Juan Tizol, Progenitor of Latin Jazz
Juan Tizol – His Caravan Through American Life and Culture
by Basilio Serrano
REVIEW BY MUSIC JOURNALIST TOMAS PEÑA
Basilio Serrano is a seasoned educator and historian who is all too familiar with the plight of Puerto Ricans, whose contributions to jazz have been lost, ignored or swept under the rug. In 2000 he composed a series of articles on Juan Tizol’s cross-cultural collaborations with Duke Ellington, Harry James and other nationally known orchestras. In addition he has written articles about “Boricua Pioneers in Latin Jazz,” “Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance” and essays on pianist Noro Morales, actress Miriam Colón and political activist Lolita Lebron, among others. In the opening pages of Juan Tizol–His Caravan through Life and American Culture, Serrano makes it clear that his purpose in writing Tizol’s biography is to set the historical record straight and “give credit where credit is due.”
During a recent Q&A with Serrano I asked him why he chose Juan Tizol as his primary subject. “I chose Tizol,” said Serrano, “because when he arrived in the U.S from Puerto Rico he spoke no English and was not familiar with American culture. Tizol knew little of jazz, and he played an unusual instrument that was considered better for marching bands than orchestra ensembles. Many would say that Tizol had three strikes against him, if not four, yet despite the odds, he went on to have an extremely successful life in music.”
Juan Tizol was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, where he grew up in a musical environment. His first instrument was the violin, however he switched to the valve trombone at an early age, and over time it became his instrument of choice. In large part, he received his musical training from his uncle, Manuel Tizol, the director of San Juan’s municipal band and symphony. Tizol also gained experience playing with local operas, ballets and dance bands. Ironically, he came to the United States as a stowaway aboard a ship that was traveling to Washington, D.C. In 1920, he set up residence in the nation’s capital, establishing himself at the Howard Theater and performing for touring shows and silent movies. It was at the Howard Theater that the historic Tizol–Ellington meeting took place.
Tizol is best known as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, however he was also a consummate musician, sight reader, composer, arranger and transcriber. In addition, he was the first significant musician to use the valve trombone in a jazz setting. In doing so he revolutionized the instrument and added a new dimension to Ellington’s sound. Tizol is also responsible for incorporating Latin influences into Ellington’s repertoire with compositions such as "Moonlight Fiesta," "Jubilesta," “Caravan” and "Perdido," among others. As a senior and highly respected member of the Ellington orchestra, Tizol also rehearsed and integrated new musicians into the band, in Ellington’s absence. In his autobiography, Music is My Mistress (Da Capo Press, 1976), Ellington describes Tizol as “a tremendous asset to our band, a very big man, a very unselfish man and one of the finest musicians I’ve ever known.”
Tizol was also a racial trailblazer who opened doors and paved the way for a new generation of Latin musicians. During his lifetime, Tizol endured the indignities of being called a “blob of sour crème in a black bowl of caviar,” and was forced to adhere to “color codes” by blackening his face for films such as Black and Tan (1929) and Check and Double Check (1930s). The fact that Tizol made a conscious choice to work with primarily black jazz orchestras, married Rosebud Brown-Tizol, an African American, and lived in a primarily African American community during a time when racial inequities were the order of the day, says a lot about Tizol’s character, determination and moral fiber. When the Duke Ellington Orchestra toured the South and restaurants refused to serve the members of the band, Tizol’s trademark response was, “If you don’t serve them, you don’t serve me because I am with them.” Ironically, Tizol had his fair share of detractors, who accused him of “trying to pass for black.”
One of the most compelling sections in Serrano’s book is titled The Progenitor of Latin Jazz: Trombonist Extraordinaire. Prior to reading Serrano’s book, I was of the opinion that Mario Bauza’s “Tanga” was the first Afro Cuban (Latin) jazz recording. According to Serrano, “Tizol is often credited as a pioneer in Latin jazz. More often than not, however, credit is denied to the roles played by him and Duke Ellington in the development of the Latin jazz genre. For example, some consider “Tanga,” credited to the trumpeter Maria Bauza and Frank “Machito” Grillo and recorded in 1943, almost nine years after “Porto Rican Chaos” and eight years after “Caravan,” to be the first Latin jazz recording. Others suggest that the first Latin jazz genre recording was the 1947 “Manteca” by Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie. However, both “Tanga” and “Manteca” were recorded during the bebop era and almost eight and twelve years, respectively, after Tizol’s 1935 “Porto Rican Chaos.” Serrano describes Tizol as a “Progenitor of Latin jazz” because he experimented with Latin rhythms most often. Personally, I like to think of Tizol as an unsung founding father of Latin jazz.
During his long and illustrious career, Tizol also worked extensively with Harry James, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, Louie Bellson, Billy Strayhorn, Woody Herman, Sy Zentner, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Durante, B.B. King, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Holiday, Ethel Waters, Ben Webster and Sarah Vaughn, among others.
Serrano also devotes a chapter to Tizol’s contemporaries, including Rafael Hernandez, Rafael Esucudero and Rafael Duschene, along with a chapter dealing with Juan Tizol’s known compositions.
As our conversation came to a close, I asked Serrano if he was aware of the following excerpt from Ned Sublette’s, Cuba and Its Music–From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press, 2004): “As soon as Puerto Ricans were Americans, they were helping transform its music. From 1917 on, there is no African American music in New York in which Puerto Ricans don’t figure. They have been a natural part of jazz in New York since before cats were taking improvised solos, and as the Latin Jazz hybrid developed, they provided critical links between the African American and Cuban styles, because they were the ones who understood them both; and made them their own, in their own way. The unique bicultural sophistication of the Puerto Rican is a deep topic–for another book–but it can’t be left unmentioned in talking about the development of music in New York.”
“I've not seen this quote ever,” said Serrano. “It is timely and reminds me of a quote by the legendary Ray Santos when he described ‘Salsa,’ he simply said: ‘Salsa is our take on Cuban music.’ Sublette realizes that the Puerto Rican participation in jazz is important and unique and resulted in a new hybrid. I agree with him.”
For more on Juan Tizol’s life and music I highly recommend Juan Tizol–His Caravan through Life and American Culture. Basilio Serrano is currently working on a follow-up to “Puerto Rican Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance.” Other future projects include biographies on Puerto Rican pianists Noro Morales and Joe Loco. ◊◊◊
Basilio Serrano holds a Ph.D in Educational Administration and Supervision, a Master of Science in Bilingual Education and a Bachelor Science in Elementary Education. He is currently a Professor of Teacher Education at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. He has written for numerous publications, such as the Centro Journal for Puerto Rican Studies, Latin Beat Magazine, La Revista Puertorriqueña de Musica and Great Lives from History: Latinos, among others.
A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism
and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing has appeared throughout the Internet while he worked as a contributing writer for All About Jazz, Jazz.com, and The Latin Jazz Network. Throughout his work, Peña has conducted over 100 interviews with artists, building connections and getting the true scoop on the music. He worked in radio as the host of Under the Radar on WFDU 89.1 FM and infused his local community with musical knowledge as a member of The New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Advisory Board. Peña carries experience and insight into his work.” Chip Boaz – Editor, the Latin Jazz Corner
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