Styles & Forms | Latin Jazz

Latin jazz is commonly defined as the fusion of American jazz melodies, improvisation and chords with Latin American rhythms, predominantly those of Afro-Cuban origin. How this marriage of styles occurred is also one of the most significant cultural musical exchanges in history.

Mention the birth of Latin jazz to any aficionado of the art form and they will invariably reply with two names: Machito and Mario Bauzá. The former was born Francisco Raul Gutiérrez Grillo on 16 February 1912, in Cuba. The young vocalist/maraca man hit New York City in 1937, where he played stints with Xavier Cugat and Noro Morales before forming his own band, Machito’s Afro-Cubans. By 1940, Machito asked his brother-in-law, Mario Bauzá (who was married to his sister Estella), a trumpeter, pianist, arranger and composer who had already worked with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Chick Webb, to be his band’s musical arranger. It was this orchestra that two American musicians – one in Los Angeles, one in New York City – would hear, and the musical world would never be the same again.

The Night That Changed Dizzy’s Life

On 31 May 1943, the already legendary Gillespie went to the Park Place Ballroom in New York. There, he heard Machito and his orchestra perform ‘Tanga’ (meaning marijuana), a dazzling new Afro-Cuban composition written by Bauzá duringa rehearsal. The piece is widely recognized to be a breakthrough in the creation of a new style of music, which has been called Afro-Cuban jazz, Cubop and Latin jazz, a term Bauzá reportedly hated. Still, Gillespie would often recall that night as one that changed his life. The trumpet virtuoso was so taken with the conga, bongos, and ‘clave’ rhythms that he immediately incorporated them into his own group.

In January 1946, the influential American pianist/bandleader Stan Kenton was awestruck when he heard the same ‘Tanga’ at a club in Los Angeles. Soon, he too added Latin elements to virtually all of his music. Gillespie made Latin music history himself with his 30 December 1947 recording of ‘Manteca’ on RCA Victor, which he co-wrote with a musician introduced to him by Bauzá. It was the master conguero Chano Pozo, another seminal figure in the birth of Latin jazz and the key figure in Gillespie’s continued ‘latinization’ of jazz. ‘Manteca’ would subsequently become Gillespie’s signature tune and one of the most covered standards in the history of the genre.

Following closely behind Machito, Pozo, Gillespie and Kenton is master timbalero, bandleader and composer Tito Puente, also known as El Rey del Timbal and The Mambo King. Born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, Puente was instrumental in taking jazz to a broader audience thanks to his big band orchestrations and his on stage flourish. And, of course, he wrote and recorded ‘Oye Cómo Va’, later popularized by Carlos Santana, which incorporated a coro section and used other eminently Latin elements, such as a charanga-style flute and,...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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