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Dizzy Gillespie loved to tell an anecdote about Chano Pozo, the great Cuban conguero brought to him by destiny to help forge modern Afro-Cuban jazz. It went like this: since Pozo spoke no English and the trumpeter spoke no Spanish, the two collaborators were asked how they communicated with one another. Echoing Pozo’s response, Gillespie would do an impression of his friend’s broken English. “Dizzy no speak Spanish, me no speak English,” he’d imitate, but here was the kicker: “Both speak African.”
Dizzy’s name is in the pantheon of all-time jazz greats; his face belongs on the trumpeter Mount Rushmore. John Birks Gillespie came up mirroring the fast, risk-taking style of his hero, Roy Eldridge, but it wasn’t long before he took off to a different stratosphere. Dizzy’s angular solos, performed at breakneck speed, helped usher in jazz’s bebop era in the early 1940s. Genius calcified during late-night jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem as Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Charlie Christian and others spun this adventurous new form into existence.
That Gillespie’s cheeks would puff out to an abnormally large size when he blew his trumpet felt appropriate for his otherworldly playing. To witness him perform was like watching a scene from a movie when an alien masquerading as a human suddenly reveals it has gills or whatever. Strictly speaking, Dizzy was human, but it was a poor impression.
But the story of Gillespie’s classic 1954 Afro-Cuban jazz album Afro doesn’t begin on Jupiter. We start this saga in Havana, 1900, when musician W.C. Handy visits the Cuban capital and is captivated by bands playing in the back streets. Upon his return to the U.S., Handy starts incorporating the rhythms into jazz and ragtime music.
Of course, you could say the true beginning of this story goes all the way back to Cuba’s Spanish colonizers and the Africans they brought to the islands as slaves. Cuban music has been described as the marriage between the African drum and the Spanish guitar — a shorthand description, maybe, but that doesn’t mean there’s no truth to it.
By the 1920s, prohibition was inspiring American tourists to voyage to Cuba, where drinking was legal and often accompanied by Latin music. Fabled American mobsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky helped the corrupt Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista develop a vibrant casino trade, with Batista taking a healthy kickback for himself. “America’s bordello” is what Cuba during the Batista era is sometimes referred to.
A market developed for Cuban music that saw American record producers traveling the country seeking musicians to lay down on tape. Musicians, too, moved freely between the neighboring nations. Cubans in New York helped ignite the mambo music and dance craze in the late 1940s. By then, the unique percussion instruments and syncopated rhythm patterns began to further seep into American jazz. Louis Armstrong was among those to have distinctly Cuban epiphanies.
The terms “Afro-Cuban jazz” and “Latin jazz” are sometimes used interchangeably and are significantly intertwined enough for it usually to be fine to do so. Latin Jazz, as the name implies, is jazz that uses rhythms derived from various Latin American music, including nations like Brazil. When Gillespie experimented with Afro-Cuban rhythms, he often called the form Cu-bop.
Dizzy was a South Carolina kid who arrived in New York in 1937, following a stint in Philadelphia. The following year, he met Alberto Socarrás, a formative moment in his development. The pair played around venues like the Savoy and The Cotton Club, and it was Socarrás who first taught Gillespie the clave, a rhythmic pattern that provides the bedrock of a lot of Afro-Cuban music. “The experience in Afro-Cuban music I got playing with Socarrás was very, very useful to me later on,” Dizzy would say in his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop.
Then there was Mario Bauzá, a fellow trumpeter who became musical director of the group the Afro-Cubans, led by his hugely influential brother-in-law, Machito (né Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo). Bauzá helped Gillespie land a gig playing in Cab Calloway’s band, and the pair were even roommates for a time. With Bauza making his friend more in tune with Latin music, a thought tattooed itself on Gillespie’s brain: If he ever had his own band, a conga player was a necessity.
Well, by 1947, he was a star of the bebop world and already moving on to new innovations. That autumn, Bauzá introduced Gillespie to Chano Pozo. Any concerns that Diz had on the language barrier — not to mention the fact that Pozo couldn’t read music — were vaporized by the Cuban’s fiery play. Pozo became the first Latin percussionist in Gillespie’s band.
Pozo was a character. He had a bullet lodged near his spine from a shooting in Cuba years earlier that would ache when the weather got cold. His personality jived with Gillespie’s, while musically, Diz began to see that both men’s rhythms were derivatives of African beats. “We really had a mutual way of working together after I learned how he heard the rhythm and could signal him to put him in the right time with the band because his beat and our beat were different,” wrote Gillespie. “This was really the fusion between Afro-Cuban music and jazz.”
This chemistry alchemized perfectly on “Manteca,” now recognized as a founding text of Afro-Cuban jazz and the first composition based on the clave to become a jazz standard. As is often the case with these things, genius swirled in the most unassuming way imaginable. Pozo came to Gillespie with “an idea for a tune,” most of which he’d already figured out in his head. In the apartment of Walter Gilbert “Gil” Fuller (who would receive a songwriting credit for helping to structure, arrange and orchestrate the composition), Chano simply used his voice to convey to Gillespie and saxophonist Bill Graham what he envisioned each section of the band playing. It was Diz who wrote the smooth middle part: a double-length 16-bar span partially influenced by his friend, Thelonious Monk.
“When he came, he had already figured out what the bass was gonna do, how it was gonna start off, how the saxophones were gonna come in afterwards. He had that riff. He had the riffs of the trombones; he had the riffs of the trumpets,” Gillespie recalled. “But Chano wasn’t too hip about American music. If I’d let it go like he wanted it, it would’ve been strictly Afro-Cuban, all the way. There wouldn’t have been a bridge.”
The first studio recording of “Manteca” features the sound of Pozo’s congas on the intro and Dizzy’s voice screaming the title. The trumpeter’s fluttering lick brings the band into its first crescendo after 30 seconds and signals his singular greatness to this day. Yet, the central soloist is not actually Gillespie, but tenor saxophonist George “Big Nick” Nicholas, who improvised his 16 bars.
The great ones don’t always live to see the sum of their influence. In December 1948, just a year into his musical relationship with Gillespie, Pozo was shot five times and killed by Eusebio “Cabito” Muñoz in the El Rio Bar and Grill on Lenox Ave. The specifics depend on who is doing the telling. Some say Pozo was shot by the local bookie over an unpaid debt and when the coroner examined his wingtips’ soles, he found $7,000 in a tight roll. Others claimed that it was a retaliation for a beating Pozo handed out to Cabito the previous day, and that the shots were fired just moments after Pozo had lined up “Manteca” on the bar’s jukebox.
Recorded six years after his death, Pozo’s congas might not be heard on Afro, but his spirit flows through the album. It is Pozo and Gillespie’s short time together proliferated. You can gun down the visionary, but you can’t kill the vision. Afro is one of Gillespie’s most swaggering indulgences into the Afro-Cuban genre. It’s there in the title: not Afro-Cuban jazz, just Afro, a genre refined.
New York City doesn’t start during this era, but so much New York lore does. World War II laid waste to many of the West’s cultural metropolises, and Gotham was ready for a new position. Beatniks and bohemians roamed the city, anti-conformist in their thinking and experimental in their artistic endeavors. As composer and Kerouac collaborator David Amram once said, “We knew that Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell were not just hurling cans of paint against the wall. We knew that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were not playing a lot of wrong notes, and that Jack Kerouac was not just a speed typist.”
1954, the year of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers and Willie Mays making The Catch. If you need touchpoints from fictional universes to set the scene, Sidney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker’s shady dealings were three years away, while Don Draper hustled his first job at Sterling Cooper one year prior. In real life, there’s Gillespie — still relatively new to album-making as most of his studio work had been loose recordings and many of his released LPs had been live sets — entering Fine Sound Studios in Rochester to cultivate Afro. Meanwhile, 1,300 miles away, the 26th of July Movement’s rallying cry for revolution was reverberating throughout Cuba.
There is another character key to this chronicle. For Afro, Gillespie hooked up with Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill, the Havana native with a German and Irish background — hence the name — who ditched aspirations to be a lawyer to take up the trumpet and plunge into Havana nightlife. By 1948, O’Farrill was in New York, and it was a recording session with Machito two years later that made his reputation as a composer. Working with producer Norman Granz and a cast that included Charlie Parker, Chano Pozo and Mario Bauzá, Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite was an ambitious work that took Latin big-band music and applied to it a classical sense of dueling themes and sophisticated harmony. 1954 saw the release of a sequel, The 2nd Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite, this time released under O’Farrill’s own name.
On Afro, O’Farrill takes “Manteca” and transforms it into a suite of four movements: the original song, plus three new interpretations. (According to Dizzy, O’Farrill may have cooked up as many as six brand new numbers from the original composition.) The liner notes are penned by Granz, who serves as producer on this album. He firmly places Afro in the lineage of O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite records, calling it O’Farrill’s “third attempt” to fuse Afro-Cuban music and American jazz.
O’Farrill’s suite takes up the entire A-side. Recorded on May 24, 1954, the session saw O’Farrill conduct an expanded orchestra that combined a jazz band with a Latin rhythm section into a roaring, powerful machine. Among the band on that first day of recording was Ernie Royal on trumpet, Charlie Persip and a 21-year-old Quincy Jones, also on trumpet. Gillespie returned on June 3 with mostly different musicians for a small group session that would form the B-side.
No chronicles of how the sessions went appear to exist. Photographs on the back cover see microphones hanging over conga players in gloriously showy shirts. In contrast, Dizzy wore a crisp white shirt and tie and was snapped facing his band with his brass weapon in hand.
As O’Farrell wrote over two decades later in the liner notes for Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods, “Any time Dizzy goes into a studio to record, or any time he performs anywhere for that matter, you know he is going to make important musical statements that transcend fashionable trends, for he himself is a creator of the utmost importance in the history of jazz music.”
The album springs out of the gate with “Manteca” (titled “Manteca Theme,” to place it within the rest of the suite). The bassline Pozo originally envisioned stirs the song into life, but this version has more muscle than the original. No longer can Dizzy be heard shouting in the background. Instead, the production is heavier, more stifling. The Cuban percussion instruments — courtesy of Cándido Camero and Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría on congas and José Mangual on bongos — are rapped with funky abandon. The horns feel tightly clustered, powerfully blaring the central brass riff that permanently encamps in your head — welcome, of course. And Gillespie has a solo now — a snaking piece played over a light beat.
For the rest of the suite, O’Farrill adheres to the original composition’s form, improvising and embellishing, but retaining various shapes that are recognizable. That Gillespie-written bridge feels further expanded up on “Contraste,” the layers of brass screeching out the sultry groove. The more tension-filled “Jungla” whips the horns into a frenzy, giving Side A its dramatic center.
“Rhumba-Finale” closes the suite with gusto, offering a cheekier take on the “Manteca” central riff as the band signs off in style. Gillespie’s solo is playful as he ramps up the energy as he goes. Each song on Afro is pretty short, meaning little time for lengthy improvisation or interludes, the band hitting and quitting before moving on.
In contrast, Side B offers three standalone tracks, every one of them a highlight. You can never pass over “A Night in Tunisia,” omnipresent on lists of Gillespie’s best and most influential compositions. There’s been lusher versions, that’s for sure. But with the scaled-down band, this edition is led by Gilberto Valdéz’ flute, while the deep, knocking Cuban percussion lines sound like they were recorded from behind a wall, adding another interesting ripple.
Yet the most important element of Afro might be that it includes the first recording of “Con Alma,” which became a Gillespie standard. There’s a video of him performing the song in Copenhagen in 1968, first listing some of the “jazz masters” that embraced the composition before unleashing into a lengthier version, featuring the great James Moody on saxophone, among others. (Gillespie himself recorded a version for The Dizzy Gillespie Reunion Big Band that same year.) Still, few versions had the same relaxed appeal as the one recorded for Afro. Ushered in with a cheeky piano line courtesy of Rene Hernandez, Dizzy blows a nice Latin rhythm. It’s the only point of the album where his play weeps.
It ends with the slinking flutes and piano of “Caravan.” The percussion here is earth-crumbling intense, almost daring the melodic play. Yet the tension between the two coalesces gorgeously. Gillespie and his band smoothly exit the stage.
Along with Dizzy and Strings and Roy and Diz, a full collaboration with his idol Roy Eldridge, Afro was one of three LPs recorded by Gillespie in 1954, reflecting the wingspan of his musical interests. He never grew tired of Afro-Cuban jazz, though. It’s correct to call him the most influential artist who worked the form with no links to the island. In 2011, conga player Poncho Sanchez and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard released an album titled Chano y Dizzy!, formally bending the knee to the duo and their work together.
Rarely again would American jazz and Afro-Cuban music be amalgamated so gloriously as on Afro. It’s the offspring of multiple geniuses and their love of collaboration. A sharp piece of legacy-building that examined how deep a single great composition can go. Drop the needle today and it feels lasting and timeless. A musical revolution.
Dean Van Nguyen is a music journalist and cultural critic for Pitchfork, The Guardian, Bandcamp Daily and Jacobin, among others. His first book, Iron Age: The Art of Ghostface Killah, was released in 2019.