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Joe Castro: Lush Life

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Jazz has always had more than its fair share of lucky personalities—highly charismatic, captivating artists who could win over producers, club owners and peers just as easily as they could break audience hearts with their music. One of the most complex and least-known among them was Joe Castro, an upbeat, easy-going and gregarious pianist who was close with  Dave Brubeck, Zoot Sims, Teddy Edwards, Duke Ellington, Lucky Thompson, Louis Armstrong and June Christy, to name a few. But Castro's spell wouldn't have lasted long if his drive and talent hadn't been exceptional.

Now, a new box set provides ample evidence of Castro's wide-ranging talents. Joe Castro: Lush Life, a Musical Journey (Sunnyside) features six CDs of previously unreleased private recordings in a variety of settings. There are never-before heard abstract works with Chico Hamilton and Buddy Collette in 1954; private recordings Castro made of Teddy Wilson in 1955; jam sessions with Teddy Edwards, Billy Higgins and Leroy Vinnegar in 1959; a Teddy Edwards Tentet date in 1966; and perhaps the most exciting material in the box—the Joe Castro Big Band featuring top West Coast players and the finest orchestral recording of Teddy Edwards' Sunset Eyes I've ever heard.

As jazz musicians go, Castro was rather unusual. He didn't have a drug or alcohol habit. He didn't have issues with depression. And he wasn't self-destructive. Instead, Castro was a hard-working, swinging pianist who had a long-term romantic relationship with heiress Doris Duke in the 1950s that may or may not have led to marriage. Either way, the union exposed him to wealth, world capitals, a recording studio Duke built for him on her property and friendships with powerful artists and executives in the jazz and entertainment industries.

The Castro-Duke relationship eventually wound up in a legal tiff in 1964 followed by their reuniting and Duke agreeing to give Castro capital control of their label—Clover Records —and their music publishing company, JODO. But Castro's fondness for being away touring and booking recording artists who weren't particularly well known meant the label was burning through cash without much to show on the sales side. Clover and JODO were dissolved in 1966. That year, Castro married Loretta Haddad, a pianist-singer, and the pair would remain together until Haddad's passing in 2008. Castro died in 2009. Duke died in 1993.

JazzWax clip: Here's the the Joe Castro Big Band playing “Sunset Eyes," arranged by Castro. The band, contracted by Al Porcino, featured  Porcino, Ray Triscari, Stu Williamson and Jimmy Zito (tp); Dick Noel, Mike Barone, Ken Shroyer and Frank Rosolino (tb); Anthony Ortega (as, fl); Gabe Baltazar (as); Bob Cooper and Teddy Edwards (ts); Bill Hood (baritone); Joe Castro (p, arr); Ron Anthony (g); Leroy Vinnegar (b) and Carl Lott (d).

And here's “There Will Never Be Another You“ in 1956 recorded at Duke Farms in Somerville, N.J., with Lucky Thompson (ts), John Glasel (tp), Joe Castro (p), Oscar Pettiford (b) and Ron Jefferson (d).        

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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