JJ 07/89: Mario Bauza – Unsung Latin master

An interview by Stan Woolley first published in Jazz Journal, July 1989


Interest in Latin jazz seems to be on the increase everywhere these days. Homegrown Latin bands are flourishing in the London area and all over the provinces rather like “trad” jazz bands did some 30 years ago. The record companies, too, have been quick to react to this growing market and have released a variety of albums of old and new material in this exotic idiom.

Latin jazz or Afro-Cuban jazz — the latter is a more accurate term — evolved from the fusion of Cuban rhythms with the instrumentation of the swing band or bebop combo. The proving ground for the new music was Machito’s Afro-Cubans; fronted by its charismatic singer-leader and under the musical direction of Mario Bauza, the orchestra took the jazz world by storm during the mid to late 1940s.

The career of Machito, whose real name was Frank Grillo, has been well documented on film (1) and in print in recent times, not least in articles in this magazine (2, 3). Bauza, however, has not been so fortunate and his contributions to jazz over a period of almost 50 years have not been widely recognised. Hopefully, this profile will help remedy this situation.

Bauza was born in Havana, Cuba on April 28, 1911. He studied clarinet from an early age and later obtained a degree from the Havana Municipal Conservatory of Music. After graduation he became a member of the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, playing second clarinet.

“I wanted to play first clarinet but the guy who held the chair was older and more experienced than me; I was just a kid then. I used to substitute for him but it wasn’t the same; I wanted to play the first parts regularly. So the conductor bought me a bass clarinet — they sent to Paris for it — and I played that from then on with the orchestra”.

While studying at the conservatory and playing with the HPO, Bauza also worked with local Cuban “tipico” bands which performed for dances and other such social functions. At the time the most popular of these bands was the one led by Antonio Maria Romeu of which the 15 year old clarinettist was a member.

In the 1920s, the tango was the rage world-wide but other Latin rhythms were gaining in popularity, particularly the rumba. RCA Victor was quick to see the commercial potential of such music and, as there were no American bands around who could play it, they brought over and recorded Cuban bands. In 1926, the Romeu band came to New York for such a session and provided Bauza with his first encounter with the American jazz scene.

“Paul Whiteman was appearing at the Paramount Theatre and I went to listen to him every night. They had a saxophone player named Frankie Trumbauer and I fell in love with that guy and his saxophone. So with the money I made from the recording. I bought an alto and when I returned to Cuba I got a job playing it in a night club.

“After a while I became so enthusiastic about jazz that there was only one thing to do — go and live in the United States. I’d fallen in love with the country, too, but I couldn’t get a passport until I was 18. That was the system in Cuba then. I told my parents what I was going to do and they didn’t object and so when my passport came through I sailed to New York”.

Bauza arrived in New York in 1930 in the depths of the Great Depression.

“To begin with I couldn’t get any work because I wasn’t a member of the Musicians’ Union. You had to register with the Local 802 and then wait a year before you could take a steady job but after three months you were allowed to work single engagements. It was a very difficult time and I was always short of money”.

The first band Bauza played with on a regular basis in New York once he became a fully registered MU member was that of Noble Sissle’s.

“Yes, that was a ‘society’ band that played at the Park Central Hotel and it used to go to Paris every year. It was more like Guy Lombardo’s but while I was there playing alto, Tommy Ladnier and Sidney Bechet also worked with the band. It was an easy type of band to play with but it was strictly commercial”.

By a strange coincidence Bauza sailed to New York on the same boat which brought Don Azpiazu’s Havana Casino Orchestra to the United States for a series of concerts and recording dates for RCA Victor. The arrival of the Azpiazu band in the Big Apple was a significant event and enabled American audiences to experience authentic Cuban dance music for the very first time. The Latin music explosion which followed some years later was a direct result of the visit to New York of this now almost forgotten Cuban orchestra over 50 years years ago.

The vocalist with the Azpiazu band was Antonio Machin who was billed as “The Sepia Rudy Vallee”. When the orchestra returned to Cuba, Machin remained in New York and formed his own group, the Cuarteto Machin. The singer obtained a recording contract with RCA Victor but was unable to find an American trumpeter who could play in the authentic Cuban style.

Bauza heard of Machin’s predicament and approached him with an unusual proposition. If the singer would provide him with a trumpet he would learn how to play it in time for Machin’s first recording date which was then just two weeks away! Machin agreed and bought a $15 instrument for Bauza from a local pawn shop.

“So I took it home and started practising and after I’d fooled around with it for about a week Machin called a rehearsal. Although I could play the licks, I missed some of the lead-in notes and I could see that Machin didn’t think I was going to make it. The recording session was still a week off and my chops were getting stronger all the time and by the time we went the studios everything was OK.

“Now that I’d begun playing I started listening to Louis Armstrong and fell in love with what he was doing. I used to play all his solos and get really wrapped up in them and this led to a job with an orchestra called The Missourians which played at the Savoy Ballroom opposite Chick Webb’s band.

“I’d been working there a while when one of Chick’s trumpet players left to join Duke Ellington and he asked me if I would like try out for the job. On the day there were several guys auditioning but Chick hired me and told me to come back later for a rehearsal.

“Well, when I arrived there was nobody else there but Chick who said the rehearsal was just for me. He told me I was the man he was looking for but didn’t like the way I phrased, it was too Latin. So he hummed the way he wanted each number to go and I played right along with him on trumpet. We did this for two or three nights until Chick was happy with what I was doing. You know, although he couldn’t read a note of music he had a real musician’s mind”.

Under Webb’s guidance Bauza soon made the grade and became a permanent sideman. In fact, for most of the seven years he was with the drummer he played lead trumpet and was also the band’s musical director.

During the band’s residency at the Savoy Ballroom Webb employed Bardu Ali to front the band and make the announcements. According to the history books it was Ali who heard Ella Fitzgerald singing in an amateur talent contest in 1935 and recommended her to Webb. Bauza’s version of the story, however, is somewhat different.

“The story about Ella Fitzgerald? Well, I was friendly with one of the guys who worked backstage at the Apollo Theatre and he told me about this girl who had just won the big amateur night prize. He said she was sensational and would be just right for Chick’s band. So she came along to the Savoy Ballroom and we were introduced and, in between shows, I took her to a rehearsal room with just the pianist and heard her sing – and I flipped.

“So I went upstairs to Chick’s dressing room and told him about this young lady who I thought was the last word as a singer. Chick agreed to see her but when she came up he didn’t like her appearance at all. There was another thing, too. The band was just about to go out and play some college dates and there wasn’t going to be time to get any music ready for her.

“I could sense that Chick didn’t really want to take her but I finally persuaded him she would be great for the band and she did the tour with us. She sang with just the piano and rhythm and Chick’s band couldn’t play anything; the only thing the people wanted to hear was Ella Fitzgerald, one song after another. That woman was sensational”.

At about the time Ella Fitzgerald joined the band in 1935, another friend of Bauza’s in Raymond Scott’s CBS Orchestra recommended a young arranger to him by the name of Van Alexander. Bauza asked him to bring along some of his charts to a rehearsal and both he and Webb liked what they heard and he was signed to write backgrounds for the new singer. Alexander’s very first chart for Miss Fitzgerald was A-Tisket, A-Tasket (4) which was a sensational hit.

The Fitzgerald-Alexander partnership of the late 1930s contributed greatly to the huge popularity which the Webb band enjoyed during this period. Alexander later went on to form his own orchestra which he fronted until 1943. In the late 1950s he moved to California and became a very successful film and TV composer.

Although Bauza was the Webb band’s musical director with responsibilities for hiring musicians, there was one man the leader would not employ under any circumstances: Dizzy Gillespie. Bauza tried on many occasions during the late 1930s to get him on the band but the drummer always refused.

“Chick didn’t like him. Very few musicians liked Dizzy at that time and I think this was because a lot of people were jealous of him. He used to ask me why I got all these breaks and went from one big job to another. I used to tell him it was because I was a lead man and not a soloist; there was a whole lot of good soloists about but very few good lead trumpet players. But Chick would never hire Diz.

“As you might expect, a band in which the leader literally takes a back seat and leaves the fronting to a showman presents certain problems for its musical director. In addition, Bauza ran into difficulties with the management of the Savoy Ballroom and in 1938 he and Webb parted amicably.

Bauza worked briefly with the bands of Don Redman and Fletcher Henderson before receiving a call from Cab Calloway. The Hi-De-Ho man’s lead trumpet had been taken ill and Bauza stepped in and played the book without a rehearsal. After three weeks, Calloway engaged him on a permanent basis.

“After I’d been with Cab for a while Dizzy came to see me and asked again why it was I who always seemed to get the breaks. So I said I would help him get a job with Cab’s band but he had to play conventional solos like Red Nichols, simple melodic things, because Cab wouldn’t stand for any of that crazy stuff.

“So I made some sort of excuse to Cab that I wasn’t feeling too good and Dizzy took my place in the band for three days. When I came back I asked Cab what he thought of the guy I sent and he looked at me and laughed. About a week later Cab called me over and told me to hire that young trumpeter if I still wanted him. So Dizzy finally got his big break!”

In 1937, Bauza’s brother-in-law Machito arrived in New York from Cuba and over the next three years worked with Las Estrellas Habaneras and the Orquestra Siboney, as well as the more widely known bands of Noro Morales and Xavier Cugat. When Machito formed his own orchestra in 1940, Bauza left Calloway to become its musical director.

‘…it was the first time Cuban rhythms had been combined with jazz. It was just like a meringue pie; the jazz was on top and the Cuban rhythms underneath’

“To start with I wrote all the arrangements for Machito’s band and it was the first time Cuban rhythms had been combined with jazz. It was just like a meringue pie; the jazz was on top and the Cuban rhythms underneath. It was very simple, we just voiced the sections to produce the same sound as a jazz orchestra.

“At first people thought we were crazy because Hispanic ‘coro’ bands weren’t popular then, particularly in the downtown night-spots. But we began playing dances and people came just to listen to us and soon the talk all over town was Machito. Machito, Machito. So we came downtown and played the clubs there and often after each performance everybody flipped”.

Once again Bauza was lucky when it came to breaks and the big one came when the orchestra was hired for two weeks to fill-in at La Conga Club while Anselmo Sacassa’s band went on vacation. The temporary orchestra was such a sensation that it remained at the club for almost four years. It was during the mid 1940s that Machito and his Afro-Cubans, as the band was now billed, began to attract attention in jazz circles. Norman Granz was an enthusiast and, as the proprietor of a record label with a string of star soloists under contract, seized the opportunity to record several of them with the band. The most celebrated of these were the sides made with Charlie Parker of which Okiedoke Rumba (5) is a fine example.

Such was the interest in Afro-Cuban jazz — or “Cubop” — that jazz musicians were waiting in line to work with the Machito band at this time. Unfortunately recordings from this period are sparse because of the 1948 recording ban; but in addition to Parker, Brew Moore and Howard McGhee managed to record with the Afro-Cubans. According to Bauza, however, the most memorable sessions were the unrecorded ones featuring Dexter Gordon.

Bauza’s friendship with Dizzy Gillespie continued after they had both left the employ of Cab Calloway and, in 1947, when Gillespie decided to introduce Afro-Cuban rhythms into his big band, it was to Bauza that he came for advice. Bauza also introduced him to Chano Pozo who had recently arrived in the United States from Cuba. Gillespie immediately hired the Cuban percussionist and featured him on many numbers in a solo role.

When Norman Granz sold the Mercury label, Machito’s Afro-Cubans began recording for RCA Victor and later signed with Roulette.

“That was the label for which we recorded the Kenya album (6) on which there are four of my tunes. To me that’s the best Afro-Cuban jazz album that has been made because it mixes authentic jazz music and native Cuban rhythms. Everything came out right on that album”.

The Kenya album was recorded in 1957 and spotlights such jazz personalities as Cannonball Adderley, Joe Newman, Doc Cheatham, Johnny Griffin and Eddie Bert with the Machito band. Bauza composed the title track, Wild Jungle, Holiday and Frenzy; the latter are two fine numbers in which Cheatham solos superbly. Cheatham is also heard on Chano Pozo’s Tin Tin Deo which in this writer’s opinion is the definitive version of this Afro-Cuban classic.

In the late 1950s Bauza switched back to playing alto saxophone and the lead trumpet duties of the Machito orchestra were largely undertaken by “Chocolate” Armenteros, who was newly arrived from Cuba. By now the Afro-Cuban jazz era was over and the band slipped out of the jazz limelight and played mostly for dancing in colleges and night clubs. The band toured abroad extensively during this period, including trips to Europe, but never visited the UK until the early 1980s.

The Bauza-Machito partnership split in the mid-1970s and the leader’s timbales-playing son Mario Grillo took over as musical director. Graciela, the band’s long-serving vocalist, left at the same time as Bauza and the two have worked together ever since. Machito died on tour in London in 1984 and the full-size Afro-Cubans band now only comes together for the occasional special event.

Like so many musicians of his generation, Bauza is unhappy with the present state of Latin music. In order to help rectify this situation he went into Caiman Records’ studio in 1986 and cut Afro-Cuban Jazz (7) with a Machito-style orchestra which included saxophonists Paquito D’Rivera and Ray Santos and that fine Argentine pianist, Jorge Dalto.

“I don’t want to play dances or anything like that with the orchestra. I just want to play concerts and college dates and maybe make a trip once a year with it. I would also like to make another album but for a label with a better distribution outside the USA. I want people to know that Afro- Cuban jazz is still being played, that’s all”.

In recent years, Bauza has received a number of civic and academic honours but rather surprisingly, most of the reference books and encyclopaedias make no mention of him. The recently published New Grove Dictionary Of Jazz (8) has. however, gone some way to rectifying the situation with an informative entry by the Puerto Rican journalist, Cristobal Daiz Ayala.

Bauza is essentially a musician’s musician who has never sought the limelight but his contribution to swing music and Afro-Cuban jazz in general is considerable. Dizzy Gillepsie in his autobiography (9) acknowledges Bauza’s talents, and this remarkable veteran musician could receive no finer accolade than that.

References and records
(1) Machito: A Latin Jazz Legacy (Director, Carlos Ortiz) Nubia Music Society Film Library
(2) Machito: Making Musical Earthquakes (JJI, November, 1977)
(3) The Spanish Tinge (JJI, July, 1985).
(4) King Of Swing 1937-39 — Chick Webb and his Orchestra (Affinity AFS 1007)
(5) The Definitive Charlie Parker Volume 8 (Metro 2356 096)
(6) Kenya — Machito and his Afro-Cubans (Columbia 33SX1102). This was reissued in 1973 as Latin Soul Plus Jazz (Tico CLP 1314)
(7) Afro-Cuban Jazz — Mario Bauza and his Orchestra (Caiman CLP 9017).
(8) New Grove Dictionary Of Jazz (Macmillan)
(9) Dizzy: To Be Or Not To Bebop (W H Allen)