Latin Jazz Conversations: Bobby Matos (Part 1)


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Music forms a powerful connection with young people, and for those with a predisposition to music, it inspires any number of reactions. Every listening experience becomes a revelation, and exposure to great music will only heighten their enthusiasm. Movement becomes mandatory as they interpret the nature of the beat combined with their own instinctual emotions around the music. Singing arrives in the next step, demanding a more complete participation in the music and a personal connection. Inevitably, a young person will connect with the pulse and start pounding on the closest object, calling upon the natural instinct to drum. With encouragement, a young person's fascination with music can become more than a reaction, but a lifetime passion.

Percussionist and bandleader Bobby Matos experienced music vividly during his youth, setting a trajectory that would lead him into a life in Latin Jazz. Matos grew up close to family, and while they didn't perform, they shared their deep love for music. In his youth, Matos heard a wide variety of the era's best music, ranging from Pete Seeger to Louis Armstrong, as well as Machito And His Afro-Cubans. Inspired by his listening experiences, Matos leaned towards music in every way possible—singing, dancing, and constantly tapping out rhythms. It was the fifties in New York, the major names in Latin Jazz were thriving, and Matos was following them all. While attending local concerts, he soon met Machito, Graciela, Patato, and more, building influential lifelong friendships. His interest in percussion brought him closer to Patato, who gave the young Matos informal lessons backstage at concerts. As a young adult, Matos began started attending college to study commercial art, but music continued it's huge pull upon his life. He connected with a group of musicians playing traditional Afro-Cuban music in Greenwich Village and soon worked his way into their regular line-up. This proved to be an important school for Matos, allowing him to expand his knowledge of the music and refine his technique. It also led him into a full commitment to music, as he dropped out of school, landed a day gig, and focused his energies upon performance. With his mind fully dedicated to a music career, Matos charged headfirst towards a life filled with Latin Jazz.

A passionate connection to music formed the core of Matos' experience in his youth, and led him to Afro-Cuban music. It would continue to be a driving force in his life, moving him to become a bandleader, a successful session musician, and an important West Coast Latin Jazz bandleader. In Ort One of our interview with Matos, we look at music in his early life, his connection with some Latin Jazz legends, and his leap into full-time work performing Afro-Cuban music.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You grew up in New York—was there music around you?

BOBBY MATOS: There was music around me, but nobody in my family really played or sang music. My parents separated when I was very little, so my Mom and I moved into my grandparents' home. I shared a room with my uncle, who was 12 years older than me—he was almost like an older brother rather than an uncle. I also had an aunt who was a little bit older than him; she sang a little bit. She was married, had her own apartment, and she had a piano in her home. They lived within walking distance, so I saw them a lot. I was around the piano in her home a lot; my grandfather was always singing and dancing—he couldn't play, but he would pound on her piano and try to hammer out melodies. He loved music. My uncle did as well, as did my mother.

They would all bring records home. At a very early age my mother was bringing me records. They used to have these records that had stories on them, but the ones that she would bring me always had stories and songs. She was kind of a socialist, so she would always bring me stuff that was connected to the movement—either the civil rights movement or just the struggle for freedom. She would bring me Tom Glazer, Pete Seeger, Canada Lee, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday—I was listening to some really great music when I was a little kid. My uncle would bring Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, and Nat King Cole—he loved that stuff. He and his friends had a record player with a cutting stylus on it—they could actually record things. He said that the first thing that I ever recorded was “Sweet Lorraine"! That was my first recording, I must have been about five.

LJC: Were you interested in playing music at the time?

BM: At that time, I was interested in singing and dancing. I remember seeing a drum in a store window in our neighborhood. The block that we lived on didn't have any stores on it; but the block that intersected us was 169th Street, and that was full of stores. One of the stores had a little snare drum in the window, and I wanted that drum so badly—I knew I had to have that drum. My mother, seeing what the future was, said, “No!" She already knew what would happen—I was pounding on the tabletops and I was pounding on the desks. I was trying to reproduce the sounds that I heard.

I used to love tap dancing too—I couldn't tap dance, but I thought that I could. When I was a little kid, I would dance like I saw in the movies. It kind of frustrated me that I didn't get that drum, but I didn't stop beating on things—tabletops, mailboxes, and whatever had a resonance to it. When you're a kid, you find a lot of different things.

It helped that my Mom loved to dance. She would always play a lot of dance music, and that included Machito, early Tito Puente, and Noro Morales. Those were records that were in her collection, along with Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, and all of that. I was hearing that stuff, and I knew that it was exciting music. It made people dance. Even if you couldn't dance, it made you tap your foot, shake your behind, or move your shoulders. That was exciting to me, so I always wanted to do that.

As I got a little older, I got into singing in vocal groups—everybody had a doo-wop group. Several of us would sing tunes like, “Hey Señorita," which was the flip side of “Earth Angel." It needed a Latin beat, and if somebody had some beat-up bongos, I would be the one that would be on them, banging away, accompanying those doo-wop Latin tunes.

LJC: In New York during the fifties, there were a lot of guys like Mongo Santamaria and Patato Valdes on the scene. Did you have access to any of those guys?

BM: You know, I did. I remember this clearly. On the local English-speaking channel, they had a program called Don Pasante's The Spanish Hour. I turned on the T.V. and there was the Machito Orchestra. Machito turned to the announcer and he said, “We are going to bring to you our latest sensation, we just brought him up from Cuba. This is our new conga player—Patato Valdes." They sang something in the coro—I remember them singing “Baila, baila, Patato." He was so little that he boosted himself up between the two drums, he did a little dance, and he carried on. The next day in my chorus class, before class had started, all the guys in the chorus were singing, “Baila, baila, Patato!" So I knew who all these people were—my Mom had Machito records, and I knew who Patato was.

I would hear that these guys would be performing some place, and I would go check them out. Sometimes they would be at outdoor things, and since there was no age limit, I would go. I met Machito when I was 16 years old. I met Machito, Graciela, Patato, Mangual, and all of those guys. The Kenya album had been out for about a year at that time, and they were playing that on New York jazz radio quite a bit. I saw Machito at some outdoor festival, and I asked him to play something from the Kenya album. I had no fear; it didn't bother me that these guys were world famous. He looked at me and said, “Oh, you're an aficionado, huh?" I said, “Yea, I guess so." Then he said, “Well, I'm going to play something just for you."

That was the beginning. Throughout the years, I kept that friendship going with Machito and Graciela. She was very, very sweet. They were always very friendly and very supportive. It all came from a relationship that started when I was 16 years old.

I used to see Patato playing not only with Machito, but also with Herbie Mann. I would go backstage—I had an acquaintance with Patato. I would beg him to show me different licks on the conga. He was interested in getting a drink, not helping me. If he gave me something too simple, then I'd be bugging him again. So he would give something complex to work out. He'd show it to me two or three times and then leave me backstage. I'd be stuck there trying to figure out what he had just done—those were like my first lessons.

LJC: So you were building some chops at that time . . .

BM: I was trying. It took a while to realize how much I didn't know. When you start playing, you think that you know what you're doing and then later on you realize that you didn't know anything. The more that you learn, the more that you realize that this is a curriculum that doesn't end. You're always going to be studying this, and you're always going to be trying to learn something. It's endless, you're never finished learning.

LJC: When did you make the next step and start pulling yourself together as a musician?

BM: In high school, I was in all the different performing groups—I was always singing, playing drums, and dancing. I thought that I could play. I had really minimal chops, but I could produce a sound. Once I got into college, I was going to different dances. I was going to The Palladium quite often to see Machito and Tito Puente. I ran into some friends in Greenwich Village and they told me that they had this Afro-Cuban group. I had this beat-up drum that I bought from one of my peers in school. I said, “Let me sit in with you guys." I didn't care if I got paid, I just wanted to play.

I would sit in with these guys and they were very, very talented—they all knew more than me. They told me that if I bought a decent drum, they would start giving me lessons. This was a group that had three conga drums—tumbadora, segunda, quinto, timbales, hand percussion, flute, and sometimes bass. It was really kind of deep Afro-Cuban groove. There was no piano, no guitar. Mostly everything that we did was rhythmic. They said get yourself a decent drum and we'll teach you all the bottom parts, all the tumbaos. They said, “But you don't solo. For six months, you don't solo. You've just got to learn these tumbaos and play them for these different things."

It was the best thing that ever happened to me—I learned discipline, I learned keeping time, and I learned what it meant to produce the sounds correctly. I learned really what the cornerstone of the tumbao was supposed to do and its relationship to the clave as well as all the other parts. It was like discovering a new planet. Now I wasn't just beating the drum and producing sounds that made me happy, but I was doing them in conjunction with the other sounds. I was learning the relationship of these rhythms to each other. It was like a different world to me.

I was about 19, and I was in college studying commercial art. I liked music so much that I found myself always drawing and painting musicians. Then I would be in the art class and I'd take my art class and start beating the brush against the metal rods of the stools that we were sitting on. I was obsessed with sound, music, and dancing. I was going to Palladium, dancing mambo, and I was learning to play with these guys.

Eventually I dropped out of school. We got work six nights a week in Greenwich Village, but we were making peanuts. I had to take a day job in order to support that kind of lifestyle. I was no longer living at home with my family. We got into playing in Greenwich Village. I learned a variety of different patterns and these guys were really, really knowledgeable about what they did. They were teaching me everything that they knew.

Finally when that group broke up, I had started to work with other artists as well. I had started to work with singers; there were a great many singers in Greenwich Village at that time—there was a big acoustic folk thing going on. I played with a lot of people that became really well known later. At that time, I even started doing some recordings. Little by little, I started working with jazz groups, but it was always a process—what I was playing, I was studying at the same time.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.


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