Mario Bauzá: The Godfather
by Louis Laffitte
One Latin music figure who had much impact on modern day salsa and has been virtually forgotten, is Mario Bauzá, known as "The Godfather of Afro-
Cuban Jazz.” Late conductor/arranger Chico O'Farrill once said, "No one person creates a movement; it takes others to latch on to it." However, it was Bauzá's ideas put into motion that led to his composition "Tanga." This was the first Afro-Cuban jazz song done with Machito and his Afro-Cubans, in 1943. It has been recorded several times, but was conceived at the Park Plaza Ballroom on May 29th, 1943.
Born April 28th, 1911 in Havana, Cuba, Mario Bauzá was a child prodigy, playing clarinet. He trained at the Municipal Academy of Cuba and first came to New York with Antonio Maria Romeu’s orchestra in 1926, recording for RCA Victor. Racism was prevalent in Cuba. Bauzá saw how blacks lived in Harlem and vowed to return to New York, which he did on March 29th,1930. When Antonio Machín (El Manicero) needed a trumpeter, Bauzá learned to play the instrument in just two weeks. Throughout the 1930's, he would play trumpet for premier jazz bands including those of Noble Sissle, Chick Webb (musical director1934), Don Redmond, and in 1939, Cab Calloway’s orchestra. Bauzá’s brother-in-law, Frank "Machito" Grillo, who arrived from Cuba in 1937, had been singing and recording with Cuarteto Caney, Alberto Iznaga's Siboney and Xavier Cugat. In 1940, Machito started his own orchestra after leaving Siboney, with pianist Gilberto Ayala, timbalero Tony Escollis, saxophonist José “Pin" Madera and bass player Julio Andino. The following year, Bauzá left Calloway's band, joined his brother-in-law’s and reorganized the Afro-Cubans, bringing in American arrangers such as John Barti and Edgar Sampson. Bauzá envisioned a never-before orchestra that featured authentic Cuban rhythms on the bot-
tom and sophisticated (horn) harmonies across the top.
Fronted by top-notch sonero and maraca player Frank Grillo, who wrote many of their classic hits, Machito and his Afro-Cubans became a revolutionary band, the likes of which had never been seen before in Latin music, combining American, Puerto Rican and Cuban players. Machito's sister Graciela, formerly a member of the all-female group Anacaona, joined in 1943, and pianist and arranger Rene Hernández came on board in 1945.
The rest is mambo history. The Palladium Ballroom, Afro-Cuban Jazz and all of the musical luminaries are a discussion for another day. Bauzá was Machito’s musical director for thirty-five years. In 1975, Bauzá left along with Graciela, with little fanfare, to form Mario Bauzá & His Afro-Cuban Orchestra. It wasn't until the early 1990's that he left his legacy, when he recorded for the German label Messidor. Three CDs and two European tours later, we can say that recognition was finally given to Bauzá, “The Godfather Of Afro-Cuban Jazz.” Many young lions went through that band, including Michael Philip Mossman, Bobby Sanabria, Conrad Herwig and Enrique Fernández. All have gone on to have successful careers.
Mario Bauzá died of cancer, twenty years ago, the morning of July 11th, 1993. I miss you, Mario—thanks for the memories. ◊◊◊
Louis Laffitte was born in Queens, New York on June 22, 1963 to Esther Yevenez Laffitte and Leopold Laffitte. His mother was born in East Harlem to Puerto Rican and Chilean parents, and his father was born in Cuba. Raised in Rego Park, the young Laffitte grew accustomed to the sounds of everyone from Tito Rodriguez and Eddie Palmieri to Frank Sinatra, Errol Garner and Ray Charles.
As the late 60s moved into the early 70s, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones became Laffitte’s main influence. Baseball was, and still is, one of his passions as well.
Around 1981, Laffitte’s musical tastes shifted once again when he witnessed a Santana concert, where a number of salsa legends—Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Machito, Barry Rogers and Ruben Blades—were brought out to join the band. After tuning in to WKCR’s Latin Musician’s Show for several years, Laffitte met the late musicologist Max Salazar, who became his mentor. Laffitte went on to write for Latin Beat Magazine, interviewing Rudy Calzado, Nicky Marrero, Eddie Palmieri and others.
Currently producing for WKCR-FM Radio, Laffitte has co-produced award-winning documentaries on Tito Puente, Mario Bauza and Hector Lavoe, for WBAI Radio. He has learned much about the mystique and power of Latin music from the legends.
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