Dizzy himself has said publicly that Machito and the Afro-Cubans under Mario's musical direction were the first.
JW: Mario and Dizzy knew each other well, didn’t they?
BS: Since the mid-1930s, I believe. Mario got Dizzy into the Cab Calloway [pictured] Orchestra in 1939. Many people think Mario Bauza came to the U.S. from Cuba in the late 1940s. Not so. Mario joined Chick Webb’s band as a trumpeter starting in 1933—before Ella Fitzgerald joined. In the late 1930s, Mario played with Don Redman, Noble Sissle and Fletcher Henderson before joining Cab Calloway’s orchestra in 1938. This is the Cab band with Dizzy Gillespie, Chu Berry, Milt Hinton, Cozy Cole, Doc Cheatham and so many other jazz greats. Mario Bauza was a jazz legend before he was an Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer.
JW: Why is Mario a key jazz figure?
BS: Mario could play jazz on many instruments. For example, on Chick Webb’s Stompin’ at the Savoy from 1936, Mario plays the clarinet solo and then a trumpet solo. Benny Carter was so impressed when he heard that Mario played both instruments that he started to do the same. Mario would occasionally send Benny as a sub with Chick Webb when he wanted to go see Yankees, Dodgers or Giants games instead. Mario loved baseball.
JW: Did the other musicians in Mario’s band in the late 1980s understand who he was?
BS: Not really. Many of the musicians knew he was an old timer but they didn’t realize how big a giant he was. You know how it is. Musicians tend to be self-centered. But I’ve always had a historical perspective of the music. When I got in the band, I knew of Mario’s importance to jazz and Latin music history. I used to pinch myself all the time. I couldn’t believe I was there, playing with a living legend who contributed so much to the history of the music.
JW: Did you meet Dizzy Gillespie?
BS: I performed with him on many occasions. Dizzy used to appear with us in Mario's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. He loved Afro-Cuban big band jazz. Dizzy was in his element when he played with an orchestra like ours behind him. In 1992, we played an 80th birthday tribute concert to Mario at New York’s Symphony Space. Dizzy was the guest soloist. At the rehearsal, Dizzy brought in the original arrangement of Manteca. The parts were clean but looked old. At the top, it said, “Arrangement by Walter Gilbert Fuller.” I asked Dizzy if it was the original chart. Dizzy just laughed and said, “Yeah, just don't lose it. It's the original copy."
JW: What did the drum part look like?
BS: There wasn’t much of a part. Just bar lines and a few breaks. Back in 1948, most jazz drummers knew absolutely nothing about authentic Latin rhythms. The drum part was just a sketch, with the kicks that you hear on the original recording and the switch to swing for Big Nick Nicholas' tenor solo. If you listen carefully to the original recording of Manteca, you’ll hear Teddy Stewart, the drummer, play what can be considered an early rock beat. At that time, drummers had no idea how to play Latin rhythms. There also was a lot of animosity between the jazz players and the guys who could play Latin rhythms.
JW: Did this cause tension between those who could and those who couldn’t?
BS: When Dizzy brought Chano Pozo [pictured], the original composer of Manteca, into the band in late 1947, Chano wasn't welcomed by the best of the players.
JW: How so?
BS: Well, Chano didn't speak English, so it was hard for him to communicate with the other musicians. He also didn't really understand the swing feel inherent in jazz. His complete musical existence had been Afro-Cuban music—like the Son and rumba. He'd get turned around sometimes in a tune. Dizzy would have to sing the melody of Good Bait to him to get him back on track. Ray Brown quit Dizzy’s big band in September 1947 because he didn’t dig that Chano Pozo was in the band. Ray couldn't understand why Dizzy wanted to connect with his West African roots through Chano.
JW: This happened quite a bit in bands back then, and the clash wasn't always over culture.
BS: Yes, that's true. I think Ray's reaction was similar to Buddy Rich’s when Frank Sinatra joined Tommy Dorsey. Buddy joined Dorsey with the belief that he would be showcased. Then Frank came along, and Buddy resented having to just keep time on ballads and other songs that Frank was singing. It must have been difficut for both Chano and the rest of Dizzy's rhythm section. You're talking about people who didn't understand Afro-Cuban rhythms or culture, and Chano did not understand jazz. It also had a lot to do with Chano increasingly being featured as an attraction. That's when Ray left and Dizzy brought in Al McKibbon, who was much more curious about Afro-Cuban rhythms and loved the music and culture.
JW: What's the first authentic Afro-Cuban jazz song?
BS: Mario Bauza's Tanga, which he wrote in 1943 and recorded that same year. Bauza had a rhythm section made up of congas, timbales and bongo along with a bassist playing typical Afro-Cuban tumbaos—repetitive patterns. It was unlike anything jazz bass players had played before with piano montuno ad-libs that also were not known by the mainstream jazz public. This song was authentic Afro-Cuban music fused with jazz. Not the hit and miss attempts made by jazz bands in the past to sound Latin. The original 1943 recording can be heard in the movie Bugsy. You see the record and the label just before it drops onto the turntable.
JW: What was Mario Bauza like to work with?
BS: When we rehearsed, he was a gruff guy. You’re talking about someone who played with every legend, recorded with all the big bands in the 1930s and used to play poker with Jelly Roll Morton [pictured]. I know this because when we played once in Germany, Cab Calloway opened up for us. Afterward, Mario and Cab were sitting around talking about old times. Mario said, “Remember how Jelly used to cheat at poker?" Mario had a temper, that’s for sure. But it was well deserved. He had experienced racism in the U.S. and in Cuba, and overcame it in both places. But he was also demanding because he wanted the band to exude excellence.
JW: So why did Machito form a band—not Mario?
BS: Machito and Mario formed the band together back in 1939. It was a partnership. But Mario didn’t like to be out front. He was more reclusive and comfortable being behind the scenes directing the band and supervising the arrangements. So Machito, who was the band's vocalist and outgoing, took on that role. Remember, back then, if you were the front man of a band, you had to have an entertainer’s personality. That role suited Machito perfectly.
JW: What moved you to pay tribute to Machito’s album, Kenya?
BS: I had heard the recording when I was younger and always loved it. But you need to know the backstory. Tito Puente had recorded Puente Goes Jazz in 1956 and Night Beat in 1957 for RCA. Both recordings featured the arrangements of A.K. Salim. Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records, wanted to copy some of the success RCA had with these Latin-jazz albums. Since Levy used to book Machito and Tito in his club, Birdland, he asked Mario Bauza and Machito to record a Latin-jazz album using A.K. Salim to write some original tunes and arrangements while Mario and Rene Hernandez, the Machito Orchestra pianist, would co-write and arrange the rest of the material. The only tune that was not arranged by Bauza, Hernandez or Salim was Chano Pozo's Tin Tin Deo, which was arranged by the lead tenor saxophonist in the band, Ray Santos.
JW: So there was a rivalry going on.
BS: Absolutely. By 1957, Machito was considered an elder statesman and many listeners and dancers had taken his group, the Afro-Cubans, for granted. Upstarts like Tito Puente and vocalist Tito Rodriguez [pictured] were the hot artists on the scene. So Levy enhanced the band with jazz heavy-hitters like Joe Newman, Cannonball Adderley and Eddie Bert. When the album came out, it was more powerful than anything the orchestra had done in some time. When the public at large and musicians heard the recording, they realized that Machito and His Afro-Cubans were not only the founders of the Afro-Cuban/Latin-jazz movement but also its prime exponents and a force still to be reckoned with.
JW: How did the idea for your Kenya Revisited concert come about?
BS: I had played some of the music when I was a member of the Mario Bauza Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. We used to play tunes like Wild Jungle and Kenya. But the music of the entire album had never been completely compiled and had never been performed in its entirety. Over the last few years, I started re-constructing it by assigning the charts to Joe Fiedler [pictured], who plays lead trombone in my own band. The first re-construction he did was Blues a la Machito, then Kenya and the rest. I had Joe beef up the harmonies, and he also added intros and outros, some in a completely different feel than in the original pieces. But we always retained the integrity of the original tune.
JW: Give me an example.
BS: In Frenzy, Joe added a saxophone soli and a section after the original vamp with a chord sequence to feature the lead alto. Holiday has a section in 5/4 time. Very creative treatments of the pieces. Two of my former students at the Manhattan School of Music who play in my big band—trumpeter Andrew Neelsey and baritone saxophonist Danny Rivera, I assigned them to re-work some of the other pieces, which they did in incredible ways. I also added some of my own touches to all the pieces, like featuring the trumpets and trombones with plungers and special effects as well as some stop-time rhythmic devices. The result is not a carbon copy or nostalgia but a re-working of a masterwork that pays tribute to this legendary album and the Machito orchestra. That's why we've called the concert "Kenya, Revisited."
JW: Why now?
BS: Last year I realized we were coming up on the album’s 50th anniversary, December 1957. Each semester I put on a concert at the Manhattan School of Music [pictured], where I’m a professor and direct the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. When the school asked me what would be the spring semester's theme, I told them about Kenya and they loved it. I'm very fortunate. Any one of the young people in this student orchestra could sub in my own big band. They are the most talented group of students I have ever taught, and there's not doubt in my mind they will all be a major force in the jazz world.
JW: Will there be a recording of the concert?
BS: Yes, and there are plans to release it on the Jazzheads Records label, which released my 2007 Grammy-nominated CD, Big Band Urban Folktales. The plan is to donate a percentage of the sales to set up a scholarship for Latino students in the jazz department at the Manhattan School of Music.
JW: Who’s in the band?
BS: The entire band is made up of Manhattan School of Music students in the jazz department. They are fire-breathing dragons. Justin DiCioccio [pictured], the department head, has to be given credit for that. The high standards he has set at the school have produced these talented young people.
JW: Who’s still around from the original recording?
BS: I believe the surviving members are percussionist Candido Camero [pictured, right], trombonists Eddie Bert and Santo Russo, saxophonist Ray Santos [pictured] and Pedro "Puchie" Boulong. Candido will be a guest soloist at the concert. Eddie, Ray and Puchie will be in the audience, which should be exciting for the audience, the students and for the Afro-Cuban jazz legends.
JW: Did Mario and Ray tell you any stories about the original Kenya recording date?
BS: Yes, they told me it was Morris Levy’s [pictured] idea to record the album. Levy also spared no expense in terms of getting the music recorded. Mario told me he had decided to name it Kenya because Kenya had just received its independence in East Africa. Although Afro-Cuban rhythms are rooted in West African culture, Mario said, "Africa is Africa and freedom is freedom." They recorded the album in three sessions. Back then the musicians union would let you record only up to four songs per four-hour session, which is why there are 12 tunes on there. On some of the vinyl re-issues, there are other tracks with Herbie Mann and Johnny Griffin. For years many people thought these were outtakes. In fact, those tracks are from another album recorded afterward called Machito: With Flute to Boot. But probably the biggest surprise is that two songs are mislabeled—even on the newly issued remastered CD. Wild Jungle is actually Frenzy, and Frenzy is actually Wild Jungle. I know this from playing the charts with Mario Bauza. He told me they were switched by mistake.
JW: What’s your ultimate hope with the Kenya concert?
BS: That the people who hear the music, especially the young ones, will understand how incredible this music is and what they have been missing out on. This is not museum music or nostalgia to be fondly remembered by listening to a so-called "old record." [Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza pictured]
JW: What's the take-away?
BS: I want everyone to know that this uniquely American music is part of the jazz tradition and that it's at the core of the rhythms of rock, funk and r&b. It's important that people know that Mario Bauza, Tito Puente, Chico O'Farrill and many others were a major force in the development of jazz—not just Latin music.
JazzWax tracks: Kenya is available as a download at
iTunes or as a download and remastered CD at Amazon here. The CD, Machito: With Flute to Boot, is out of print and is selling for about $80 used.